Conference Podcast

Episode 1, transcript

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Katalin: Every year, around the world, millions of people are leaving their homes to seek security and a better life. While this is a difficult decision for any individual, migration has also a wider impact at the global scale: It affects societies economically, socially, culturally and not the least politically.

This podcast investigates the consequences of migration for the Eurasian development.

The series of talks leads up to our online Aleksanteri Conference, organized in October. My name is Katalin Miklóssy, Welcome aboard!

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Katalin: My first guest is Dr. Kaarina Aitamurto, who works at the University of Helsinki, at the Aleksanteri Institute which is an internationally acknowledged center of Russian, East European and Eurasian area studies. Doctor Aitamurto is scholar of religion. She's studied nationalism and migration. But I'm particularly interested in Kaarina's special expertise on Islam and muslim communities in Russia. I want to find out more about the link between religion and migration.

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Katalin: Kaarina, thank you for accepting my invitation to this podcast! You are an expert in the study of religion. First, could you tell us more about your current research? 

Kaarina: Well, actually I kind of have several research projects, but all of them are linked in one way or another to the topic of the governance of islam in Russia. I understand governance very widely, so it includes, for example discursive governance. I mean, public discussion about for example, what is good Islam, what is bad Islam; how it should be governed – or should it be governed? What kind of Islamic activities should be promoted, and what kind of less so. 

But in addition to that, the analysis of the discussions about Islam legislation, I mean, different kind of organisations, I have some other, minor projects as well. Like, for example, we had with my colleagues Anna-Liisa Heusala and Rustam Urinboyev a project about Central Asian migrants, and Islam was also one of the topics in this research project. And actually we gathered some very rich material in our fieldwork in Moscow in 2017, and even though there are some publications, actually quite a lot of that material has not yet been in a way used, or we are still in the process of publishing the findings from that project.  

Katalin: That is very, very interesting. You have, indeed, a wide and complex experience analyzing the coexistence of various religious communities and also their interaction with powerholders. Now, when we look at the European Union, we increasingly encounter arguments stating that muslim migrants and Islam by and large are threats to our societies. How is this in Russia?

Kaarina: Well, of course there are similarities but also some major differences, and perhaps the biggest of these is, that, first of all, Islam is considered as one of the so called traditional religions in Russia, so it has a very recognized position in Russian society. And, indeed, this idea that different confessions or faith groups, of religions, have had a long history of co-existence in Russia is very strong in Russia, and it guides the discussion. And in many ways it is justified. I mean, Russia has been an empire. In the Soviet Union, there were many ethnic and religious minorities. So it is a part of the national identity. And in the Tsarist regime, for example, these religious minorities were taken into account, and actually the Tsarist regime used the religious elites when they were governing these minorities. So, in this sense, muslims and Islam, are not regarded as always necessarily as the religion of migrants, as something new, as it is often in the Western Europe.

However, this -  I would like to say – myth about the peaceful co-existence of religions is also something that covers problems and power inequalities, hierarchies and oppression ans so on So, first of all the idea that there are some ethnic religious minorities that even today guides the discussion so much, kind of essentialises and homogenises these religious minorities. It also doesn’t really take into account this hybridity of identities and changes.

Also even the conceptualization of the four traditional religions reveals that it excludes many religious traditions and indeed creates that kind of power hierarchies. And it is idea that unlike in Western Europe where Islam is conceived as something new, connected to migration often seen as a social problem, in Russia it’s seen as part of our history and of our society. And this kind of lipservice to this religious tolerance actually often covers some problems. For example, it’s quite common in Russia, an often heard statement, that there is no islamophobia like there is in Russia. And, of course, that’s completely untrue. You can see islamophobia on the political level in the media, in the everyday life. So, in that sense this myths about history prevents addressing some serious problems. But of course, this idea that Islam or muslims, or especially Islam is incompatible with our way of life, or something like that, has also been heard in Russia and even in some elections or political debates this migrantofobia has often had a very central role in these discussions. But the rhetorical move, how this is done, is first of all to divide this kind of good Islam and then bad Islam, or islam from foreign countries or foreign Islam and our native moderate Islam. So, with that kind of distinctions, actually quite a lot of different ways of being a muslim or Islamic traditions or ways of life can be excluded or discriminated.

Katalin: Thank you. This is really interesting. I would like to follow up on this xenophobia and our problematic attitudes towards especially muslim migrants. When we look at the European stage it seems that migration crisis in 2015 was a gamechanger for the European Union. It transformed the political language, European unity started to erode. Ever since 2015 we have new tendencies of rising nationalism and conservatism, populism. We strengthened border controls to hinder migration. Now, all these new developents took place in Europe that still holds high democratic values. But ow about Russia? How is transnational migration assessed in a country like Putinist Russia, and what have been the consequences for the Muslim communities?

Kaarina: Well, first of all, the position of Islamic organization is in some extent more difficult than in Western Europe even though it seems they hold a very respected role in the Russian society. Because they have to balance between the ordinary believers and they needs and their interests but at the same time with the authorities and the political power so that they are considered to represent this kind of good Islam and what the authories would like to promote. So in that sense they need to be more sensitive towards the authorities than necessarily Islamic organisations in the West. Although of course, there are similar problems and challenges. So this is one thing.

And for example when the muslim community comments on various events, global events or for example social problems in the Russian society, they are often especially the most prominent ones who hold these respected positions, they are often quite careful not to lose that position in the eyes of the power elite. The other thing is that o course as has been noted, in social media discussion there are different kind of quarters and even the states that aim to guide it. But in Russia, of course, the state controlled media has a very central role in having an impact on public discussions. And here actually it is quite intriguing that the so called migration question was very high on the agenda and the discussions in the Moscow’s mayoral elections in 2013 and the alarmist portrails of muslim migrants coming to Russia and transforming the cities and so on. Muslim migrants as a social problem being a very prominent in mainstream media, in these political discussions at the time.

But 2014 owing to the annexation of Crimea and then the subsequent war in Ukraine, actually the new enemy and the new biggest threat in Russian society were Ukraine and Western powers so suddenly this whole discourse changed, or at least the kind of main point of reference changed. So, in that sense the discussions in Russia has a little bit different logic than in Western Europe.

Katalin: We relate perhaps much too often to migration as it were self-evidently a transnational phenomenon but in fact domestic migration is as significant. How does religion play a role in the context of domestic migration, in Russia?

Kaarina: Well, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the differences in living standards, in wages, in employment, they became very wide, of course between Russia and some previous Soviet states, especially in Central Asia but also within Russia. And if you look at the different regions and especially the difference between such big cities as, for example, Moscow and St.Petersburg or some prosperous areas, and, on the other hand on some less prosperous areas and country side. It’s a huge difference. It’s like looking at some of the richest countries in Europe, and some developing countries on some other continent.

So certainly there has been much internal, domestic migration, and particularly in for example Northern Caucasus. In addition to these economic reasons, there are these conflicts and in general the societal and political situation. In addition, of course, in for example Chenchnya thereare demographic reasons: there simply isn’t enough labour for the growing population. Certainly you can see some examples of religion as a driving factor. Like for example, actually some sexual and gender minorities often try to emigrate from the Northern Caucasus because of the persecution. I would say anyway, that that has a minor role.

Whereas the perception of migrants in areas like Moscow or St. Petersburg, then again religion playes a role in this discrimination. Although, of course, ethnicity and religion are very difficult to distinguish from each other especially when we analyse discrimination and racism. But the borderline between domestic and transnational migration is a bit complicated in Russia, because indeed occasionally these migrants from Northern Caucasus are perceived as migrants in Moscow even though they are, of course, citizens of Russian Federation.

But at the same time, migrants from Central Asia, especially the older generation that grew up in the Soviet Union, they never the less see the country in a way like they own. Their fore fathers fought in the Soviet army, the children from Western Soviet Union were taken to Uzbekistan to find shelter and many Uzbeks are quite proud that during the war many Russian children that were sent there were taken into families and not into orphanages. So there was that kind of hospitality. So in that sense, the case of Russia also shows the kind of fluidity of these transnational borders and in a way that maybe also challenges this kind of methodological nationalism.

Katalin: Thank you. My final question is regarding to the forthcoming Aleksanteri Conference. you are co-leading the committee organizing the forthcoming Aleksanteri Conference, which is dealing with the global migration in Eurasia. What would you assess the conference – what would you like us to remember about the conference topic?  And how would you assess the conference by and large?

Kaarina: When we were writing the call for papers that actually also helped us again to realise how multi-sited pehonomenon migration is. How it’s connected to such a huge variety of issues. I mean, cultural, currence, economy, legislation, societal trust – all these kinds of things. So of course, we are looking forward to reading all these different proposals and variety of perspectives from which people look at these issues. And of course, we are not only looking at migration as such, but also the discussions about migrants and especially the kind of critical take on these discussions. How migration is framed in different approaches.

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Katalin: Thank you Kaarina for taking the time and effort to this discuss these very very interesting questions in our first podcast. Thank you!

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Episode 1