Russia Does Not Have an Islam Policy

Russian authorities do not understand what Islam means for Russia as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Their logic is too simplistic. They believe that there is a good Islam that is loyal to them, and there is a bad Islam that is aimed at destabilizing the country. No attention is paid to the profound processes that are taking place in Russia’s Muslim community.

A mufti known for his fight against radical Islamists survived an assassination attempt in Tatarstan on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan. His deputy was killed a few hours earlier on the same day. In an interview for the website, Alexei Malashenko, a leading Russian expert on Islam, speaks about the influence of radical Islamists in Russia and the failures of Russia’s policy towards Islam.

How strong are the radical Islamists in Russia today?

The Islamists in Tatarstan and the Volga Region in general are not very strong, but they exist and their influence is growing. They have become more active. Their role in the North Caucasus is much larger for a variety of reasons.

First, this is reaction to the disastrous socioeconomic and political course of the federal government in the North Caucasus. Mistrust of federal policy leads the disaffected to search for other solutions to local problems. Sometimes, these other solutions are found in the “Islamic alternative,” that is, a society based on Islamic values.

Moreover, the enforcement of secular, federal and local laws in the region leaves much to be desired. So, part of society is turning to Sharia. It is possible to regulate relations in society on the basis of this Sharia, which is supported by many religious and public figures.

Radicals are the most consistent supporters of Sharia law. They believe that the formation of an Islamic state or at least an Islamic space in which the faithful can follow Islamic precepts is the only way out of the current predicament. Followers of religious radicalism are the most consistent supporters of this idea. It goes by several names, for instance Salafism and Wahhabism (and sometimes even Arabism), and is marketed as a panacea.

Radicals are in the minority, but they are much more active and skillfully promote their ideas in mosques and other places. There are reasons to believe that the number of Islamists in the republics at least remains the same and could even be growing in Kabardino-Balkaria, Dagestan and Ingushetia.

Second, the spread of radical Islam in the region was facilitated by external influence, especially in the 1990s. Bearers of the “new Islam” arrived in the Caucasus and told their fellow Muslims that their local Islam was “inferior,” and that it was not “true Islam.” They offered this “new” and “pure” Islam of the times of the Prophet and backed up their words with lavish contributions for local needs. Such ideas proved to be very attractive, especially for young people disappointed both with traditional, syncretic and Soviet-style Islam, as well as with government policy in the region.

Chechnya, where jihad had been declared, became the third reason. Despite the different assessments of these events, at one point, notably after the departure of the first president of separatist Chechnya Dzhohar Dudayev, Islam became the ideology of resistance. In turn, it served as a catalyst for the growing influence of Islam in the entire region.

The last factor that cannot be ignored is that Islamic tradition is focused on politics, on resolving secular socioeconomic issues. It brings with it such notions as the Islamic state, the Islamic economy, Islamic banking, Islamic justice and the like. Islam lends itself to an ideology of socio-political protest.

The North Caucasus, Tatarstan and the Volga area are not just part of Russia’s territory. They are also included in the greater Islamic world, the global umma, and events in the Middle East have repercussions in Russia. Meanwhile, a number of countries in the Middle East are led by moderate Islamists, the champions of the afore-mentioned Islamic alternative. This is a common trend in the Muslim world. Therefore, it would be an exaggeration to say that in Russia only bandits and terrorists hold these views.

Is further radicalization of Muslims in the Volga area possible, along the lines of what happened in the North Caucasus?

Radicalization will be taking place but latently. Much will depend on the development of dialogue between the Muslim community and the state, as well as the inter-Islamic dialogue between the advocates of traditional Islam and their opponents. The scale and depth of this process will largely depend on the policy of the state. Developments after the twin attacks in Tatarstan are of primary importance in this respect. If the government’s policy is stupid and crude, radical Muslims in the Volga area will gain even more sympathy, which will only exacerbate existing tensions.

Neither the secular government, nor the traditional clergy in Tatarstan want this to happen. They will oppose radicalization, but experience shows (including the experience of the North Caucasus) that radical Islam is like a spring – the more you press down on it, the stronger and more sudden the reaction is. Under the circumstances, the authorities in Tatarstan have some thinking to do. They must act with resolve but in a tolerant and selective way, avoiding at all costs a sudden spike in the radicalization of the Volga area Muslims.

Who stands to gain from radicalization of Islam in Russia?

This question is very often asked in the hope of an unequivocal answer, for example that this will benefit some hostile forces – either in the West or the East, or Qatar or Saudi Arabia or the United States.

The issue is not who gains, but rather that radicalism wins over the part of society – particularly young people – who have no other way to realize their potential or ambitions. To use your terminology, these are the people who “stand to gain” by positioning themselves as fearless Islamic “avengers” and part of the global umma that has challenged America. Some of them even want to pattern themselves on bin Laden whose memory they treat with great respect.

Moreover, this is the only possible way to express dissent in Russia’s Muslim areas. Elections are fraudulent; not all secular leaders are popular; and Islamophobia and xenophobia in general are growing. This is why some people want to express their identity through Islam, including its radical forms.

Returning to the cui prodest question, I’d like to note that radicals may be used as an instrument in internal political struggle. This is being done with success in Central Asia and even in the Russian Caucasus, but I don’t wish to overstate things.

I can stress again that Islam is not only a religion but also politics, as well as economic and social issues. Obviously, it is possible to make money on Islam as an ideology that influences society. Some people, and not only radicals, are doing exactly that. Incidentally, the acts of terror in Tatarstan are linked with organizing hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) for Muslims. I’m sure this was not the main reason, but it is indicative that both official clergymen and their Salafi opponents are involved in this business.

What place does Islam occupy in Russia’s government policy?

Russia does not have an Islam policy. Even the clergy loyal to the state agree with this. The authorities do not understand what Islam means for Russia as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Their logic is too simplistic and sometimes even primitive. They believe that there is a good Islam that is loyal to them, and there is a bad Islam – a creature of the hostile forces of the Muslim East (something like “the rotten capitalist West” in Soviet times) that is aimed at destabilizing the country. No attention is paid to the profound processes that are taking place in Russia’s Muslim community.

An analysis of the current situation shows a big number of problems. For example, the same radicals and Salafis are not bandits but the religious and political opposition. However, if the authorities acknowledge this, they will have to find out which part of society supports them and which is against them. If radicals are recognized as the opposition, they will have to be treated not like bandits or terrorists but with much more consideration.

There are some attempts to foster dialogue in the North Caucasus. These probably won’t be very successful, but it’s important nonetheless.

If the government recognizes these forces as the opposition, it will be admitting its own mistakes as regards Islam and raise the question of why Russia has this attitude to any opposition at all. These problems are piling up one on top of the other. It is much easier to send the riot police in again to capture someone, explode one more building with Wahhabis and then report on the work done. The struggle against radicals has been going on for almost 20 years! Or has the great Russia been trying to suppress bandits and other criminal offenders over these 20 years? This is absurd!

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