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The situation in Russia’s Muslim community is currently relatively stable, and now the task is to ensure it stays that way. Of course there are still incidents involving Russia’s Muslims, and inevitably suspicions of terrorism are swiftly voiced, but not always with reason and certainly, compared to the situation several years ago, things have improved.
Take, for example, this varied snapshot of recent events involving Russian Muslims.
On August 17, several alleged militants from Russia’s Kabardino-Balkaria Republic were killed in a counterterrorism operation in St. Petersburg. It is not completely clear what they were doing in the northern capital. The same day, two Chechens armed with axes attacked a police post in the Moscow region. One of the attackers was killed, the other arrested. The media immediately reported that the two men had ties to the so-called Islamic State terrorist organization, which is outlawed in Russia, though these accusations soon proved to be groundless. Also in August, several Muslims who had fought for the Islamic State were sentenced for planning to seize administrative offices in Kabardino-Balkaria.
Meanwhile, two senior representatives of Russian Muslim organizations visited Turkey, demonstrating loyalty to the Kremlin by helping the ongoing restoration of Russian-Turkish relations.
Around the same time, the chairman of the Coordination Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus, Ismail Berdiyev, elicited outrage—including within the Muslim community—by expressing support for female genital mutilation (FGM).
If these recent episodes involving Russian Muslims present a varied and in some ways contradictory picture, that is precisely because they reflect the diversity of the country’s Muslim community.
There are, however, some uniting characteristics. Like the majority of Russian society, Russian Muslims are mostly passive and loyal to the state. This will be reflected in September’s Duma elections, when they are unlikely to risk expressing any dissenting opinions. At one point there was some intrigue brewing in the North Caucasus because it was thought that representatives of the Muslim clergy might take part in the elections. But instead, just as in the rest of the country, only candidates from the usual parliamentary parties will enter the contest (that is, if Russian elections can really be considered a contest).
One aspect of Russia’s Muslim community that doesn’t change is its division into traditionalists, who practice local Islam (influenced by Tatar or Caucasus traditions, for example), and Salafists (Wahhabis), who fight for the purity of the religion. The latter reject local, ethnic tradition, which they consider the legacy of paganism. Both forms of Islam are politicized, although the traditionalists won’t admit it.
Despite their differences, the views of the traditionalists and Salafists are often closer than they care to admit. FGM proponent Berdiyev adopted a traditionalist Islamic position, arguing that the medieval practice is typical for some Caucasus groups such as the Avars. Even so, he was accused of Salafism.
What has changed is that while in the first half of the current decade dozens of clerics were murdered amid the rivalry between traditionalists and Salafists, in recent years there haven’t been any violent clashes. The dialogue between the two branches of Islam continues, even if it is sporadic. This perpetual conversation will never lead to total accord, although mutual tolerance is apparent in the North Caucasus, where the dialogue is supported by the secular authorities.
Salafism is associated with Islamic radicals, who came to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Religious radicalism (including its most intense manifestations, extremism and terrorism) hasn’t gone away, but the activity of its supporters is waning. This is evidenced by the constantly declining number of violent incidents in the North Caucasus, from 141 in 2014 to 86 in 2015.
There are several main causes for this reversal. The first is that the radicals no longer anticipate that they will attain widespread support from the broader Muslim population. The second is that a significant proportion of Islamists, primarily from the North Caucasus, have pledged their services to the Islamic State. Between 2,000 and 5,000 of the most active jihadists have gone over to the international terrorist organization, which has weakened Islamism within Russia. The third cause is the ongoing efforts of Russia’s special forces.
It is impossible to ignore the external factor of the Islamic State, whose influence on Russiа is constantly brought up by politicians and the media and, in my opinion, exaggerated. Of course the influence exists, but it is weaker now than immediately after the founding of the Islamic State Caliphate in 2014, when the very appearance of a self-proclaimed true Islamic State and its rapid growth in power had a forceful impact. But eighteen months later, enthusiasm for the Islamic State is waning. Even radically inclined Muslims don’t believe it can achieve a definitive victory, and the gruesome terrorist attacks for which the Islamic State takes responsibility across the globe have won it little sympathy.
In general, events in the Middle East and Russia’s participation in the Syrian conflict have left the majority of Russian Muslims indifferent and have not inspired them to take any particular action, let alone protest.
It’s also telling that hundreds of militants who have returned from fighting for the Islamic State in the Middle East are behaving passively. There are no signs of new regional organizations being formed. The last such organization, the Caucasus Emirate, essentially self-disbanded.
Incidents involving Muslim immigrants occur relatively infrequently, and often involve internal migrants from Russia’s North Caucasus rather than immigrants from Central Asia and Azerbaijan. Though not without significant difficulties, Muslim migrants are integrating into Russian society. In addition, their number has stabilized and even decreased over the last year to about 3.5 million people.
The question now is how to maintain this relative stability. The current calm was preceded by an explosion of radical activity in 2010–2012, and before that Russia was shaken by jihadists and a multitude of terrorist attacks, which took thousands of lives.
A conflict could flare up from some seemingly trivial issue, an everyday event or a single episode. The spark could be the shortage of mosques in some cities and the crowding of worshippers during a religious holiday, or unnecessarily rough treatment at the hands of security forces, or an unmotivated ban on religious literature. It could also be prompted by a terrorist attack perpetrated by a lone fanatic or a psychologically unstable person.
All of this could easily provoke tension in an individual city or region, and could ignite simmering xenophobic sentiment across the country as a whole and tilt the scales. In situations like these, the state must do everything it can to avoid such mishaps at all costs. And if they do occur, it must put in maximum effort straight away to reduce the damage done. Otherwise we will all be throwing up our hands in dismay once again: how could something like this happen? After all, we have been caught off guard by this before, and more than once.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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