To what extent was Russia’s Muslim community affected by the events in the Middle East, which culminated in the rise of the radical and extremist Islamists (the so-called “Islamic Spring”)? Some analysts believe that it emboldened the Russian Salafists and Wahhabis and predict a possible repeat of these events in the Caucasus region and even Tatarstan. However, there is still no agreement on what constitutes Islamic opposition. Also, the Russian Muslims are quite restrained in their views of the current developments in the Middle East.

In 2013, a few hundred people in the North Caucasus and Tatarstan took to the streets in support of the Islamist opposition in the Syrian Civil War (the participants claimed that several thousand people showed up). The largest rally took place in Makhachkala. According to Magomed Kartashov, who heads the radical Union of the Just organization, it was a protest against Russian policies. “What do the Syrian oppositionists say when they take to the streets?” asked Kartashov. “‘We don’t want secularism; we don’t want democracy; we want Allah’s law,’ and this is consistent with Islam’s ideals.” Fliers that are being circulated among Muslims call Russia “the enemy of Islam.”

International Context

Alexey Malashenko
Malashenko is a former chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program.
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One cannot deny that some Muslims and a number of politicians were content with and proud of the gains made by the Islamists. On the other hand, their gains were relative, since they have not been able to secure their ultimate victory anywhere. Egypt provides the best illustration of this phenomenon. Its president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, stayed in power for only a year before being toppled by a military coup in 2013.

The Islamic State (IS) offensive in Iraq and Syria is being met with an even less positive response. The takeover of 30 to 40 percent of these countries’ territory, accompanied by the proclamation of the Islamic State there, which was referred to as Islamists’ “triumph” by some media outlets, is for the most part viewed negatively. The extreme barbarity displayed by the IS militants contributed to such views. Besides, many in Russia believe that the militants are sponsored by the United States, in addition to the Persian Gulf monarchies. For instance, the traditionally blunt Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said that IS “are thugs trained and armed by the U.S. and the West.” One can argue with his conclusion, but it is perfectly consistent with the context of the official Russian propaganda and is eagerly believed by most Russians today.

Despite the victories it scored, Islamism has been somewhat discredited as an ideology and political movement. IS and Jabhat-an-Nusra are not particularly popular among the Russian Muslims. The Russian radicals are unlikely to get a lot of support if they start justifying the activities of these organizations. In this context, the Middle Eastern threats to Russia appear exaggerated.

Nevertheless, Islamism remains a global phenomenon. It would be wrong to assume that it would disappear with its defeat in the Middle East. Islamism in different incarnations is intrinsic to Islamic tradition, but this is the subject of another discussion.

Yet, even after an objective analysis, one may conclude that the events in the Middle East still pose some threats to Russia. Russian fighters do take part in the conflict. Politicians and government officials cite different data on their exact number, which ranges from 300 to 2,000. The deaths of Caucasus and Tatarstan natives away from home occasionally surface in the news. Besides, Russian militants replace one another there. Incidentally, the numbers of French, British, and other Europeans engaged in combat in the Middle East are also unclear and vary significantly.

Domestic Affairs

Meanwhile, the Muslim community inside the country continues to live its own life. It cannot be described as inactive, let alone stagnant. Russian Muslims are part of complex processes that are altering their identity and—to a greater or lesser extent—affecting the situation in the country in general. On the one hand, the current evolution of Russia’s Muslim community continues with the trends that started emerging in the early 1990s. On the other hand, new trends are becoming increasingly more pronounced. These trends are associated with the changes in Russia’s socioeconomic and political life and its relations with the Muslim world, particularly with its Muslim neighbors.

The continued “islamization” of the Muslim community is among the “old,” stable trends. The quotes around the term “islamization” are quite deliberate, since referring to Muslims as being “islamized” sounds artificial, the years of Soviet atheist education notwithstanding. It was especially true under the Soviet regime, when Muslims remained Muslims to a greater degree than the Russian Orthodox preserved their faith. Hence, the different descriptions of the phenomenon—some call it Islamic revival, while others refer to it as Islam’s legitimation. “Islamic renaissance” or legitimation in a sense resembles “votserkovlenie” (being born again) in today’s Russian Orthodox Church. In both cases, this imperfect and somewhat provocative comparison nevertheless describes the growing religious observance of people whose religious affiliation had been purely nominal or almost nominal in the past.

Unlike the votserkovlenie for the Russian Orthodox, the return to Islamic observance is a more complex and contradictory phenomenon, since there are at least two opposing versions of Islam in Russia—traditional and nontraditional Islam. The former is linked to the local ethno-cultural tradition and is respectively referred to as Tatar, Chechen, or, more broadly, Caucasian (regional) Islam. It is based on Hanafi or Shafi’i maddhabs or on Sufism (or rather Muridism—its Caucasian version). The latter is nontraditional Islam, sometimes referred to as Arabian Islam or more frequently as Salafism. It claims to be pure and rejects local cultural influences. Both versions of Islam vie for adherents. Most believers can be described as traditionalist, since they treat their ethno-cultural and individual religious traditions as a single unit.

Nontraditional Islam is trying to deal with thorny social and political issues. It is mobile and primarily geared toward young audiences and thus prevails over traditionalism, which young people frankly find boring. Salafism is not just a religious ideology but also a subculture. The Bashkir ethnologist Yuldash Yusupov is confident that “Salafism cannot be considered a social ailment. It is an element in the process of religious development… Salafism is a religious system for the youth.”

Traditionalists find themselves in a difficult position today: they have to make traditional Islam more appealing, especially for the young generation. But traditional Islam can regain popularity among young Muslims only by confronting the questions of modernity—that is, by politicizing. The process is already underway, although it is not publicly acknowledged by the traditionalists. There is nothing extraordinary or inappropriate about it. After all, if the Russian Orthodox Church has effectively been politicizing the Russian Orthodox faith, why can’t the traditionalists in the Muslim muftiates do the same?

Despite their competition, there is common ground for dialogue between traditionalists and Salafists. Both ultimately support islamization, organizing society in accordance with Islamic norms. These movements do not diametrically oppose each other. Both advocate for “Islamic space,” with the radicals believing that a separate state is needed to accomplish this goal and the traditionalists thinking it can be done within the framework of the Russian Federation.

Traditionalists in Tatarstan, and generally in “Tatar Islam,” want imams to deliver their sermons in the Tatar language. In contrast, Salafists, who appeal to a multinational audience, support preaching in Russian. What is more beneficial to the Russian state—moderate Tatar “nationalism” or the Salafi embrace of the Russian language? It appears that the Salafi support for the Russian language all but makes them proponents of the Russian state or at least supporters of “Eurasianism.”

True, Salafism has an extreme wing. It is conspicuous not only in the North Caucasus but also in the Volga-Ural region, as was demonstrated by the events of 2012–2013 (Valiulla Yakupov’s murder, an attempt on Tatarstan’s mufti Ildus Fayzov’s life, Hizb-ut Tahrir rallies, the missile attack on the Nizhnekamsk petrochemical plant, and others). Talk of Tatarstan’s “caucasusization”/”dagestanization” abounded. But it remains unclear whether the situation in the region has materially changed or the local extremists are not strong enough to create the climate that has existed in the North Caucasus for decades.

A lot will depend on what the authorities and force structures will do. The proverbial carrot-and-stick policy would seem prudent here. The moderate young Salafists should not be provoked into radicalization. There is no need to further popularize Hizb-ut Tahrir, whose ideologists are ever more successful in positioning themselves as the defenders of genuine Islam and the truth. Special services and their analysts should carefully weigh all pros and cons before deciding to resort to the use of force. They should strive for the middle ground. (Incidentally, I am not a terrorist sympathizer, contrary to what some of my colleagues occasionally accuse me of.)

“Hybrid Islam” is the way of the future. It will combine both traditional and nontraditional interpretations, while the line between them will become, and is already becoming, increasingly blurred.

Liberals and Hardliners

Meanwhile, the power struggle between Islamic structures continues. At its sixth mejlis in September this year, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of European Russia (DUMER) and the Council of Muftis announced its name change. It is now called the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Russian Federation (DUM RF), thus emphasizing its claim to representing the interests of all the Russian Muslims rather than only those living in the European part of the country.

Besides, the Muslim population of the Urals, Siberia, and South Russia is growing. The Kurban Bairam celebrations at the Moscow Cathedral Mosque attracted up to 130,000 people this year. The number of Muslims is growing and changing qualitatively. The Muslim spiritual elite has to adjust to this new trend, which was absent in the 1990s and early 2000s. This is not an easy adjustment, in part because some migrants from Central Asia also bring radical ideas to Russia.

The decision made by DUMER obviously disturbed the head of the Central Spiritual Administration (CDUM), Taglat Tajuddin, whose jurisdiction includes 2,000 congregations. The head of the Spiritual Administration of Asian Russia, Nafigulla Ashirov, was also concerned with the change, since it diminishes his influence. Evidently, the DUMER head and Mufti Council chair, Ravil Gainutdin, thought that the current conditions were conducive to creating a unified Muslim institution under his leadership. What are his chances of success? He has some, but CDUM is not about to yield, as was demonstrated by its active campaign among the Crimean Tatars.

Without getting into the minutia of inter-organizational intrigue, it is possible to point out a detail that many experts fail to see. The struggle between DUMER and CDUM can be interpreted as a clash between the hardline traditionalists and the more flexible clergymen, who do not automatically dismiss other interpretations of Islam. While it is not mentioned publicly, a closer look at the DUM RF muftis reveals the predominance of clergymen who are inclined to engage in a dialogue with nontraditional Islam. Among them are the Saratov mufti, Mukaddas Bibarsov, the DUMER deputy chair, Damir Mukhetdinov, and Nafigulla Ashirov. Classic traditionalism, with its remaining strongholds in Ufa and Kazan, is gradually receding into the past despite the efforts to revive it.

At first glance, the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who likes to extol the virtues of Sufi Islam in every possible way, appears to be a staunch proponent of traditionalism or its Caucasian version. It is true that Kadyrov has done a lot to eradicate Wahhabism and Salafism in his republic. This distinguishes Chechnya from neighboring Dagestan, where the authorities and traditionalists do engage in a dialogue with the Salafists, however sluggish this dialogue may be. Kadyrov is the only secular politician who is persistent in instilling sharia law in his republic, which effectively represents Islam’s politicization. He is then acting as a secular Islamic fundamentalist of sorts and thus remotely resembles the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in this respect.

Ramzan Kadyrov’s Islamic involvement extends beyond the Chechen borders. He is helping to construct a mosque in Yekaterinburg, renovating an old mosque in Yaroslavl, planning to help build a mosque in Voronezh, and participating in building the Cathedral Mosque in Moscow. While being involved in this work across the country, Kadyrov does not participate in the struggle between the spiritual centers, choosing to cooperate with both. Apart from financial support, these organizations gain additional legitimacy by working with the Chechen leader, since he is the closest Muslim politician to the president. The Chechen leader has become a federal-level politician, in no small measure thanks to his active stance on the Ukrainian crisis.

There is nothing exceptional about Kadyrov’s loyalty to the Kremlin. All Muslim spiritual leaders express their support for Putin’s course and do so in a way that is particularly appealing to the Kremlin at the moment—for instance, by calling Russia and Ukraine “the common civilization of Slavs and Turks.” The Eurasian motif is not new to Russian Islam. At one point there was even a Eurasian Party of Russia, but it was not very successful. One can understand the Muslim leaders’ behavior—the regime’s current foreign and domestic policy does not leave any room for other, more flexible approaches. The emergence of DUM RF did not end the rivalry between the Muslim organizations, and the Kremlin is not and will not be favoring any of them.

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The situation in Russia’s Muslim community is generally stable; direct and indirect threats from the Middle East are not clearly pronounced, although they should not be ignored. Russia is not isolated from the rest of the Muslim world.

It should be remembered, though, that Russia is in the throes of a serious economic crisis now. It cuts across the social spectrum, also affecting the Muslim community. The crisis will only strengthen the discontent with the regime’s policies, which will increase as the situation deteriorates. The protest sentiments in the Muslim community often find their outlet in religion. Hence, the crisis creates fertile soil for the growth of Islamic radicalism, for which all of us—both the regime and society—should be prepared.

This article originally appeared in Russian in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.