By Jonathan Power
Russia stands at a major crossroads as it works out how exactly to deal with the 14.5 million ethnic Muslims who live inside its borders. If added to this figure are migrant workers from Central Asia and Azerbaijan, the total is around 20 million. Compare this with Germany, which is home to 5 million Muslims, and France, which has 6 million Muslims.
The Kremlin has struggled for decades to deal with the country’s restive Muslim-majority regions. When communism collapsed, it was relatively easy to restore the Orthodox Church to its traditional preeminence. But dealing with the Muslim population is much less straightforward due to the political forces at play within these communities.
The relationship between the power of the Kremlin and the developing power of Islamism was seriously put to the test in the 1990s by the wars for independence in the southern Muslim-majority states of Chechnya and Dagestan. Today stability is threatened by the growing appeal of the so-called Islamic State among disaffected youth. If Chechnya (now pacified) was the catalyst for the initial spread of militant Islamism, the Islamic State has become the threat that can spear the soft underbelly of southern Russia.
This threat is galvanized by the belief system of the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, with its puritanical and anti-female theology. According to President Vladimir Putin, over 2,000 Russian citizens have gone to fight with the Islamic State, a ruthless organization that recently blew up a Russian airliner in mid-air.
Most of the world thinks of the fall of the Iron Curtain only in terms of Russia’s European borders. But the curtain also fell in the south. Today, six million immigrant workers mixed with evangelical Wahhabi imams are gradually becoming a potent fifth column inside Russia. Shooting itself in the foot, Russia has dealt too often with the bubbles of incipient disaffection by using a heavy hand rather than dialogue. Inevitably this has led to further radicalism.
Nevertheless, a poll conducted in 2010 by the Media-Orient agency in the North Caucasus of Muslims found that 73 percent rejected political and religious extremism. But that still leaves a quarter who are attracted to radicalism to varying degrees. Surprisingly, the highest totals of rejection were in Chechnya and Dagestan—97 percent and 85 percent respectively. Perhaps that is because both regions have experienced the horror of Islamic extremist-led war.
In public the Russian leadership welcomes Islam as a moral force. In private there are grave doubts. It is obvious that over the last two decades Islam, quiescent in Soviet times, increasingly serves as a catalyst for social and political protests that in some areas have been hijacked by separatists.
To complicate things, unlike the monolithic Orthodox Church, Islam is split into competing factions. There is traditional Islam on the one hand and fundamentalism on the other, particularly Islamism and Wahhabism. Three years ago the mufti of Tatarstan, a traditionalist, was seriously wounded in an attack and Valiulla Yakupov, a prominent ideologist of Islamic traditionalism, was assassinated.
The Kremlin requires unconditional loyalty to Mother Russia. Some Muslims reject this demand and look toward the global Ummah. Their numbers are growing fast. Not even Tatarstan, which has existed peacefully in a Christian environment for half a millennium, is isolated from the tendency towards radicalism and militancy.
According to Alexei Malashenko, co-chair of Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program, writing in the quarterly Russia in Global Affairs, “The Kremlin simplifies the situation by focusing on the political aspects. It combats extremism and separatism but evades the question of how people in a secular state can live by religious laws. It ignores the fact that the trend in the development of Russia’s civic identity does not always coincide with, and sometimes is even opposed to that of religious identity.”
Malashenko points out that many Muslim scholars, imams, theologians, and even local politicians today seek to move away from a simplified dichotomy between traditional and radical. They see that it splits society and that some sort of mix is necessary—not to be violent or brutally puritanical, but to recognize the value of social and political protest. And they recognize that even in a modern society Sharia can be observed, as long as one is not fundamentalist about it. There needs to be both a dialogue between the state and Muslim leaders and one within Russia’s Muslim communities.
Two thousand Muslims leaving to fight on the side of the Islamic State is too many, but in relative terms it is not a lot. The response to the call of violence is still limited to a very small minority. The time for dialogue and mending grievances has by no means run out.
Putin said in an important speech on Islam, “Although religion is constitutionally separated from the state, the state itself is not separated from believers.” Clearly he has some grasp of the problem. But there is a way to go from words to action.
Jonathan Power is is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums Of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions Of Our Day.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]