Political Islam and Islamism in Russia

By invitation only
Alexei Malashenko Alexei Malashenko
Kaarina Aitamurto Kaarina Aitamurto
Arkady Moshes Arkady Moshes

Thu 6.2.2014 at 10:00-11:30
Auditorium of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Ankkurikatu 5, 4th Floor, Helsinki

Islam has become firmly established as an important factor of Russia's daily life. Mass migrations, both internal and especially those from Central Asian states, are quickly changing the ethnic and confessional face of major Russian cities, increasing the share of the Muslim population. The terrorist threat that Russia has been fighting for more than two decades is primarily perceived by the Russian population as linked with violent Islamist radicalism. The activism of political groupings which position themselves as Islamic, is growing. On the one hand, all this leads to the rise of xenophobic and Islamophobic attitudes in certain quarters of the Russian society. On the other hand, the Russian authorities which are now trying to appeal to traditionalist "conservative” values and Russia's historic multi-confessionalism, and politically rely on the loyalty of the elites of the North Caucasus, have to constantly manoeuvre in search of a sustainable balance. The Finnish Institute of International Affairs is organising a seminar that will analyse these developments and attempt to better understand the challenges that political Islam and Islamism represent for Russia today.

Keynote speaker:
Dr Alexei Malashenko, Co-Chair, Religion, Society and Security Program, Carnegie Moscow Center

Commentator:
Dr Kaarina Aitamurto, Researcher, the Aleksanteri Institute, the University of Helsinki

Chair:
Dr Arkady Moshes, Programme Director, the EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia Research Programme, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs


Summary of the seminar

The seminar’s purpose was to analyse the developments in Russia concerning the rise of political Islam and Islamism. Dr Arkady Moshes discussed in his opening statement the relatively common myth of an "eternal Russia”, a country that somehow always remains the same. According to Dr Moshes, this myth is an illusion and Russia is changing all the time. One of the most significant changes that have occurred during the last 25 years is the shifting role of Islam in Russia, Dr Moshes argued.

The keynote speaker of the seminar Dr Alexei Malashenko brought up the Sochi Olympics. He argued that there is a common misconception when discussing the terror threat to the games. People fear that the Chechen Islamist militant Doku Umarov and his followers might attack the Olympics, but according to Dr Malashenko, the threat posed by these groups is minimal and the actual danger lies elsewhere. If Russia wanted to capture Mr Umarov, they would be able to do so in a heartbeat, Dr Malashenko argued. Groups coming to Sochi from the North Caucasus area can be prevented access by the Russian authorities, he said.

According to Dr Malashenko the actual threat to the Olympics is posed by individual terrorists, amateurs by the likes of the Tsarnaev brothers who attacked the Boston Marathon last year, ethnic Russians who have converted to Islam and might have travelled to Sochi already a year ago, and Islamist warriors who have fought in the Syrian civil war. If one or more of the aforementioned groups try to realise their plans, it could end up being a real problem for the safety of the Olympics, Dr Malashenko assessed.

Although North Caucasus is not the biggest threat to the Olympics, it is one of the most important issues concerning the role of Islam in Russia, Dr Malashenko said. He argued that there is a process of "shariatisation” going on in the Republics of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the power vacuum that followed have strengthened this process, and currently the area can already be called a "domestic abroad” inside the Russian Federation, Dr Malashenko said. This process can also go beyond North Caucasus, since recent developments in the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan show that these previously peaceful areas with major Muslim populations also seem to be turning more restless.

In addition to the situation in North Caucasus, the other main development in the rising role of Islam in Russia is the immigration from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. According to Dr Malashenko, the immigrants’ self-understanding has changed significantly in the previous years. A decade or even 5 years ago the immigrants merely came to Russia to work in Moscow, St. Petersburg or the big cities in the Urals and Siberia. Nowadays the immigrants are more and more conscious of their Muslim identity. There are already 4 million immigrants in Russia from the Central Asian states and Azerbaijan, Dr Malashenko noted, and they are adopting Muslim habits more and more.

All this adds up to the birth of a major Muslim community in Russia. Even in remote cities in Siberia such as Norilsk, the share of Muslims in the population can reach numbers as high as 20 percent, Dr Malashenko said. According to him, this is not a problem in its own right, but the intensifying Islamisation of Russian cities poses significant issues for the Russian local and central authorities to deal with. Some members of the Muslim communities in Russian cities might have insurrectionary thoughts, Dr Malashenko said. According to him, there is no revolution under way, but the fact that there are people who openly discuss establishing Caliphates in Russia speaks for itself.

Russia will not become an Islamic country, but the role played by Muslims will increase substantially, Dr Malashenko said. He also reminded that there are already 1.5 to 2 million Muslims living in Moscow, which makes it one of the biggest Muslim cities in Europe. The problem is that there are only 5 mosques for this massive amount of Muslims because of the construction limitations by the Russian authorities. This has led to the birth of unofficial underground mosques, Dr Malashenko noted. The authorities have no control over these places, and they are exactly where radical ideas often emerge. Thus, it would greatly improve the situation if the authorities were to lift the ban on constructing new mosques. A large share of the future development depends on how intelligently the Russian authorities deal with the situation.

In her comment to Dr Malashenko’s keynote, Dr Kaarina Aitamurto said that the terminology is very difficult and unestablished when discussing Islamism and radicalism in Russia. She pointed out that radicalism is often used as a synonym for militant thoughts, although these are often two very different things. All Salafist groups are also not automatically militants, she argued.

According to Dr Aitamurto, Russian authorities have acted ignorantly when facing the rising role of Islam in the country. Although some authorities seem to have a good understanding of the issue, most of the authorities don’t handle the situation well. The raids on mosques have fuelled prejudice among the ethnic Russians and also increased the radicalisation of Muslims. This all leads up to a vicious circle that is very hard to turn around, Dr Aitamurto argued.


There was a vivid discussion during the questions and answers section of the seminar. Below, some of the questions and answers are summarised.

Question: Does the ignorance of Russian authorities towards their own country have a role in the rising role of Islam in Russia?

Dr Malashenko: Yes, that influences the development. In Dagestan, for example, a number of problems have been able to arise because the Russian central authorities simply don’t care what happens in the region. This kind of ignorance derives from the Soviet tradition of not caring about every corner of the country, epitomised in the conflict between the Azerbaijanis and Armenians in the 1980s.

Question: How does the weakening of Russia’s economic growth influence the labour migration? Will the migrants continue to live in Russia even if the growth stalls and the number of jobs becomes more limited?

Dr Malashenko: Even if Russia’s economy begins to decline, the people that have arrived from Central Asia will find their place in the society. There are not a lot of them that wish to go back to Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan, for example. They might visit their home countries more often if the job market stalls in Russia, but it’s unlikely that they would move back permanently.

Question: What is the role of Tatars and Tatarstan in the growing role of Islam in Russia?

Dr Aitamurto: Russian history is to a large extent a history of the rivalry between Islam and Christianity. But in certain cases, there are good examples of coexistence, and Tatarstan is one of the best examples. The thought of Tatarstan as a prime illustration of multiculturalism is an important part of the Tatars’ "national narrative”, and thus they don’t want to give up on coexistence so easily. The Tatar communities outside Tatarstan are an encouraging example as well. For instance, in St. Petersburg the central mosque has been one of the landmarks of the city centre already for over a hundred years.

Question: Could Islamism become a force in Russian party politics? How would it transform into a political party?

Dr Malashenko: I think the Muslims in Russia don’t have the courage to establish a political party. It has been attempted before, but a Muslim party has never been successful in Russia. In Dagestan or elsewhere in the North Caucasus area an Islamic party could poll around 15 percent of the vote, but this is primarily an issue that concerns life outside party politics. I think it is more likely that we see a rise of a new charismatic nationalist leader from outside the traditional political circles in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and that could cause major changes in Russian politics.