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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Penza's Muslims Reviving Religious Life

PENZA, Central Russia -- The red-and-white brick minaret that rises above the banks of the Sura River here is only two years old and as modest as the mosque below, which is being restored in a wood-frame building that had been converted into communal apartments during Soviet times.

The young imam who presides here is not so unassuming. Sitting on a small prayer rug slung over his office chair, Abdulrauf Zabirov ticks off the recent signs of reviving Islamic life here in the Volga region, southeast of Moscow: dozens of mosques and prayer houses opened in nearby villages; classes offered on Islam and Arabic; plans to someday start a college.

Zabirov's vision of an expanding and observant Islamic community draws suspicion from ethnic Russians here, who find their roots in the Russian Orthodox Church. And it finds critics even among some fellow Muslims who see what they call fundamentalism in anything from his thick dark beard to his preaching of strict adherence to Islamic principles.

The 31-year-old Zabirov is dismissive. "Maybe they don't like seeing a crescent moon, and not a cross," he said.

In many parts of the country, the religious consciousness of a large and growing Muslim minority is being reborn.

Russia has long had a large Muslim population, whose roots reach back more than a thousand years. Estimates of its size vary, but even conservative figures of 13 million to 15 million make it only slightly smaller than Syria's population and roughly 10 percent of Russia's.

Yet any Islamic identity was kept in check, often brutally, by Russia's expansionism in the 19th century, and by Soviet efforts to erase ethnic and religious differences in the 20th century.

Now, more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union freed people to practice religion openly, Muslims are fiercely debating what form their faith should take. And the evolution of Islam presents officials with a potentially dangerous problem: How to harmoniously incorporate a changing Muslim community into the larger Russian state.

Older Muslims, many of whom mastered assimilation in the Soviet era, are finding their habits and attitudes confronted by a generation of younger men who have traveled or studied in countries where Muslims are the majority and where the religion is followed more strictly.

"We are being split into traditionalists and fundamentalists," said Hafiz Akchurin, a 74-year-old ethnic Tatar who lives in Penza, goes by the very Russian nickname of Sasha and still wears a hammer-and-sickle pin he won for service to the Soviet Union during World War II.

Evidence of the Muslim revival is visible in Penza's central market. There, Gyuljigan Murakayeva, a Tatar, sells beef prepared in accordance with Islamic dietary strictures for her Muslim customers. Also, the market is heavily patrolled by security guards, one of whom explains that they are there out of concern that militant Muslim terrorists from Chechnya might attack the market in retaliation for the hundreds of men from Penza who perform military service there.

The broad revival of Islamic culture, and the hints of militancy, have officials concerned about the Volga region. Many Russian Muslims live elsewhere, in seven districts where Muslims are a majority or a plurality, but many others live along the Volga River.

"In the Volga region, and in Russia in general, there are cells ... that are plugged into the global Islamist movement. They all claim they have another idea of world order," said Sergei Gradirovsky, an aide to former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, who is now President Vladimir Putin's representative in the Volga Federal District. "Some people consider them a threat, and some think we can ignore the problem. ... We prefer to say that the problem exists and that it needs to be resolved without violence."

Even some Muslims acknowledge a danger of fomenting a movement of what one called "Russian Taliban."

"There aren't that many Muslims in Russia, comparatively. But if we have 30,000 to 50,000 fanatics running uncontrolled through the country, there are lots of things that can happen," said Ali Vyacheslav Polosin, a former Orthodox priest who converted to Islam and is now a Moscow-based adviser to a key Muslim spiritual leader. "It's not one step away, but maybe more like three steps. But three steps can be taken quickly."