Guest opinion: Russia and its Muslim population: a balancing act

As last week's terror campaign against the Russian Federation reached a bloody crescendo with the deaths of hundreds of children in its southern city of Beslan, the world was once again reminded of the vulnerability of Russia to Muslim-sponsored terrorism.
Within a space of one week, two passenger liners went down within minutes from each other, a suicide explosion killed innocent bystanders near Moscow's subway, and a group of militants took hostage - and eventually killed - hundreds of young innocent lives.

The Russian government pointed to the possible al-Qaeda link in all these events, once again promising tough measures in its own fight against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalist fighters in the restive Republic of Chechnya. The aftermath of these attacks in the name of Chechen independence now poses a difficult set of questions in Russia's relationship with its large Muslim population.

Russia's Muslim Population

Officially, Russia's Muslim population number around twenty million people out of a population of almost 150 million. Incorporated first into the Russian Empire, and later into the Soviet Union by force, their religion was largely under the control of the state for centuries. This was especially poignant under Soviet rule, when overall religious freedoms were greatly curtailed. The majority of mosques and madrasas were closed or destroyed, with few outlets remaining for the expression of Islam as a religion in the country.

While nearly 50 million people identified themselves as Muslims in the U.S.S.R., they could not fully practice their religion and its laws. The staunchly secular nature of the Soviet Union largely stripped its people of the need for religion, and only few customs or major holidays could be practiced or passed onto the young generations. Thus, when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, the overwhelming majority of the U.S.S.R.'s Muslims had only a limited understanding of, and access to, their religion.

This changed drastically after 1991, when freedom of religion became one of the main tenets in the newly democratic Russian Federation. The government actively promoted the freedom of its main religions - Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Islam experienced a revival, with hundreds of mosques and religious schools opening across the country, helped in no small part by Saudi Arabian, Turkish and Iranian efforts. This also meant that the population at large came into direct contact with a religion that has been regarded with distrust and suspicion for hundreds of years.

Russian history points to the rise of the country as a major player in world events by conquering powerful Muslim khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan in the 16th century, Central Asian territories in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the largely Muslim Caucasus in the 19th century. The image of a Muslim fighter as the freedom-loving enemy of the Russian state has been ingrained in the public mind in books, folklore and even movies.

The last time the state had to deal with a Muslim threat prior to 1991 was during the start of World War II, when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin forcefully deported hundreds of thousands of Chechens and Crimean Tatars to their death for their alleged collaboration and sympathy with Nazi Germany. Thus, the Russian population's suspicion of Muslims went side by side with tolerance and normal relations as a result of coexistence within the same state for hundreds of years.

Russia's Muslims have historically lived in two broad geographical areas of the country. One part lives in the Volga river basin, and is made up of Tatars, Bashkir and Chuvash peoples. They have been part of the Russian state since the 16th century, and their autonomous regions and republics lie in the heart of the Russian Federation. They are Russian citizens and have been an integral and inseparable part of the state - be it the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union.

The second large Muslim population lives in the region between the Black and the Caspian Seas, in the Caucasus area. These populations were finally incorporated into the state much later, in the 19th century, and small-scale resistance to state rule existed all the way up to 1991. This resistance quickly escalated into full-scale war as the Republic of Chechnya sought to break away from the Russian state as an independent Islamic republic.

Still, the majority of Muslims in that region owe their allegiance to the Russian state, and have resisted attempts by Chechen separatists and their backers to drag them into full-scale confrontation with Moscow. Currently, Russian forces are fighting a bloody war in Chechnya, with no end in sight to this conflagration. The cycle of violence has attracted powerful Islamic fundamentalist forces, such as al-Qaeda, to the region, culminating in last week's hostage drama.

Delicate Balancing Act

Therefore, the Russian government has been performing a balancing act in its relations with its Muslim population. On the one hand, it has expended considerable forces and criticism on the branches of Islam and the Islamic fighters, many of whom are foreign and of Arab descent, that are behind numerous and large-scale bloody attacks on the Russian military and citizens in Chechnya and the surrounding areas. On the other, it seeks to constantly reassure its Muslim population of their freedom to practice the religion and of their full inclusion into all facets of life in the Russian Federation.

This is a new area of work for the Russian state, since its actions prior to 1991 towards its own Muslims have neither been scrutinized by worldwide opinion, nor by Muslim countries around the world. Nor can Moscow ignore the fact that its large Muslim population, starved for Islamic teachings and practices for decades, is now eager to catch up on lost time. The attraction of Islam is growing amongst the young Muslim generation and with it the possibility that more radical Islamic teachings, made possible by post-1991 religious freedoms, can take hold on the population.

In 2000, President Putin warned that if Islamic extremism can take hold among the Muslim population in the Caucasus, it can then spread to the Volga region, resulting in the Islamization of Russia or in the country's division into several independent states. Both scenarios are unacceptable to Moscow, and it moved, in conjunction with local Muslim authorities, to close certain mosques and schools that were suspected of more radical teachings of Islam. While the state has actively promoted a more moderate form of Islam and has even incorporated Islamic parties into the ruling governments, the possibility of dissention between the Muslim population and the state remains.

This possibility came to light in 2003, and has highlighted just how careful Moscow's balancing act towards its Muslim population is. Russia's war in Chechnya has been characterized and described by Moscow as the fight of the state against a small, separatist-minded Islamic group adhering to the more puritanical Wahhabi sect of Islam. To that end, it was important to get the support of the rest of the country's Muslims for its actions in the breakaway republic. This support came when the Supreme Mufti Talgat Tajuddin - one of the highest Muslim leaders in the country - told his worshippers in 2001 that the war in Chechnya was necessary, since it was the fight against terrorists and not "brothers-in-faith."

The same Mufti, however, was later removed from his position and stripped of his rank in 2003, after he announced jihad - or holy war - against the United States for its actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Russian Council of Muftis, who called his actions "a colossal blow to the authority of Russian Muslim organizations and damaging to the country's foreign policy," highlighted the brevity of this event. Clearly, statements similar to Tajuddin's are an anathema to President Putin, who needs the support of a large portion of his country in his domestic and foreign policy.

To that end, in August 2003 Russia went a step further in reassuring its Muslim population by becoming a member in the Organization of Islamic Conferences (O.I.C.), the most influential Muslim organization in the world. This meant that President Putin offered effective measures for development of Islam in Russia, raising the spiritual, economic and political cooperation between the country and members of the Organization. Greater tolerance of Islam and Muslims in Russia also effectively means good relations with all Islamic states from Algiers to Indonesia.

Russia has now achieved a more important union with Islamic states than it had during the Cold War, when it was one of the principle weapons suppliers to the Middle Eastern countries. In addition, its membership in the O.I.C. serves its own geopolitical purposes by also checking growing American presence in the Muslim states following the terrorist attacks of September 11. Thus, it is all the more important for the Russian government to encourage peaceful and fruitful relations with its Muslim population.

But the war in Chechnya has gone to great lengths to antagonize the general population - and, in some cases, the government itself - against Russian Muslims. Many of them complain of harassment and intimidation by police and federal forces in Chechnya, the surrounding areas and even Moscow, home to a one million-strong Muslim community. The atmosphere of the Chechen war and the government's emphasis on Islam as the inspiration for the separatists are fueling negative attitudes, stereotypes and public suspicion.

The government's tolerance for Islam also has limits, as was shown in 2002 in several highly publicized Russian court cases. In situations calling to mind recent developments in France, where Muslims have entered a new chapter of relations with the government following the recently enforced ban on headscarves in schools, several Russian women lost their cases against the ban on headscarves on pictures in Russian passports. While these court rulings have not received as much publicity as similar cases in France and other European countries, they highlight the tension between the secular nature of the Russian state and new freedoms and opportunities the government is now obligated to protect.


This tension now has the opportunity to lead to undesirable consequences, as Russia faces the possible dangers of sectarian violence often associated with India and its large Muslim population. Previous acts by Chechen Islamic separatists have not been as frequent nor did they target innocent children with impunity. They also did not include many Arab fighters. Russian sources have repeatedly stated that as many as ten attackers in Beslan were of Arab descent.

The Russian public, horrified by the week of terror, may grow less patient and bolder in its dislike of Chechens in Moscow or of Muslims in other areas of the country, perceiving their adherence to Islam as the support for the actions of the few men and women acting in the name of their Islamic beliefs. Perhaps sensing this danger, the worldwide Arab media was recently critical of the Muslim-sponsored terror in a capacity not seen since September 11, 2001.

It is not clear how - through military and political means - the Russian government and President Putin will respond to last week's terror attacks. But one point is clear - whatever its response, Moscow will have to strike a careful balance between going after a few Islamic terrorists and providing safety, security and reassurance to its large Muslim population.

Yevgeny Bendersky
Power and Interest News Report

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Author`s name Evgeniya Petrova