Russia blacklists translation of the Quran

More than 2,000 texts have been banned over the past decade in Russia.

Melanie Stetson Freeman
A woman browses in a bookstore in Moscow, Russia.

A recent decision to blacklist a translation of the Quran in Russia is the latest of a slew of bans on religious texts, reflecting a disturbing, yet hardly surprising, trend of religious censorship in that country.

In late September, a court in the southern Russian city of Novorossiisk banned a translation of the Quran by Azeri theologian Elmir Kuliyev which the court said promoted extremism. The ruling called for the Kuliyev translation to be banned and copies of it “destroyed.” 

Among the court’s complaints are that Kuliyev’s translation contained “statements about the superiority of Muslims over non-Muslims,” “negative evaluations of persons who have nothing to do with the Muslim religion,” and “positive evaluations of hostile actions by Muslims against non-Muslims.”

With that ruling, that edition of Islam’s holy book joins some 2,000 publications banned over the last decade in Russia, reflecting a concerning movement toward state-sanctioned censorship in that former socialist state.

Not surprisingly, the move angered Muslims across the world, including in Russia, where they comprise a significant minority (about 15 percent of the population). 

"Russian Muslims are very strongly indignant over such an outrageous decision," Rushan Abbyasov, deputy head of Russia’s Council of Muftis, an Islamic organization with ties to the Kremlin, told the Moscow Times.

A lawyer representing Kuliyev called the move “pure idiocy,” while Akhmed Yarlikapov, an expert on Islam with the Russian Academy of Sciences, said, “This is one step away from banning the [entire] Quran....You could ban the Bible just as easily because it also has passages that talk about the spilling of blood.” 

In an open letter to President Vladmir Putin, Russia’s Council of Muftis reminded the leader of the repercussions of past decisions to ban or destroy the Quran, including by American pastor Terry Jones, who threatened to burn the Quran on Sept. 11, 2010.

“Is it necessary to discuss how the destruction of books, especially sacred religious books, has been received in Russia in the past?” it read. “We recall how the burning of just a few copies of the Holy Koran by a crazy American pastor elicited a firm protest not just from Russian Muslims but from our entire society, in solidarity with the stormy and long-lasting anger of the global Muslim community and all people of goodwill.”

As the UK’s Guardian notes, the ban is curious, given the country’s large Muslim minority. “The ban is baffling, as the Russian authorities have little to gain by antagonising 15% of the population, including huge chunks of the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, never mind the restive republics of the Caucasus,” it writes.

Nonetheless, this isn’t the first religious text to be banned by Russia. Since passing the 2002 law On Counteracting Extremist Activity, the country has blacklisted more than 2,000 publications, including all works by Nazis and fascists, as well as ultranationalist, anti-Semitic, and jihadist texts, according to the Guardian. Also banned is Mussolini’s autobiography, the works of Scientology founder Ron L. Hubbard, more than 60 classic Islamic religious texts, and even religious texts of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

(Apparently the Hindu religious text the Bhagavad Ghita narrowly escaped the ban.)

If that’s not arbitrary enough, consider this. Among the texts not on the blacklist are those by and celebrating the communist leader of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin, under whose rule hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned in labor camps, deported, and executed.

We suppose that goes to show there is rarely rhyme or reason to book bans.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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