Global Politics

In the Studio with Al RTV, Russia's First Islamic TV Channel

It's show time in the studio of the new Al RTV channel.

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"Assalamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatuh" says host Rustem Arifdghanov, a seasoned Azeri journalist who also heads the channel. He says the mission is to reconnect Russian Muslims with their faith after 70 years of enforced atheism during the Soviet era.

"It was a big break so many Muslims don't know what Islam is," Arifdghanov says. "We would like this channel to tell the real story of Russian Islam, not Arabic, Turkish or Iranian Islam."

But the goal isn't just to re-acquaint some Russians with their heritage. Armed Islamic militants are fighting several violent insurgencies across Russia's northern Caucasus. So Arifdghanov says another important mission for AL RTV is to encourage "moderate" Islam by filling the information vacuum for Russian Muslims.

"What is Islam like in reality?" says Arifdghanov. "What is the history of our ancestors? Is it true that Muslims have peacefully coexisted with Christians in Russia for centuries? We will give answers to these pointed questions. And we will have more influence than those preachers who want to persuade people to pick up arms to fight for mythical Wahabi or Salafi Islam.

The problem is partially a result of the failure by the state to offer serious resources for Islamic education in Russia, says religion analyst Geraldine Fagan from the Forum 18 news service. So starting 20 years ago, many Muslims went abroad to study.

"In some cases, people came back with pretty radical ideas," Fagan says, noting that the conclusion of security officials was that Russia's indigenous Muslims were being infected by foreign ideas.

"The government decided they should try and counter this influence by encouraging a moderate homegrown version of Islamic education," Fagan says.

Experts see the new state-supported channel as part of this new approach by the Russian state.

Timur Bulgakov, a producer at AL RTV, says the tone of the channel will be secular, informative and fun. It will be celebratory during holidays and appeal to several generations of Russian Muslim families. Content-wise, he says, the enormous cultural diversity of Muslims in Russia provides plentiful material.

"And although the channel is in Russian, we will leave in the original languages to show the rich variety of Russia's many Muslim regions," Bulgarkov says. The audience will be able to enjoy the sound of languages like Avar, Chechen, Ingush, Tatar, Bashkir and Udmurt.

In an editing booth, editors are adding Russian subtitles to a show about cooking, in a Dagestani language.

Islam experts say the channel will be a success if it can foster dialog between Russia's disparate Muslim communities. Alexander Sotnichenko, at the St. Petersburg State University, says the Russian state is good at dealing with insurgents in only two ways: using money and force. But the state is horrible at dialogue with religious communities about what it means to be a citizen of the Russian Federation.

"It is weak in identity," Sotnichenko says. "We have to present a new project of post-Soviet new Russian identity. 20 years now after the fall of the Soviet Union but we don't have this project. Is Russia a national state? Or is it an empire? What is it? We don't know."

The questions are so difficult, Sotnichenko says, because even Russia's governing party doesn't know the answer.
"And that's why they are afraid of discussion," Sotnichenko says. "But we need this discussion, and maybe in this discussion we will find the new Russian identity."

Al RTV could be a hopeful sign he says. But with political violence by Islamic groups spreading to other Russian regions beyond the Caucasus, pressure is growing for some kind of a more aggressive non-military approach.