Vladmir Putin opened Moscow’s newest, largest mosque yesterday. As the New York Times reports, the city’s large Muslim population means the mosque was sorely needed:
Known as the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, the grand structure holds 10,000 people on three stories and replaced a much smaller one built in 1904. The previous two-story building — with a squat dome and two stunted minarets — could hold only 1,000 people.
There are just three other official mosques in a city whose Muslim population is estimated to be as high as two million. No exact public numbers exist.
That would mean Muslims make up about 16 percent of the population in this city of 12.5 million, and that puts the capital in contention for the title of most Muslims in Europe, not counting Turkey.
Those numbers do not make all Russians comfortable. As Raymond Sontag has written in these pages, Russia under Putin has long experienced a tension between ethnic Russian and civic Russian identities. One of the ways this manifests itself is through nationalist activism against mosque-building. As a result, many thousands of Muslims in Moscow are known to pray in the street during the holidays due to the lack of mosque space; others pray in unauthorized house-mosques that some experts cited by the Times claim allow extremism to spread unchecked.
So there is some self-interest here, perhaps, in allowing the new mosque to be built. But at the same time, Mr. Putin seems to have a foreign-policy agenda in mind. At the opening, he spoke alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, both in town for the occasion. More:
Mr. Putin, in brief remarks, called the new, modern mosque the biggest in Europe and said that it was a worthy addition to a capital and a country built on the idea of uniting different nationalities and faiths. The mosque is a central part of Russia’s efforts to develop its own system of Muslim religious education and training to counteract extremists seeking recruits, the president said.
“Terrorists from the so-called Islamic State actually cast a shadow on the great global religion of Islam,” he said. “Their ideology is built on hate.”
Russia’s newfound adventurism in the Middle East traces in part to two major goals: to beat back the extremist threat to the Russian homeland and to reestablish Russia as a regional player. Framing the pro-Assad coalition as anti-ISIS has been an integral part of the PR efforts for the latter, and pushing back against extremism is at the heart of the former. It looks like Putin saw an opportunity to kill a few birds with the same stone here.