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Window on Eurasia: Putin Says Orthodoxy ‘Closer to Islam than Catholicism Is’

17.12.2010, 15:49

During his conversation with the Russian people today, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin cites with approval the conclusion of “certain theoreticians [who] say that [Orthodox Christianity] is much closer to Islam than Catholicism is,” something that he suggests should be the basis for restoring national concord.

In his responses to questions, Putin stresses that “Caucasians must not be afraid to live in Moscow or Russians to live in the North Caucasus.” Instead, he continued, “all citizens of Russia of whatever faith or nationality must recognize that we have a single common Motherland” (www.baltinfo.ru/2010/12/16/Pravoslavie-blizhe-k-islamu-chem-katolitcizm--Putin-177816).

“From very beginning,” the Russian leader said, “Russia was built up as a multi-national and multi-confessional state.” And after saying that “the state exists to serve the interests of the majority,” he added, “you know, we have Eastern Christianity and certain theoreticians say that it is much closer to Islam than [Roman] Catholicism is.”

It thus appears that Putin and perhaps large segments of the Russian leadership believe that because of what they see as that “closeness” between Orthodoxy and Islam, the Russian Federation will find it easier than the Europeans have to bridge the divide which appears to be deepening between adherents of the two.

That point is both theoretically and practically interesting, but it is quite possible that it misses an important dimension of the situation which may have the effect of making the greater similarities to which Putin refers not a source of accord but rather the occasion for greater conflict.

Ever since Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” article and book appeared, many commentators and political leaders have talked about the clash between Christianity as a whole and Islam, even though the late Harvard scholar did distinguish between Eastern or Orthodox Christianity and Western Christianity which includes Catholicism and Protestantism.

Indeed, the simplification of Huntington’s ideas in the intervening years has led many in both Russia and the West to ignore the distinction between Eastern and Western Christendom, sometimes for political reasons and sometimes out of an unwillingness to acknowledge just how different the two branches of Christianity are.

But as Putin suggests, there are major differences, perhaps the greatest of which is the caesaro-papist tradition of Orthodoxy and the absence of that tradition in Western Christendom. And that means the two Christian traditions are in a very different position with regard to Islam, which like Orthodoxy but unlike Catholicism calls for a unity of state and religious power.

On the one hand, that means that Orthodox Christians and Muslims are better able to understand their political theories because they have something in common than are Western Christians and the Islamic world, where the idea of the fusion of state and religion is generally anathema.

But on the other hand, that makes the confrontation between Orthodoxy and Islam fundamentally different than that between Catholicism and Islam, with the former fighting over which religion will fuse with the state and the latter contesting whether religion should acquire that political dimension.

Consequently, because Russian Orthodoxy and Islam have this similarity, if one may express their politics in a simplified way, their fight may be more bitter than between Western Christendom and Islam, where an increasing number of Muslims, especially in Europe and the US, have come to share the view of Christians there that a religiously neutral state is better.

For that reason alone, the hopes that Putin puts in this similarity may be entirely misplaced, but there are other reasons for that conclusion as well, some rooted in the pretensions of the Russian Orthodox Church to speak for all Russians and to impose its views on Russian society and in the feelings among many Muslims that they are increasingly second class citizens.

Moreover, precisely because religion and ethnicity is so tightly linked in the Russian Federation, a reality reflected not just in the idea of “ethnic” Muslims or “ethnic” Orthodox but in the way in which many people there view nationality, the conflicts erupting on the streets of Moscow and Russian cities are not just a clash of civilizations but more than that.

Consequently, even if Putin is correct, it may not matter, although what he has said today is important for thinking about broader policy issues, including the possibility for expanded cooperation between the Orthodox world and the Catholic-Protestant world in dealing with the world of Islam.


17 December 2010 Window on Eurasia