Fighting Extremism and Strengthening Russian Society

Extremism is a term with many different interpretations, including in Islamic law (Sharia). No clear definition of extremism exists today, although there is a consensus that proponents of antisocial ideologies should be considered extremists.

The Russian Interior Ministry is developing a strategy to combat extremism through 2025. Moscow Islamic University rector Damir Khairetdinov shares his perspective on the meaning of religious fundamentalism and how best to fight it in Russia and internationally.

Extremism is a term with many different interpretations, including in Islamic law (Sharia). No clear definition of extremism exists today, although there is a consensus that proponents of antisocial ideologies should be considered extremists.

Such ideologies have arisen in the past and still crop up occasionally, forcing society to unite and fight the people who seek to advance them. Of course, all religious and philosophical systems have been affected by extremists and radicals, including the oldest and most peaceful ones. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and Protestantism have had just as many extremist movements and sects as Islam, but most of them were historically untenable and disappeared. Some ended relatively recently.

Historically, the different sects of Islam have dealt with bouts of extremism, including Kharijism (7th century), Shia (Qarmatians of the 10th century) and Sunni (Wahhabism of the 18th century). However, like other groups, these extremist movements evolved into respectable subcultures that folded into the general Islamic context and the wider world. The descendants of the Kharijites live in one of the world’s richest countries, Oman, while the descendants of the Qarmatians are the subjects of the European billionaire Aga Khan. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Wahhabism, is a prosperous and peaceful country, and a leader of the Islamic world. Of course, one can paint all these movements in black and blame their followers for the sins of their ancestors. But the fact remains that these movements, once their views were condemned by the majority, underwent a long process of transformation, renounced their extreme views on life and religion and were successfully integrated.

There are three prerequisites for eradicating extremism in a particular community with strong religious convictions: the social and theological condemnation by the majority, social and material improvement in the extremist community, and time.

Islam is going through a very difficult period of internal strife, significant social stratification and collision with the outside secular world. While there are also some positive trends, the response to the current challenges includes the growth of sectarianism and extremism in certain segments of society, as well as isolationist and apocalyptic beliefs. Russian Muslims do not live in isolation from the Islamic world. They are exposed to ideas from foreign Muslim countries, including ideas that are openly extremist or hostile toward society. The Internet spreads ideas even faster and easier than personal contact, for example, during travel abroad. An individual or community with low education attainment and social status is most susceptible to ideologies defined by opposition to the outside world and its secularism, “atheism”, “devilry”, “deadly sins”, etc. The situation is particularly difficult in certain regions of the North Caucasus and migrant communities residing in large metropolitan areas who live apart from the local population and have little exposure to the local culture.

Until recently, the Russian government did not pay enough attention to this problem and mostly dealt with it as a law enforcement problem. But this will only drive the problem underground. What is needed is a set of measures that address, among other things, the socioeconomic problems of economically depressed regions and migrant issues.

As the rector of an Islamic university, I’m interested in raising the educational level of Russian Muslims. And I want our imams throughout Russia to be able to rebuff extremists and engage people expressing radical ideas in theological discussions. Graduates of Islamic schools and madrassas must be able to expose these ideologies as wrong and sinful. It's a delicate matter, and the imam’s personal authority and knowledge of Sharia play a big role.

Even though we haven’t made much progress so far, it is comforting to know that knowledge of classical Islam in Russia is spreading and the demand for our graduates in local communities is on the rise. This is why it is so important to address the financial problems affecting Islamic education in Russia.

Unfortunately, there are few experts on Islam left in our country, and self-proclaimed experts, with their own theories on how to combat extremism, are causing the greatest damage. They are unable to distinguish between cause and effect, and often don’t speak local languages. For them, any Muslim activism is tantamount to extremism. These self-styled “experts” don’t know the difference between Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami and Hizb al-shuyuiyin (the Islamic Liberation Party and the Communist Party, respectively), or Alawites of Syria and Turkey's Alevis (two very different denominations). They are ready to denounce everyone as Wahhabis, not only Ikhwans (Ikhwan al-Muslimin, also known as the Muslim Brotherhood, which is opposed to Wahhabism both in its goals and politics), but also Sufis. I remember a gem from a newspaper in the 1990s written by one of the many such pseudo scholars of Islam: “Wahhabis from Iran are preparing to move into Central Asia.” You can’t have a rational conversation with such “experts”.

And yet they are in demand in a number of government agencies in our country, including security agencies, and they insist on marginalizing Russian Muslims, employing the tactic of “divide and rule” to pit different organizations against each other. We have evidence that this policy is shared by many religious and ideological institutions in Russia.

But while their knowledge of Islam is lacking (e.g., the absence of the institution of the church and, accordingly, the crosspollination of ideologies in different communities), new information technology allows them to easily organize flash mobs that generate a lot of attention at the regional level. A harmless performance by university students is fine, but what if we get a rerun of Grozny ‘96, Makhachkala ‘98 or Nalchik ‘05?

Russian Muslims are predominately responsible citizens and patriots. They have saved the Russian state on many occasions. We are baffled, to put it mildly, by the suspicions harbored against Russian Muslims when, for example, district courts issue blanket bans on classical Islamic theological literature, including translations of the Quran, Muslim prayer books or hagiographic works depicting the life of the Prophet and his family members. Who orders these district courts in towns and villages that do not even have a decent library, let alone Islamic study centers, to prohibit Islamic literature? And where have the “experts” suddenly unearthed extremism in these works that date back centuries? Perhaps in the prayer “Save us from the servants of Satan”? The consequences of these and other missteps are tragic, and each new ban causes more misunderstanding and mistrust between the government and representatives of the Islamic Ummah, especially socially engaged Muslims.

If the Interior Ministry’s strategy to combat extremism is truly meant to strengthen Russian society, we should expect greater cooperation between representatives of the Russian Muslim community and government agencies. For example, the Moscow Islamic Institute is prepared to work to expand cooperation between law enforcement officers and Sharia experts so that police officers can recognize the difference between extremism and traditional Islamic views. This is normal practice, which in recent years has gained broader acceptance among the ulema (scholars), Muslim activists and government agencies in Western Europe, and supranational organizations, such as the OSCE, which has developed a program to combat Islamophobia in participating countries. Thus, the prerequisites for joint work are in place – all that remains is to take action.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.