From 7-10 December, Moscow hosted the XVIII International Muslim Forum, entitled "Justice and Moderation: Divine Principles of World Order." The forum aimed to foster dialogue with the Muslim world and was jointly organized by the International Muslim Forum, the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, and the Moscow Islamic Institute. It came at a crucial time for Russia’s Muslim community (umma), which this year celebrated the 1100th anniversary of the official adoption of Islam in 922 by the peoples of Volga Bulgaria.
Meanwhile, Russia’s current confrontation with the West in Ukraine has shaped its attitudes towards the East and made it impossible to ignore its Muslim population in building its foreign policy. Spiritual diplomacy by the Russian Muftiates, especially the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation (DUMRF), plays an important role in this regard. These forums and events bolster Russia’s religious soft power in developing its policies towards the Muslim world, especially the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
Islamic authorities and organizations play a soft power role in Russia’s relations with the Gulf. In contrast with the Tsarist and Soviet periods, when Russia’s Muslim population was managed by state-controlled spiritual boards—"semi-bureaucratic, monopolistic channel[s] between the state" and Muslim community—the post-Soviet era saw the emergence of a more diversified landscape. In modern Russia, there is no singular Islamic authority on legal or theological questions. As Michael Kemper put it, Russia has no "Islamic patriarch." Instead, there are more than 60 muftiates, also known as "spiritual administrations of Muslims" (Dukhovnoee upravlenie musul’man, or DUM). Even when the influence of these muftiates is limited to the local, regional, or republican level within Russia, most also have links to GCC member states, especially Saudi Arabia, in large part due to hajj and umrah pilgrimage missions.
Islamic organizations in Russia include the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation (DUMRF), which was established in 1996 in Moscow and is headed by Mufti Shaykh Rawil Gaynutdin. There is also the Central Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Russia (TsDUM), the successor to the Tsarist and Soviet-era muftiate, which is located in Ufa and is headed by Shaykh Talgat Tadzhuddin. Additionally, there are a few DUMs at the republican level, including the DUM of the Republic of Tatarstan, headed by Mufti Kamil Samigullin. Through the forum and other activities that will be discussed below, the DUMRF has taken a leading role in fostering dialogue with the Muslim world and the GCC.
In a 2020 interview, Ildar Galeev, the head of DUMRF’s international department, stated that all the organization’s correspondence was carried out through official diplomatic channels, typically via memoranda of relations and cooperation. The latter memoranda are developed at the bilateral level, usually during visits by GCC heads of state to Moscow. For example, in 2017, Mufti Rawil Gaynutdin and Shaykh Abdulrahman bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Khalifa of Bahrain signed a memorandum of understanding in Moscow on cooperation between the DUMRF and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain.
The two parties agreed to work together on areas of mutual interest, including Islamic affairs, heritage preservation, the teaching of the Qur’an, and management of religious endowments. Another memorandum was signed between the DUMRF and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs in 2019. Professor Damir Mukhetdinov, first deputy chairman of the DUMRF and director of the Center for Islamic Studies at St. Petersburg State University, explained that the signing of this MoU was a key event during the official visit of Mufti Rawil Gaynutdin to Saudi Arabia at the invitation of King Salman bin Abdulaziz. He stated that the visit attested to the continuing success of work carried out by President Putin during his visit to the Kingdom less than a month previous. If the emphasis in October 2019 had been on expanding economic cooperation, the more recent visit of the spiritual leader of Russian Islam focused on developing the humanitarian and spiritual dimensions of Russian-Saudi ties.
Based on these memoranda, the DUMRF is implementing several projects with GCC member states. These include the International Qur’an Recitation Competition, which was held under the patronage of the King of Bahrain in 2017. In 2018, the competition was held again in memory of Shaykh Zayed Al Nahyan, the first president of the UAE. This initiative was proposed by an adviser to Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and vice president and prime minister of the UAE. Galeev stated in the 2020 interview that the initiative attested to "our close relationship, our trust, [and] our brotherly attitude to each other, which certainly contributes to the successful implementation of such projects."
In addition to furthering religious dialogue, these activities also demonstrate the expansion of spiritual diplomacy or so-called "people-to-people diplomacy," in which religious leaders play a greater role in building stronger bilateral relations with the Muslim world, especially the GCC. In 2019, Mufti Rawil Gaynutdin met with Omani Minister of Awqaf and Religious Affairs Shaykh Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Salimi, and also later met with Shaykh Abdulrahman bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Khalifa, the chair of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Bahrain.
In 2021, Gaynutdin met with the Qatari ambassador to Russia, Ahmed bin Nasser bin Jassim Al Thani and the UAE ambassador to the Russian Federation, Mohammed Ahmed Al Jaber. In 2022, both the Kuwaiti and UAE ambassadors received the 1st class Order of Honour "Al Fakhr" from Mufti Gaynutdin.
In addition to strengthening bilateral relations, the DUMRF represents the Russian umma in prestigious international forums organized by GCC states, and which are attended by prominent religious leaders and scholars of all faiths. For example, Professor Damir Mukhetdinov, first deputy chairman of the DUMRF, represented the country at the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence, which His Holiness Pope Francis also attended, as well as at the Eighth Assembly of the Abu Dhabi Forum for Peace, the World Muslim Communities Council in the UAE, and the 14th Doha Interfaith Dialogue.
Since Russia has a significant Muslim population, it is logical it would need to integrate these minorities into its foreign policies and to pursue religious soft power diplomacy. Here it is worth taking a look at Russia’s history in this regard. While the Tsarist government was cautious towards its Muslim subjects, the Soviets consciously sought to draw upon Islam in their foreign relations.
In the 1920s, the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (NKID) was tasked with establishing contacts with the Arab world, which found itself under the rule of various colonial mandates after the Ottomans’ defeat in World War I (1914–1918). At the Lausanne conference of December 1922, the Russian delegation reached out to its Hijazi counterparts to facilitate the normalization of diplomatic ties. This Soviet attempt to "penetrate Mecca," as Georgy Chicherin put it, was furthered by the appointment of Muslim diplomats such as Muslim Tatar commander Karim Khakimov.
The Soviets also drew widely on other religious organizations and authorities to pursue collaboration with Arab states. One salient example of this strategy was the World Muslim Congress in Mecca, which was convened in June and July of 1926. At the Congress, King Abdulaziz Al Saud sought to position himself as the guardian of the holy cities following his conquest of the Hijaz. The Soviet delegation to this event was comprised primarily of members from the Central Muslim Spiritual Board of Internal Russia and Siberia. Mufti Riza Fakhretdin, the head of the Soviet delegation, was elected as one of two co-chairmen of the World Muslim Congress. This underscores the crucial role that Soviet Muslims aspired to play, and illustrates their relative success in facilitating relations with the Arab world.
In the context of current geopolitical shifts, this "win-win" policy of engaging with Russian Muslims in building ties with the Muslim world would also reap dividends for Russia’s federal government. Russia has already drawn upon its Muslim population for platforms such as the Russia-Islamic World Strategic Vision Group, which provides opportunities for regions of Russia with Muslim populations to form closer ties with the Muslim world.
However, building dialogue based on religious and Muslim identities requires a deep knowledge of faith and tradition, which often requires drawing upon religious leaders and scholars. In other words, spiritual diplomacy might need to be given even more attention in order to successfully implement this policy. This would further bolster ties between the intellectual, cultural, and social traditions of Muslims in this northeastern most region and those of the rest of Muslim world, including the GCC.