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October 15, 2013

Russian court bans the Quran

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In a move that is bound to alienate a large segment of Russia’s sizable Muslim population, the Guardian reports that “A court in the Russian city of Novorossiysk” has recently voted to ban one translation of the Quran. While the court’s decision to ban Azeri theologian Elmir Kuliyev’s translation of the Muslim holy book is by no means unprecedented, it reflects an increasing trend towards greater government censorship of written material in Russia.

Though it was once believed that the fall of the Communist regime in Russia would lead to greater openness and transparency on the part of Russian leaders, censorship has seen a dramatic rise in the country since the beginning of the 21st Century. In fact, Daniel Kalder of the Guardian reports that “Kuliyev’s Qur’an is only one of over 2,000 publications Russian courts have added to the ministry of justice’s blacklist since the law On Counteracting Extremist Activity was passed in 2002.” The list of banned books includes all works by Nazi and Fascist writers, as well as a number of ultranationalist, antisemitic, and Jihadist texts.

The list goes far beyond works traditionally associated with extremism, though, and it seems that very few texts are entirely free from the risk of proscription, as, in 2012, one court in Moscow went so far as to ban the works of science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. The ban on Hubbard’s work, which the court claimed was responsible for inciting extremism, led to massive backlash among a legion of the American writer’s most fanatical followers, who are known as “Scientologists.”

What makes the particular case of Kuliyev’s Quran so perplexing is not the fact that a Russian court has taken the action of banning the central text of a religious minority within the country. After all, Kalder writes that “Even the texts of minorities who are practically nonexistent in Russia risk proscription,” as “The Bhagavad Ghita narrowly escaped the blacklist, even though [the] Hindu text had originally been translated into Russian in 1788 and has been published numerous times since.” No, what makes this ban truly astonishing is how shockingly little the Russian government would stand to gain by alienating a religious minority that makes up 15% of the population of the country as a whole.

Even if, as the judge who made the decision claims, Kuliyev’s translation can be understood to promote extremism through “statements about the superiority of Muslims over non-Muslims” or by presenting a “positive evaluation of hostile actions by Muslims against non-Muslims,” the decision makes so little sense at the level of public policy that Russian religion expert Geraldine Fagan has argued that “Long-standing rivalries between Russian Muslim organization may lie beneath state moves against Kuliyev’s work.” Regardless, some of Russia’s senior Islamic clerics have already sounded the alarm about the potentially deleterious effects of the blacklisting of Kuliyev’s translation on relations between Muslims and the rest of the Russian population.

The practice of banning books has been around almost as long as there have been books, but, with the massive backlash to recent measures by the Russian government, it seems that the actions of Russian censors may, in fact, be bringing about a higher degree of social instability than had previously existed in the country.

Michael Elmets is a former Melville House intern.

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