Russia Bans the Koran

While Geert Wilders and assorted online provocateurs may like to talk about banning the Koran as an extremist text, few take the idea seriously. Well, except in Russia perhaps, where on September 20th a court in the Russian city of Novorossiysk banned the holy book of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims.

To be fair, the court banned a Russian translation of the Koran, one of several available in the country. This version, the work of an Azeri theologian named Elmir Kuliyev, was declared illegal for promoting extremism through “statements about the superiority of Muslims over non-Muslims”; “negative evaluation of persons who have nothing to do with the Muslim religion”; “positive evaluation of hostile actions by Muslims against non-Muslims”, and also, it was argued, inciting violence.

Unsurprisingly the ruling—which automatically places Kuliyev’s Koran on a nationwide blacklist—outraged many Russian Muslims. Russia’s influential Council of Muftis denounced the verdict, and Kuliyev has one month to appeal. The ban is baffling, as the Russian authorities have little to gain by antagonizing 15% of the population, including huge chunks of the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, never mind the restive republics of the Caucasus. Could it just be a case of an incompetent court gone rogue? Perhaps, but another major Muslim organization has actually endorsed the verdict. Geraldine Fagan, an expert on religion on Russia reports that:

…a representative of the All-Russian Muftiate – a rival to the Council of Muftis – defended the ruling against Kuliyev’s translation of the Koran… From a theological point of view, Farid Salman maintained, Kuliyev’s works “correspond with the views of the ‘Salafi’ school, not with Islam that is traditional for Muslims of Russia.”

Could it be—as Fagan suggests—that “long-standing rivalries between Russian Muslim organisations may lie beneath state moves against Kuliyev’s work”?

Maybe; however, Kuliyev’s Koran is but one of over 2000 publications Russian courts have added to the Ministry of Justice’s blacklist  since the law “On Counteracting Extremist Activity” was passed in 2002. All works by Nazis and Fascists are banned, while a cursory inspection reveals that many ultranationalist, anti-Semitic and jihadist texts have also been proscribed. Mussolini’s tedious autobiography has actually been “doubled-banned”—although it was already illegal under the 2002 law, recently a publishing house named Algoritm published it anyway, and so a Krasnoyarsk court declared it extremist again. Works by Goebbels and Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg have received similar treatment. 

Now, no doubt a lot of the forbidden books are extreme, although whether banning them makes any difference is another matter- after all, the Tsarist censor prohibited Lenin’s writings and look how that ended. Meanwhile critics of the law object that many publications have been unfairly blacklisted.

For instance, Scientologists were upset when in 2012 a Moscow court banned the works of L. Ron Hubbard for inciting extremism on the grounds that the author of Battlefield Earth sought “to form an isolated social group whose members are trained to perform their functions generally aimed against the rest of the world”. I am not convinced that Scientology is so dangerous, but in this instance Russian attitudes are very close to those in France and Germany, where the governments also view Scientology with suspicion if not outright hostility.

Other bans are more controversial. As if in a warm-up exercise for the Koran ban, last year a Russian court prohibited over 60 Islamic books including classic hadith collections, while Jehovah’s Witness texts- not normally identified with extremism- have also been blacklisted. In February this year a Kaliningrad court banned works by the Turkish theologian Said Nursi, who is apparently considered so dangerous that 13 people have received criminal sentences for possession of his writings, according to Geraldine Fagan.

Even the texts of minorities that are practically non-existent in Russia risk proscription- last year the Bhagavad Ghita narrowly escaped the blacklist, even though this Hindu text had originally been translated into Russian in 1788, published numerous times since, and nobody had noticed how dangerous it was over the ensuing 200 plus years. 

And yet even as the blacklist swells, one category of extremist publication is strikingly absent: books by and extolling the works and deeds of the mass murderer Joseph Stalin. So popular are these books that Eksmo, Russia’s largest publisher, once ran two series—“Stalinist” and “Stalin Renaissance”—to satisfy demand. A cursory glance at Eksmo’s catalogue reveals that there are still numerous decidedly pro-Stalin books still on their list, including Stalin- 20th Century Manager whose author denounces the “propaganda” of perestroika era critics, Stalin Before the Court of Pygmies and Marshal Stalin—Creator of a Great Victory. And why isn’t Lenin’s Tasks of Revolutionary Army Contingents banned? In this pamphlet the great revolutionary advocates storing up acid to pour on cops, as well as inciting other forms of violence against the enemies of the proletariat.

Of course the absence of Lenin or Stalin from the blacklist is easily explained: there are still many people in Russia who endorse their rule—according to a 2012 survey 42% of Russians polled named Stalin as one of the country’s most prominent historical figures. Any judge who felt inclined to ban their works would face immense public opposition.

It is neither strange nor surprising, then, that vaguely worded laws against extremism should be inconsistently applied, or targeted at minority groups which are too weak to fight back. Russia is hardly the only country guilty of this, and the idea that people should be allowed to read and decide for themselves what is extreme is increasingly unpopular worldwide. Nevertheless Russia does seem to have gone farther than most non-theocracies in empowering state functionaries to freely lob all sorts of texts on a blacklist. Soon, thanks to the vaguely defined “anti-gay propaganda” law and another vague law that prohibits offending religious feelings, even more publications will surely be banned.

The Koran case is interesting however because it is so offensive to such a large and long-established minority that is hardly voiceless in the country. I’d wager that it will be overturned as Vladimir Putin values stability highly. Then again, Russia can always surprise you. As for the Scientologists, well- sorry guys, you’re just shit out of luck.

From The Guardian 

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