Russia stands at a major crossroads as it works out how exactly to deal with the 14.5 million ethnic Muslims that live inside its borders. If added to this are the migrant workers from Central Asia and Azerbaijan the total is around 20 million. Compare this with Germany, which has five million and France, which has six million Muslims. This is quite a cupful to swallow. The Kremlin has struggled for decades to deal with Muslim ways and demands. When communism collapsed it was relatively easy to restore the Orthodox Church to its traditional preeminence. But dealing with the Muslims is much less straightforward. Besides being a religion they are a political force.
The relationship between the power of the Kremlin and the developing power of Islam was seriously put to the test in the 1990s by the wars for independence in the southern Muslim states of Chechnya and Dagestan. Today, stability is threatened by the growing appeal of Islamic State (IS) among disaffected Islamic youth. If Chechnya (now pacified) was the catalyst for the initial spread of militant Islamism, IS is now the threat that can spear the soft underbelly of southern Russia.
This threat is galvanised by the belief system of IS and Saudi Arabia (which has exported it), Wahhabism, with its puritanical and anti-female theology. According to President Vladimir Putin, over 2,000 Russian citizens have gone to fight with IS, a ruthless organisation that recently blew up in mid-air a Russian airliner.
Most of the world thinks only of the fall of the Iron Curtain on Russia’s European borders. But it also fell in the south. Six million immigrant workers mixed with evangelical Wahabist 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 the 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 that is 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 they have both experienced the horror of Islamic extremist-led war.
In public, the Russian leadership welcomes the Islamic religion 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 forum for social and political protests, which in some areas have been hijacked by separatists.
To complicate things, unlike the monolithic Orthodox Church, Islam is split into competing factions. There is old time traditional Islam on the one hand and on the other fundamentalism, 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 demands unconditional loyalty to Mother Russia. Many Muslims do not give it and look towards the global ummah (community). 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 Centre’s Religion, Society and Security Programme, 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 also makes the point 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 recognise the value of the social and political protest. And that even in a modern society sharia law can be observed, as long as one is not fundamentalist about it. There needs to be both a state-Islamic dialogue and an Islamic-Islamic one.
Some 2,000 Muslims going to fight on the side of IS is too many but 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.