If someone asked you which city in Europe has the largest Muslim population, you might answer Paris, or Berlin, or London. But you would be wrong. The correct answer is Moscow.
Estimates of Russia’s Muslim population now range from 16 million to 20 million, including more than two million in Moscow, a city of 12.5 million. Yet the city has just four mosques.
Many Russians think that Muslims might challenge the Russian Orthodox Christian national identity that President Vladimir Putin has used to unite the country in place of Soviet Communism.
Russia’s identity was forged during centuries-long confrontation, coexistence and cooperation with Muslim neighbours. The principality of Moscow defeated the Golden Horde, a powerful Mongol-Tatar khanate, and then waged countless wars in and against Ottoman Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.
Most recently, Russians have fought two brutal wars to suppress Muslim separatists in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.
Moscow itself was victim to a series of terrorist bombings by Chechen Islamists between 1999 and 2002, killing hundreds of people.
Orthodox believers consider Moscow a “holy city” and want only their traditional Russian churches, said Vyacheslav Ali Polosin, a former priest who converted to Islam in 1999.
In the Crimea, Muslim Tatars, angered by Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula in March 2014, have blocked food deliveries to Crimea from Ukraine.
Russia’s often brutal approach has led many Muslims to leave the country to fight in Syria. Sergei Smirnov, the deputy director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, has estimated that some 2,400 Russian citizens were fighting for the Islamic State.
But Putin uses carrots as well as sticks. Flanked by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, Putin on Sept. 23 spoke at the inauguration of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, a grand structure that can accommodate 10,000 people on three stories.
“Terrorists from the so-called Islamic State are compromising a great world religion, compromising Islam; sowing hatred; killing people, including clergy; and barbarically destroying monuments of world culture,” Putin declared.
“They are trying to recruit followers here in Russia, too. Russia’s Muslim leaders are bravely and fearlessly using their own influence to resist this extremist propaganda.”
Russia opposes any Islamic activity not affiliated with the Kremlin-sanctioned Council of Muftis.
The biggest chunk of the construction costs for the mosque, about $170 million, came from a wealthy oil tycoon, Suleiman Kerimov of Dagestan, but foreign governments, including Turkey, Kazakhstan and the Palestinian Authority, also donated.
Given the lack of official mosques in the city, at least 40 “underground” mosques are based in apartments all over Moscow.
Ravil Gainutdin, the chairman of the Council of Muftis in Russia, has suggested that every Moscow neighborhood should have one mosque -- which would mean about 20 to 30 new ones. He argues that more official mosques would help curb other extremist groups.
But the Cathedral Mosque was built despite opposition from many quarters, and plans to construct just a few more in recent years were canceled in the face of vehement public protests. The mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, himself opposes any new mosques.