'Being a Muslim Does Not Meaning Being an Arab,' North Caucasus Official Says
by Paul Goble
On-going series: Crisis in the Caucasus - 2008
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Vienna, December 2 - Soviet anti-religious efforts continue to cast a shadow on the North Caucasus, leading some people there to conclude that the only way to be a good Muslim is to become an Arab and the only way to be a good member of an ethnic community to return to pre-Islamic pagan traditions.
But such views, Arsen Mukhozhev, the head of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic state committee on youth and social organizations, argues, does a disservice both to Islam and to the nation because it treats them as in opposition rather than interacting in mutually supportive ways.
During most of Soviet period, he writes in the current issue of "Severniy Kavkaz," researchers were encouraged to identify pre-Islamic survivals within the nation as a way of encouraging people to become atheists. But that approach has had two diametrically opposed consequences for the intelligentsia of the North Caucasus since the end of communism.
Because many of its representatives, "brought up on Soviet atheism," see Islam and the national culture of the Circassians as antithetical, leading some to conclude that a North Caucasian must give up his ethnicity and follow an Arab-style Islam and others to conclude that the best defense of the nation lies in restoring pre-Islamic forms.
Both these approaches are wrong, Mukhozhev says. On the one hand, those who want to sacrifice national culture to Arab-style Islam frequently suggest that "to be a Muslim means to be a fanatic," a notion foreign to the Koran and to Islamic tradition although often supported by Arab groups.
And on the other, those who want to eliminate the Islamic component in the culture of the North Caucasian peoples are - whether they know it or not - promoting "a primitivization" of their own national cultures and thus creating a situation in which their nations will not be able to meet the challenges of the modern world.
Much of Mukhozhev's article is devoted to a discussion of the history of the Kabardinian people. He points out that "the Islamization of the Kabardinians, just as was the case with other peoples must not be considered to have been a one-time act involving the rejection of recognition of former divinities and the use of pagan customs and rituals."
Instead, it was in every case "a complex process" in which pre-Islamic traditions were adapted and given new meaning within Islam as they gradually lost their pre-Islamic content. Indeed, Mukhozhev suggests, it is possible to speak about "the sacralization of popular traditions in the spirit of Islam."
"Having adopted the most liberal Hanafi legal school, which allows a flexible approach to various ethno-cultural communities and a wide use of local customary laws," Mukhozhev says, "the Kabardinians subjected Islam to ethnicization" just as the new faith "Islamicized" their national culture.
Islam, he continues, is "not a national religion of the Arabs alone, but a world faith. He does not require 'the observance of Arab traditions,' 'the following of Arab ideology' and the like." Within Islam, "religious traditions will be regional," and consequently, "the culture of the Kabardinians after they accepted Islam did not and should not have become Arab."
One clear mark of this is that "even the language of Muslim services, the Kabardinians call not Arab but 'the language of the Koran.' [And] thus, to be a Muslim does not mean to be an Arab just as to be a Kabardinian does not exclude the possibility of being a Muslim. Moreover, a believer can be no less a patriot of his nation than a non-believer."
But if those who would sacrifice national traditions in the name of a purer Arab Islam, those who would throw out Islam in the name of these same national traditions are equally so. Jettisoning Islamic elements from Kabardinian culture, Mukhozhev argues, harms 'the ecology' of national culture and makes it dysfunctional.
Those calling for "a return to paganism" forget this, and while they are right to celebrate these pre-Islamic traditions and their role in life today, the ethnicized Islamization of the Kabardinians has proceeded beyond "the point of no return" and trying to act as if that is not the case could destroy the nation.
Mukhozhev's proposed solution to this problem is to improve the training of ethnographers, historians and religious specialists, but whether that will work is far from certain. But his argument about the relationship of Islam, Arabism, and other national cultures is critically important.
As the Arabs decline as a percentage of the world's Muslims - and they now form fewer than one in five - Muslims who are part of other national traditions and languages are assuming a greater role, be it in translating the Koran into the vernacular or insisting that they are right to celebrate not only Islam but pre-Islamic traditions as well.
That has created a serious clash between the advocates of supposedly "pure" Arab centric Islam and the supporters of national cultures. Mukhozhev is seeking to position himself between the two, a task that he acknowledges is especially difficult given the continuing influence of Soviet thinking among his countrymen.
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