While the Russian state and society have grown accustomed to the religious and political radicalism that has plagued the North Caucasus since the end of the 1980s, the growing trend toward radicalism in Russia’s other predominantly Muslim regions, and in areas with Muslim minorities, was entirely unexpected. The Tatars and the Bashkirs seemed so Russified and their Islamic tradition so weak compared to that of the North Caucasus that the very issue of the radicalization of Islam and its politicization in the Volga River basin seemed almost artificial.

But in the first decade of the 21st century, the situation there and in some other regions where Muslims live began to change: radical views gained currency, and radical groups and study circles became active. There were demonstrations in Tatarstan in support of the Islamists in the Middle East (especially in Syria and, since 2014, in Iraq). The term “Caucasization of Tatarstan” has emerged to describe the changes in the largest Muslim republic of the Volga basin.

Alexey Malashenko
Malashenko is a former chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program.
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According to the 2002 Russian census, there were 14.5 million ethnic Muslims in Russia. The country’s Muslim population has grown over the past 12 years since then and is likely to be approaching (if not already exceeding) 16 million. In 1937, Muslims accounted for 5.9 percent of the population of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Federation; in 1989, 1994, and 2009, their respective shares were 7.9 percent, 9 percent, and approximately 11 percent (this includes citizens of the Russian Federation only).1 Adding the migrants from Central Asia and Azerbaijan would bring the total Muslim population of the Russian Federation up to roughly 20 million. It is this number that is most frequently quoted by Russian politicians, including President Vladimir Putin.

This estimate of Russia’s Muslim population is still approximate because the same individuals may be registered, say, in Dagestan and Moscow, where they have moved in search of a better life. (The number of Muslims in the capital hovers around 1.5 million.) There are 7 million Muslims living in the North Caucasus, and slightly more than that in the rest of Russia. In Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, Muslims account for 53 and 48 percent of the population, respectively. In 2010, Rosstat (a Russian statistics agency) published data suggesting that the largest Muslim groups in Russia were the Tatars, Bashkirs, and Chechens, with populations of 5.3 million, 1.6 million, and 1.04 million, respectively.2

There is no such thing as a uniform Russian Islam. No united Muslim community (ummah) is to be found in Russia; rather, there are two subsets—those from the North Caucasus and those from Tatar-Bashkir areas. (The Tatars also live in the Urals, Siberia, Moscow, and other regions.) The two largest Muslim areas have different histories and different social and cultural parameters: North Caucasus–based Muslims are more traditional than Tatars, who survived the Russian Empire and then went through an even tougher process of Soviet assimilation. The history of the Tatars and Tatar Islam is so different that it may be argued that “Living on the border between the West and the East, geographically and culturally, the Tatars created their own sub-civilization.”3

Following the breakup of the USSR, both Muslim domains have seen trends that can be described as the politicization and radicalization of Islam or, rather, the proliferation of its nontraditional interpretations, often referred to as Wahhabism, Salafism, fundamentalism, and Islamism. In the North Caucasus, Wahhabism and Salafism were considerably more pronounced and influential in terms of the local political situation and the region’s relations with the federal center. In addition to other social and economic causes, the two Chechen Wars (1993–96 and 1999–2003) magnified religious radicalism and extremism.

In Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, the situation remained relatively calm. Religious radicalism among the Tatars and the Bashkirs was sporadic. The only relatively large radical organization was the Ittifaq movement, owing its fame to founding leader Fauziya Bayramova, a popular poetess. Interestingly, the Chechen jihad was not popular among the Tatars. There were only a few dozen Tatars fighting with the separatists during the two Chechen Wars, compared to the several hundred Arab jihadists (mujahedeens).

Up until 2010 or so, the radical branch of Islam in the Volga-Urals region—including in Tatarstan, the Islamic heart of Russia—was closely monitored by the authorities. Moreover, it seemed at times that Mintimer Shaimiev (to a larger extent) and Murtaza Rakhimov—former presidents of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, respectively—leveraged the manifestations of radical Islam in their relations with the federal center. Shaimiev, for instance, could easily scare Moscow by invoking the threat of Islamic radicalism, reminding central authorities that only he could keep the radicals at bay, thus ensuring stable interethnic and interfaith relations on a key subject of the Russian Federation.

Traditional Islam and the Tatar and Bashkir Communities

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the religious situation in the Tatar and Bashkir communities changed. This period saw the emergence of a new generation of Muslims with a keener sense of religious identity who had grown disillusioned with Hanafi Islam—the school that is traditional for the Tatars. They were more interested in a different kind of Islam—one not linked to ethnic or pagan traditions, geared toward political action, and ready to respond to today’s obstacles and to challenge other civilizations and cultures.

As a religious and cultural phenomenon, traditional Islam is losing its authority, and weakening with it is the influence of its ideologists and preachers from among the Muslim clergy, and secular politicians who see the local religious tradition as a barrier to the spread of radical sentiments. Supporters of national-traditional Islam are to be found mostly among the middle-aged and, espe-cially, older generations.

Another problem is that supporters of traditional Islam cannot clearly define it or offer an attractive image of it to Russia’s Muslim community. Valiulla Yakupov—Tatarstan’s most prominent ideologist of traditional Islam, who was assassinated in July 2012—sincerely equated traditional Islam with the Tatar version of Hanafism, which he extended to all of Russian Islam, and believed that Hanafism “might become the attractive ideal for the realization of prescriptions for Islam’s existence in secular forms.”4

Yakupov feared the cultural dissolution of the Tatars, something that he believed to have been largely facilitated by Islamic interpretations from abroad. “Regrettably,” he wrote, “for the time being, modern Tatars are showing devotion to the empty and abstractly contemplative version of Islam—so extraneous to them—that is built on an unconscious adherence to the letter rather than the substance of religious texts and on blind taqlid [unquestioning acceptance of others’ opinions, imitation].”5

Yakupov and his followers demanded that Friday prayers be held in Tatar, not in Russian. However, there was nothing nationalistic about their demand; rather, it was prompted by an understandable desire to preserve their ethnic religious tradition. At the same time, a sermon delivered in Tatar is justly believed to hinder the formation of a Russian Muslim community. Back in the 1990s, Vali Ahmet Sadur, a founder of the Islamic Revival Party, noted that Russia’s Muslims were “still more focused on ethnic partitions rather than on being part of a united ummah.”6

During the Communist era, most Soviet Tatar Muslims practicing “traditional Islam” were Muslim only nominally. A lack of discipline in performing rituals and a pervasive nonobservance of taboos were eroding the religious domain, turning Islam into “a relic of the past,” to use a Soviet propaganda cliché. “The Tatars have weak religious devotion,” Yakupov noted.7 In comparison to other Muslim peoples of the USSR, they were the ones whose religion was most seriously damaged.

The Soviet authorities treated Tatar Islam almost as cruelly as they treated Russian Orthodoxy. The overwhelming majority of mosques were destroyed: before 1917, there were more than 15,000 in what is now Russia; by 1956, only 94 remained.8 The system of religious education was destroyed, and thousands of Islamic clergy (mullahs) were purged. For the assimilated Tatars, surrounded by Slavs on all sides, Islam almost ceased to be a regulator of social relations.

On the other hand, Umar Idrisov, former head of the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of the Nizhni Novgorod Region, believes that “Unlike their fellow Muslims abroad, Russian Muslims are Euro-peans, who grew up with traditional all-Russian values, including Christian ones.”9 This is consistent with a view held by Rafael Khakimov, a Tatar politician and scholar who has always emphasized the outstanding contribution the Tatars made to the development of Muslim civilization by advancing the idea of Euro-Islam as the only alternative to religious conservatism and fundamentalism.

A simplified version of traditional Islam has also been proposed by Imam Farid Salman, who believes that traditional Islam means precisely the kind of Islam that has been known since the times of Prophet Muhammad.10 Traditional Islam is also referred to as “official Islam” as opposed to “unofficial Islam,” represented by various religious groups that are “opposed to the traditional structures.”11

Confronted after the breakup of the USSR with new and hitherto unthinkable social, political, and cultural challenges—especially the religious revival—traditional Islam proved unprepared for them. In the North Caucasus, traditional Islam was defended by the influential Sufi sects, orders, or brotherhoods (tarikats) that were deeply ingrained in the fabric of society: Naqshbandi, Qadyryya, and Shazilyya. Yet, the largely Europeanized and urbanized Tatar population in most cases remained relatively indifferent to their ancestral religion, although they were undoubtedly happy to see mosques being opened, and embraced an opportunity to publicly perform religious rites.

Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Russian Muftis Council and chief imam of Moscow’s Jameh Mosque, believes that the revival of Islam that began after 1991 is best described as the “legalization of Islam.” He is right, in his own way, because Islam in Russia never died, and initially, that renaissance essentially meant liberating believers and empowering them to legally adhere to their creed, openly and without any restrictions.

However, the changes in the Russian Muslim society could not be limited to the legalization of Islam. Traditional Islam needed to be legalized, but for its full revival Russian Muslims had to be reinstated as full-fledged members of the global ummah and participate in its cultural, religious, and, inevitably, political life. Revival therefore included an encounter with and introduction to a different, nontraditional strain of Islam, something that Russian Muslims could not possibly have avoided. While during Soviet times traditional Islam was opposed to the secular atheistic authorities, now its main opponent is that other, nontraditional Islam.

The Salafi Movement

What is nontraditional Islam, often called “Islamism,” “fundamentalism,” “Wahhabism,” and, more recently, “Salafism”? It is a religious movement whose followers advocate the re-Islamization of society; return to the canons of Islam; strict observance of the rites, taboos, and code of conduct; and, finally, Islam’s involvement in politics. Their objective is to form a kind of Islamic space or an independent Islamic state—an emirate or caliphate.

Yuldash Yusupov, a Bashkir ethnologist, says that “Salafism cannot be regarded as a disease suffered by our society. It is an element of the religious development process. . . . Salafism is a religious system for the young. . . . Salafist jamaats are more open than we think.”12

Salafism as a religious phenomenon has existed throughout the entire history of Islam, and it would be wrong to regard it as a distortion of or deviation from Islam, as the traditionalist ideologists tend to do. The Salafi movement has always been in opposition to state-sponsored official Islam. Its supporters fought to overcome the vestiges of paganism. They would not recognize the pluralism of Islamic schools of law (madhhabs) and the Sufi teaching, promoting “true Islam,” which they associated with the Islam of the eighth century as it was during the times of Prophet Muhammad and his closest associates. The Salafists are proponents of a religious ideology of protest, and it is only natural that their protest is most graphically manifest in problematic or crisis-ridden situations—something we are witnessing today.

Traditional Islam and Salafism are legitimate movements within the Muslim religion, and it would be meaningless or even dangerous to try to eradicate them. The division of Islam into traditional and nontraditional domains is largely notional. In fact, both the traditionalists and the Salafists are proponents of the Islamic way of life, including of Sharia as the regulator of life and the foundation of behavioral rules for men and women. It is true that there is a wide gap between the traditionalists and the Salafists, but it appears that a bridge is beginning to gradually emerge between them, although so far the movement across that bridge has been slow and inconsistent.

Salafism, or Wahhabism, increasingly appears in the Volga-Urals region, and not just in Tatarstan or Bashkortostan but also in the adjacent areas—the regions of the Volga, Urals, Siberia, and the northern borderlands of the country, including the oil- and gas-producing subjects of the Federation.

Salafism features both moderate and radical schools, and the latter are not averse to extremism. Although Salafism continued to proliferate throughout the 2000s, its proliferation remained relatively unnoticeable and, to a greater extent, affected the religious life of Muslims and was not politicized. Thus, there was a growing struggle for mosques that were increasingly claimed by the followers of Salafism as dozens of graduates from Islamic universities and schools in the Middle East returned home.

Radicalization in 2000–10. The first wave of radical Salafi activism came in the early 2000s. In 2003, Salafists established an assembly (jamaat) in the Nurlat district of Tatarstan. Its founders tried to emulate the famous Dagestani jamaat of the 1990s that was comprised of four villages (Karamakhi, Chabanmakhi, Chankurbe, and Kadar) where Sharia order was installed. The jamaat in Dagestan, the so-called “Kadar Zone,” was destroyed by the Russian Interior Ministry’s troops and the regular armed forces in 1999.

The members of the Nurlat jamaat settled in an abandoned village and lived in isolation from the rest of the world. The jamaat proved to be short lived and failed to affect the religious situation in the region in any meaningful way. Without significant trouble it was closed down by the Interior Ministry of Tatarstan in 2010.

In 2005, gas pipelines were blown up in Kumkor, on the border between Tatarstan and the Kirov region. At about the same time, there were several bombings of power transmission lines. Although most of the planned bombings were foiled by the security services, according to the Interior Ministry of Tatarstan a total of 13 terrorist attacks were carried out in 2005, including 6 in Tatarstan; 2 in each of the Bashkortostan, Kirov, and Samara regions; and 1 in the Ulyanovsk region.13 Those events initially seemed to be no more than isolated episodes, and their consequences seemed too insignificant to undermine stability in the region. However, they revealed the extremists’ potentially dangerous capacity.

In 2006, Doku Umarov, a Chechen who would become the self-proclaimed emir of the so-called Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz) a year later, signed a decree establishing the Volga and Urals fronts. Later, in 2010, he said in one of his statements: “We will never separate the lands of the Caucasus from the Volga region. . . . We will also liberate other lands occupied by Rusnya [a derogatory Chechen term for Russia]. These include Astrakhan and the lands along the Volga that are under the hoof of the Russian kafirs [a slur term for unbelievers].” Umarov also mentioned Bashkortostan and Buryatia in a similar context.14

However, Umarov’s call to open fronts beyond the North Caucasus failed to have an impact on the situation in the Muslim regions of Russia.15 Along with Salafism in Tatarstan, the greater Volga-Urals region also saw an uptick in operations by the Islamic Party of Liberation, or Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT), which had previously operated almost exclusively in Central Asia.

HuT made its first appearance in Tatarstan back in 1996 when one of its members, Alisher Usmanov, came to Kazan from Uzbekistan. Until HuT was banned as a terrorist organization in 2003, Usmanov had been openly proselytizing, albeit with little success. Interestingly, there was a notable increase in interest in HuT after it was banned. In 2006, the authorities arrested 25 of its followers, eventually convicting 12.

HuT continues to seek a foothold in local mosques, including such influential ones as the Bulgar and the Marjani in Kazan. There have been instances when HuT members prevented official priests from holding a prayer or a sermon. In 2009, HuT arranged the Feast of Sacrifice (Kurban Bayram, the Tatar name for Eid al-Adha) celebrations in Kazan during which a caliphate banner was hoisted over a crowd of about 1,000 Muslims, with quite a few immigrants among them. The rally was coordinated by the imam of the Al-Ikhlas mosque in Kazan, Rustem Safin, who was under a suspended two-year sentence for his association with HuT.

Since then, the caliphate banner—and, consequently, that of HuT—has reappeared at protest rallies as the party has sought to garner support among migrants and the Tatar followers of Salafism. HuT cells exist in all of Tatarstan’s and Bashkortostan’s major cities and also permeate the Urals and Siberia. The exact number of such cells is unknown, but according to unofficial sources they operate in almost all constituent members of the Russian Federation east and southeast of the Volga.

One of the reasons for HuT’s appeal is that its charter does not require any systematic action on the part of its members, nor are they required to publicly follow the rules of conduct prescribed by Islam or constantly wear Islamic paraphernalia (beards, skull caps or turbans, or praying beads). On the contrary, HuT stipulates that its members should not differ in any way not only from other Muslims but also from all other people around them—including being excused from observing the Sharia dietary restrictions—in order to help establish contacts and conduct propaganda work. In addition, HuT has repeatedly emphasized its opposition to terrorism.

Terrorist Attacks since 2010. Early in the 2010s, the extremist wing of the Russian Salafi movement stepped up its operations in Tatarstan. The republic saw several high-profile terrorist attacks that affected the political situation not only in Tatarstan but also in the entire Volgo-Urals region. In July 2012 in Kazan, Tatarstan’s Islamic scholar (mufti), Ildus Fayzov, was badly injured and his aide, Yakupov, the leading ideologist of traditional Islam, was killed. There were several theories about the purpose of the attack, including one accusing the federal center of trying to bring the Republic of Tatarstan under Moscow’s complete control. Another hypothesis supposed both attacks were the result of financial squabbles within the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of Tatarstan.

The former theory is untenable because the Kremlin had long ceased to need an excuse for vanquishing the remaining independence of regional elites. As to the second one, according to Rafik Mukhametshin, president of the Russian Islamic University in Kazan, “It would be naïve to try and explain Valiulla Yakupov’s assassination by some economically motivated squabbles. Ideologists of traditional Islam do not get killed over money.”16 Most likely, then, the two attacks were prompted by internal religious strife that is inseparable from the religious and political standoff in which the secular authorities take the side of the proponents of traditional Islam and, consequently, the “official” Muslim clergy. In addition, shortly after he was elected mufti in 2011, Fayzov openly stated that “In Tatarstan, a war is being waged against radical Islam,” whose victim he eventually became.17

As a result, the pro-Salafist imams of Tatarstan were not particularly regretful about the attempt on Mufti Fayzov’s life. Apparently, some of the imams did not even pray for his recovery. What’s more, there was something “close to jubilance” over the incident in one of the mosques in Naberezhniye Chelny (where radical Islam had put down roots back in the 1990s).18 Immediately after the attempt on Fayzov, radical Islamic websites posted comments welcoming the attack. Bayramova, who sided with the Salafists in the 2000s, called Fayzov and Yakupov “the devil’s servant[s].”19 The detention of some 400–600 suspects shortly after the incident triggered a rally in Tatarstan, during which the HuT flags were hoisted again.

The terrorist attacks in Kazan bring to mind a series of killings of muftis, imams, and religious scholars who espoused the principles of traditional Islam and opposed radicalism in the North Caucasus, where 57 clerics have been assassinated since 1995 (there have been a total of 68 attempted killings).20 After the assassination of Yakupov and the attempt on Mufti Fayzov’s life, the “Caucasuzation,” or “Dagestanization,” of Tatarstan and the entire Volga-Urals region was coined and began to be widely used by the media and expert community.

After the terrorist attacks in Kazan, the so-called “emir of the mujahedeens,” Marat Khalimov, posted a statement on the Internet announcing the beginning of an active phase of the struggle that would allegedly be fought in a densely wooded Kama River basin. A month later, a car exploded on the Kazan-Zelenodolsk highway in an apparently accidental detonation of a bomb. Inside the wreckage were the bodies of three men, guns, and radical Islamic literature. Rais Suleymanov, a researcher from Russia’s Institute of Strategic Studies, believes that at the time of the explosion in Zelenodonsk, considered one of the hot spots of radicalism, the terrorists may have been preparing an attack on Putin, who was planning a visit to Tatarstan.21

In 2010–11, there were also several actions undertaken by radical Salafists in Bashkortostan. In 2011, a group of five mujahedeens from the so-called Askin jamaat raided the woods in the hills of Bashkortostan, Perm Territory, and the Sverdlovsk region. The raid produced no serious results and was a mere show of force. Nevertheless, also in 2011, the security services conducted preventive operations in the cities of Baymak and Sibay and captured four members of the Salafist jamaat, including Ilnur Zhakiryanov, the leader of the local Salafits.

The most infamous terrorist attack in the Volga-Urals region during the past two years was a missile attack against a major oil-refining facility in Nizhnekamsk on November 16, 2013. Interestingly, the attackers employed self-made Qassam rockets commonly used by Palestinians. The authorities arrested five suspects in connection with the bombing. The events in Ninzhnekamsk forced Tatarstan’s authorities to pay close attention to the activity of the militants and the general security situation in the republic. While in 2012 President Rustem Minikhanov of Tatarstan had said that the “threat of radical Islam is exaggerated,” in 2014, addressing the deputies of the Nizhnekamsk municipality, he stated that “unless we ensure stability and tranquility in this territory, no investment or investors [would be coming].”22

No accurate statistics are available on the number of radicals in individual republics and regions of the Volgo-Urals area. The number usually quoted for Tatarstan is 3,000.23 Yakupov maintained that more than half of the young people in Tatarstan were adherents of radical Islam.24 Some argue that the neo-Wahhabis (Salafists) account for 2 to 10 percent of the total population of Russian Muslims.25 According to that estimate, there are between 300,000 and 1.5 million neo-Wahhabis in Russia.

This is clearly an overstatement. On the other hand, it would be wrong to ignore the fact that the active Salafists have a rather broad social and religious base, and some Muslims sympathize with them if only out of respect for kinship and geographic proximity, something that is primarily typical of the North Caucasus but can be found in other regions as well.

A more recent addition to the term “Salafists” is the word “Salafish” (Salafitsvuyushchie), meaning something like “Salafist-lite.” Also, in December 2013, Patriarch Kirill, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, said there were tens of thousands of “near-Islamic radicals” living in Moscow, and their growing number is due to the influx of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus.26 It is anybody’s guess how many near-Islamic radicals there may be in the Volga-Urals region.

Migration Effects on Russia’s Muslim Community

In the early 2010s, migration from Central Asia became an important factor in the life of Russia’s Muslim community. The total number of migrants, most of whom are illegal, is impossible to verify. According to various sources, the number of migrants from Uzbekistan is anywhere between 0.8 million and 1.2 million; from Tajikistan, approximately 1.0 million; and from Kyrgyzstan, 400,000–500,000. They are scattered across Russia but increasingly settling down in the Volga and Urals regions (pictured in figures 1 and 2) and in the north of the country. In addition, there are 1.5 million Azeris in the Russian Federation, most living in the northern and northwestern regions and even in the Far East.

In the Sverdlovsk region alone, there are 216,000 Muslims (5.3 percent of the population), and according to the regional branch of the Federal Migration Service, 150,000 to 200,000 migrants register as residents every year, of which 74 percent are Muslims.27 The Muslim population of the Samara region has grown considerably. Whereas in 2002 Muslims accounted for 5.2 percent (150,000 people) of the population, their current share apparently exceeds 7 percent. According to the Azeri League of the Samara region, 10,000 immigrants from Azerbaijan have obtained Russian citizenship. The Tajik ethno-cultural organization Paivand reports a very similar number.28

Data about the distribution of migrants by region are estimates. It is quite common to base such estimates on indirect indicators and the perceptions of locals, who tend to overestimate the number of aliens who stand out, if only because they look different. According to official sources, about 1,000 children are born annually into migrant families in Tatarstan.29 This is an impressive statistic considering that the overwhelming majority of migrants are men arriving without their families. Moreover, not all (in fact probably a minority) of pregnant women turn to medical institutions for assistance.

The ethnic and religious composition of the Volga-Urals and southern regions of Russia is also changing, which is affecting the situation not only in those regions but also in the country as a whole. In 2002, Muslims accounted for 16.7 percent of the Orenburg region, 12 percent of the Chelyabinsk region, and 13 percent of the Ulyuanovsk region.30 Today, the respective percentages are between 21 and 25, around 15 percent, and more than 15 percent.31 Islam is steadily approaching the Arctic coast: Muslims were 15 percent of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District population in 2002; today, by my estimate, they constitute between 25 and 40 percent of the population.32

Islamization became one of the prominent features of migration to Russia in the early 2010s. This means that Central Asians increasingly identify themselves as Muslims, arguing that they need to perform religious rites and seek to follow “the Islamic way of life.” In some cities, the majority of those who attend the main Friday prayer are natives of the Caucasus, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. Since 2011, Ramadan Bayram (Ramadan) and Kurban Bayram (Eid al-Adha) have drawn crowds of tens of thousands of Muslims (from 80,000 to 100,000) to Moscow’s main mosque, most of them hailing from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Describing the situation in the capital on Kurban Bayram in 2013, a reporter wrote that “Moscow is under siege.”33 There is already a shortage of mosques in some Russian cities. Accordingly, the Muslims have asked the city authorities to build new mosques, but generally, such requests are denied, as the local Slavic population is opposed to the idea.

Gradually, international communities have emerged in the Volga-Urals region, comprised of both Tatars and immigrants from Central Asia. Those among the migrants with at least basic religious training and a command of Arabic seek to be elected imams. There have been cases like that, including in Tatarstan, where there are already several incumbent imams of Uzbek origin. According to various sources, Tajiks account for 7 to 17 percent of all Russian imams.34

On the other hand, these migrants bring their own—often more radical—vision of Islam into the community of local Russian Muslims. The Tatars, particularly the middle aged and elderly, resent this. Additionally, during the past five years, the Uzbek authorities have made systematic efforts to force out of the country (particularly from the Fergana Valley) religious radicals, primarily HuT fol-lowers who have moved to Russia and become comfortable there.


How real is the Salafist threat to security in Russia’s Volga-Urals region? There are two opposite views on this. The first is that the threat is artificial, and its discussion is being encouraged by the authorities to use the Salafism challenge as a pretext for ultimately crushing any opposition. The other view is that the threat is growing and rapidly proliferating, risking the destabilization of the region and, subsequently, the entire country. Those who hold the latter view are convinced that radical Islamists’ increased activity is due to outside influence coming from the North Caucasus and Middle East, and an intensified power struggle among Muslim clerics.

Exaggerating the threat, just like ignoring it, hinders the development of an adequate policy toward Muslims and Islam. In such cases it is customary to say that the truth is in the middle. Such an approach, however, seems simplistic. On the one hand, the heightened tension of 2010–12 in connection with the activities of Islamist radicals was followed by a certain drop in activity in 2013–14. With the exception of the missile attack on the refinery in Nizhnekamsk, no killings or terrorist attacks were recorded in the Volga-Urals region or adjacent territories in the last two years.

As hundreds of militants were killed or arrested in the North Caucasus, extremists have failed to scale up operations in the Volga-Urals region. In addition, the Muslim community grew wary of the radicals whose influence on most people still remains limited. Terrorist attacks such as the one in Nizhnekamsk, or the serial attack in Volgograd shortly before the Olympic Games, cause traditional Muslims to resent the attackers.

Yet, the socioeconomic and political reasons for radical sentiments among Muslims have yet to be eliminated. The younger generation remains interested in a different, nontraditional Islam, while traditional Islam is still associated with conservatism and ritualism. This is causing a deepening rift in the country’s Muslim community.

A crackdown on Salafism, which should not be automatically equated with extremism, has not produced the desired results, and the ideologists of traditional Islam—the upper crust of the educated clergy—realize that they can no longer portray traditional Islam as the only acceptable form of Islam permitted to Muslims in Russia.

In its search for a way out of the crisis, the official clergy have de facto proposed to view Islam as a dynamic sociocultural system. Says Gaynutdin:

Islam is still evolving. It is possible to modernize the conditions for Islam’s existence in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural environment without changing its tenets. I support the renewal of Islamic teachings, those aspects that deal with the social sphere, the humanistic spheres of human life. The main tenets are unshakable, of course. They regulate the namaz, fasting, zakat, pilgrimages, relations between husband and wife, their property interests and kinship.35

Developments within the Muslim community are also being influenced by the position of the federal center. The authorities see the complexity of the processes unfolding in the Muslim community and are wary of radical sentiments that might be on the rise there. The activism of the radicals, regular terrorist attacks, Islamization of migration, exacerbated interethnic tensions, and the impact of the Arab Spring on Russia’s Muslims are forcing the authorities to develop and implement a coherent policy toward Islam and Muslims and discard the binary black-and-white stereotypes. This is even more important since, according to many experts, the country is headed toward a profound economic crisis sometime soon. If the forecast materializes, the crisis will inevitably exacerbate the already-tense interethnic and interreligious relations.

Admittedly, the authorities have from time to time recognized the importance of adjusting their Islamic policies. However, this recognition has hardly been translated into specific steps. The last time the federal center showed a desire to adjust its view on Islam and the Muslims was when, in October 2013 in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, Putin met with the heads of the leading Spiritual Board of Muslims to discuss what he described as the “Islam-state relationship.”36

During the meeting, the president highlighted a number of specific problems for the Muslim community to deal with. These included socialization of Islam that, in his opinion, was the “evo-lution of the traditional Muslim way of life, thinking and views in accordance with the modern social reality as opposed to the ideology of the radicals.” Putin also touched on political Islam, noting that such Islam “is not necessarily negative.” These words can be interpreted as recognition of the legitimacy of religion’s involvement in politics. Putin called on Russian Muslim leaders to contribute to the “social adaptation of those who come to Russia to live and work” and who are also Muslims. In other words, the Kremlin has noticed the Islamization of migration from Central Asia and is trying to enlist the Russian Muslim community to influence the migrants.37

It is hard to say whether Putin’s address in Ufa will become a prelude to the rethinking of the state’s attitude toward Islam. One way or another, it will take a lot of time and effort by both Muslim spiritual leaders and the government to carry out the president’s wishes. And new problems are emerging. For example, the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation will inevitably give rise to the issue of the Crimean Tatars, some of whom espouse rather radical views and most of whom, in addition, are opposed to the peninsula’s secession from Ukraine.

Finally, the Muslim community in Russia is influenced by the general situation in the Muslim world—especially the consequences of the Arab Spring—from which it can never be isolated. Radical Islamism, despite a number of setbacks, is still very vibrant and has ample political and military potential.

At the time this paper was being finished, there came reports of large-scale clashes with militants in Dagestan and of the Russian soldiers blown up by mines in Chechnya. Members of Salafist cells were detained in the Volga-Urals region. The Crimean Tatars continue to worry that their situation may worsen despite Moscow’s promises to respect their interests, offering them high offices (including that of a vice premier and two ministerial positions). During his visit to Crimea in May 2014, Gaynutdin was shown many fresh graves at the Simferopol cemetery. Those were the graves of elderly people who “remembered the Stalinist deportation and took too close to heart the appearance of combat vehicles and armed men in the cities.” They were afraid of new deportation.38

These fears are not entirely unfounded. The tension between the Crimean Tatars and the Russian authorities is real and is likely to grow. The unofficial parliament of the Crimean Tatars (Mejlis) has been banned, and its founder, the famous Soviet dissident Mustafa Dzhemilev, was prevented from returning to Crimea, as has been the newly elected chairman of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov. (The Mejlis had called on the Tatars not to participate in the referendum on joining Russia in March 2014.)

The authorities have tried to split the Tatar community by organizing the Crimean Islamic Center. Oriented toward the officially approved Russian Muslim institutions (first and foremost, those in Tatarstan), the center is supported only by 10 percent of the Crimean Tatars. At the same time, the newly installed Russian authorities in Crimea are raiding mosques in search of materials forbidden in Russia (and thus now in Crimea).

Tensions still persist in Russia’s Muslim community. The key question is whether the relative calm that had taken hold by early 2014 in the Volga-Urals region and in Russia as a whole will become a sustainable trend or will prove but a temporary lull followed by another spike in religious and political tensions.


1 Alexey Malashenko, Islamic Revival in Modern Russia (Moscow, 1998), 8.

2 “Ob itogakh Vserossiyskoi perepisi naseleniya 2010 goda” [About the Results of the Russian National Census], Rosstat, www.gks.ru/free_doc/new_site/perepis2010/perepis_itogi1612.htm.

3 Rafael Khakimov, Where Is Our Mecca? (Kazan: Magarif Publishers, 2003), 57.

4 Valiulla Yakupov, “Islam in the Republic of Tatarstan,” Sovereign Spiritual Center, http://islamrt.ru/htm/stat30-08/suver.htm.

5 Yag’kub Vali Ulla, Tatars in the Muslim Ummah of Russia: Losses, Problems, Prospects (Moscow: Gandalf Publishers, 2005), 55.

6 Vali Ahmet Sadur, “The Problem of Davaat in Russia,” Minaret, no. 1–2 (2009), 21.

7 Ulla, Tatars in the Muslim Ummah of Russia, 52.

8 See Rushan Khazrat Abbyasov, “Bor’ba s neterpimostyu I diskriminatsiey v otnoshenii musul’man” [The Battle with Intolerance and Discrimination toward Muslims], May 22, 2013, http://rushan-abbyasov.livejournal.com/34989.html; and “Contributing to Russian Statehood: An Interview with Sheikh Ravil Gaynutdin, Mufti of the Central European Region of Russia,” VIP, 1996.

9 Umar-hazrat Irisov, “Welcoming Remarks to the Faizkhanov Lectures” (Faizkhanov Lectures Third Annual Workshop, Nizhni Novgorod, Russia, 2006).

10 “‘Arab Revolutions’ Adversely Affect Islamic Community in Russia,” Interfax, March 4, 2013, www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=interview&div=371.

11 Islam and Muslim Culture in the Middle Volga Region (Kazan: Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russian Islamic University, 2002), 341.

12 “Will Bashkiria Become a New Hot Spot in Post-Soviet Space?” Gumilev-center.ru, January 24, 2012, www.gumilev-center.ru/stanet-li-bashkiriya-novojj-goryachejj-tochkojj-postsovetskogo-prostranstva/.

13 Kaflan Khanbabayev and M. G. Yakubov, Religious-Political Extremism in the World and in Russia: Essence and Experience of Counteraction (Committee for Religious Affairs in the Government of the Republic of Dagestan, 2008), 176.

14 Amir Doku Umarov Usman. “We Will Liberate Krasnodar Territory, Astrakhan, and Lands along the Volga,” Kavkaz Center, March 8, 2010, www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2010/03/08/71087.shtml.

15 Doku Umarov, who was killed in 2014, seemed a weird semimythical character incapable of any real actions, but made provocative statements (for instance, in July 2013 he issued a threat against the Sochi Olympics) that were immediately used by the authorities to tighten their control over society. I had an opportunity to discuss Umarov’s statement with Muslims in Tatarstan, Saratov, Yekaterinburg, and other cities and regions. Most of the people I talked to, beginning in 2006, had never heard about that statement, and many of them were at the time not even aware of Doku Umarov’s existence.

16 “Experts: Where is Tatarstan’s Muslim Community Going?” Regnum, July 23, 2012, www.regnum.ru/news/1554282.html.

17 Olga Ivashina, “Radical Islam in Tatarstan: Beyond the Point of No Return?” BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/russian/russia/2012/07/120725_kazan_attack_reasons.shtml.

18 “Chairman of the Council of Ulemmahs of RAIS: The Terrorist Attack in Kazan Showed the Need to Review Religious Politics in Tatarstan,” Regnum, July 23, 2012, www.regnum.ru/news/1554131.html.

19 “The Wahhabist Underground in Tatarstand and its Allies,” Movement for the Rebirth of Patriotic Study, August 15, 2012, www.za-nauku.ru/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=6202&Itemid=34.

20 Roman Silantyev, “Very Wahhabi Murders,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 5, 2012.

21 Maxim Miloslavskiy, “Terrorists Killed by Their Own Bomb Could Have Been Preparing an Attack on Putin in Tatarstan,” Kazan, http://kazan.kp.ru/daily/25934.5/2882642/.

22 Gleb Postnov, “Islamists Noticed at Presidential Level,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 20, 2014.

23 Ya Gordeyev, “Sitting on a Powder Keg: Whence Terrorists in the Volga Region,” Novoye Vremya, September 12, 2011, www.newtimes.ru/articles/detail/43421/.

24 Yakupov, Islam in the Republic of Tatarstan.

25 Maksim Zinchenko, Depolitization of Islam as a Foundation for Stability in Northern Caucasus: Peace through Language, Education, and Culture: Russia—Caucasus—International Community (Pyatigorsk, 2011), 109.

26 Patriarch Kirill, “There Are Tens of Thousands of Radical Islamists in Moscow,” http://vseobislame.livejournal.com/293143.html.

27 Airat Mukhametzyanov and Aleksei Starostin, Socio-Cultural Survey of Community Activities in the Urals Region—Socio-Cultural Potential of Interconfessional Dialog (Kazan: Kazan University, 2013), 299.

28 Natalia Mukhametshina, “Muslim Community of Russia under Influence of Migration Processes (Case of Saratov Region),” Vestnik Rossiyskoy Natsii, no. 4–5 (2001): 224.

29 Albina Fayzullina, Issues of Ethno-Confessional Adaptation of Migrants: Sociocultural Potential of Interconfessional Dialogue (Kazan: Kazan University, 2013), 161.

30 “The Ethnic and Religious Composition of the Orenberg Oblast,” Orenberg Oblast Nature Internet Information Portal, September 11, 2013, http://oren-icn.ru/index.php/enzoren/social/714-2011-09-13-08-32-36; “The Ethnic Composition of the Chelyabinsk Oblast,” World Geography, http://worldgeo.ru/russia/lists/?id=33&code=74; and “The Ethnic Composition of the Ulyanovsk Oblast,” World Geography, http://worldgeo.ru/russia/lists/?id=33&code=73.

31 These percentages are my own estimates.

32 Roman Silantyev, Modern History of Islamic Community in Russia (Moscow: IIPK, 2005), 149.

33 Alexander Korchnitskiy, “Kurban Bayram: Moscow under Siege,” Utro.ru, October 15 2013, www.utro.ru/articles/2013/10/15/1150233.shtml.

34 Damir Mukhetdinov, head of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Nizhni Novgorod region and deputy chairman of the Muftis Council of Russia, insisted on 17 percent in an interview granted to the author.

35 Ravil Gaynutdin, Islam: Responding to the Challenges of the Time (Moscow: Exmo Publishers, 2011), 698.

36 Notably, I do not believe that the term “Islam-state relations” is appropriate. However, it is often used in publications and at various conferences by members of the Muslim clergy and by scholars with a Muslim background. This suggests that they view relations between the state and Islam as a reality and consequently as something that can be analyzed and researched.

37 Vladimir Putin, “Vladimir Putin: Islam Has Made an Incalculable Contribution to the Spiritual and Cultural Development of Russian Society,” Islam Minbare, November 2013, www.idmedina.ru/minbare/?5675.

38 Mikhail Zubov, “Why So Many New Graves in Crimean Cemeteries?” Moskovskiy Komsomolets, April 3, 2014.

This chapter originally appeared in the report Putin’s Russia: How It Rose, How It Is Maintained, and How It Might End, edited by Leon Aron and published by the American Enterprise Institute.
Reprinted with permission of the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC.