Islam In Russia - History And Politics

Russia is a part of the world of Islam. This may sound not usual but it is true. Islam is an integral part of the Russian state and society.

Many people, including Russians themselves, think of Russia as a homogeneous society. For many years in the Soviet Union this belief was supported by the monopoly of the Marxist ideology and the one party rule. It was a factor that helped the USSR to defeat Germany in the Second World War.

Under the umbrella of "the unified society" there existed many unsolved problems and among them unresolved identity of Islam as a religion and a way of life. The dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 31, 1991, gave way to a completely new situation when the endemic Muslim population began to rediscover its past and ways to reestablish its national and religious dimensions.

It is important to understand both history and contemporary times to answer a question: why Russia is a part of the world of Islam. A few basic facts that underline the difference between Islam in the West and Islam in Russia.

Islam exists on the Russian soil for more than a millennium. It was officially adopted in 922 by Volga Bulgars and later by Tartars and Bashkirs. Out of 150 peoples, inhibiting Russia, 40 follow Islam. Adherents of Islam constitute not less than 10% of Russia's population. There are about 20 million Muslims in Russia.

Russia was under influence of Islamic values long before sovereign states in America and Europe were established and began to absorb emigrants from the lands of Islam. In fact, it were Russians who moved into lands inhibited by Muslims. Prior to this most of Russia was conquered by Mongols. The country gradually became, as the USA later, one big "melting pot". For example, in some Russia cities up to 80% of Tartar men are married to Russian women, and many Russian men are married to Tartar or other Muslim women. 

In 988 Russia by the decision of Grand Duke Vladimir adopted Christianity as its official religion. Islam was the second most popular faith in the middle territories of Volga river. Russia's neighbors to the East and to the South were mainly Muslim societies. Many Muslims from that places migrated to Russia.

There was a special period in Russia's history - its relations with Golden Horde. The latter consisted of numerous Mongol and Turkic tribes. Part of Crimea, the North Caucasus, and territories along Volga river and in Siberia were mainly inhibited by non-Slavic peoples.

In early 13th century Mongols led by Chengis Khan invaded and devastated much of ancient Russia. In 14th century under rule of Tamerlan a large empire was formed on a substantial part of Russia and Eastern Europe with its capital in Samarkand. 

From the middle of 13th century khans - the rulers of Horde - recognized Islam as their religion and officially became Muslims. In their territories with Russian principalities they choose peaceful means of domination through contributions.

In 1552 Russia captures Kazan region on the lower Volga and from that time Islam became an integral part of the Russian society. In 18th century Moscow conquered Crimea and conducted prolonged wars to capture the territories of the Northern Caucasus. In the second half of 19th century Russia conquered Central Asia. By the time of the 1917 Great October Socialist revolution there were millions of Muslims who, after the end of the civil war, when USSR was created, became Soviet citizens. There were thousands of mosques at the dawn of the Soviet power in Russia. Unfortunately, by 1990 there were only 200 left.

For centuries the tsarist government conducted the policy of involvement of the Muslim elite into the Russian society. More often than not Moscow pursued a policy of tolerance towards Muslims, paid good salaries to clerics, helped to restore and to build mosques. Effects of such "a soft policy" were reflected in the visible interaction in culture and traditions.

As to the values of Islam, the attitude of Orthodox church and Russia's governments at all times was rather suspicious. It was partially explained by the fact that from 16th century there existed constant confrontation between Russia and Turkey.

Immediately after the 1917 revolution, Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, in the circumstances of a brutal civil war, tried to establish a revolutionary alliance with the poorest Muslim population. After the civil war all religions, in Russia and later in the USSR, were under heavy pressure of the authorities. Still in everyday life most Muslims followed the rules of Islam if not officially then in private.

All efforts of the Soviet state to curb the influence of religion in the USSR proved inefficient. As to Islam, it was more difficult to diminish its activities due to its nature of being not only a religion but also a way of life.

Russia approached 21st century as a country very different from its Soviet predecessor. There exists the freedom of religion, many mosques have been built. For example, in 1988 in Dagestan there were 27 mosques, in 1994 - 500, in 1996 - 700. There is a ressergence of confessional activities.

Schools, where Islam is studied, are open in many regions, as well as Islamic higher education institutions. Many Islamic newspapers are published; Islamic TV and radio programs are on the air. The number of Muslims, who visit mosques and study Koran, is on the rise.

The very fact that in Islam the civil life is not separated from the religious life explains why in Russia, as everywhere else, there are two sides of one coin. Many people are of an opinion that "Islam is a religion plus the state"; that it is impossible to divide Islam and politics. 

In the 1990s many new Islamic movements and parties came into existence. One should not overestimate their influence. For example, in 1995-1996, such Islamic movements as "Nur", "Union of Muslims of Russia", "Muslims of Russia" were formed. They proclaimed themselves "all Russia movements". But as parliamentary elections in 1995 showed, it was a modest start. "Nur" got 0.58% of national vote, 5% in Tatarstan. In Chechnya and Ingushetia the picture was different - Islamic movements got up to 23% of the vote.

One must take into account that Chechnya with its history of war, hostilities of different types, on the one hand, became the main factor of Islam radicalisation and, on the other, turned against separatists the public opinion in Russia. The overwhelming majority of Russians started to think of "Islamists" only as "a threat". Articles and pronouncements about "Islamic menace" became usual in newspapers and on TV. 

During Yeltsin's years the federal government made many blunders on Chechnya, starting from arming the separatists and ending with attacking them poorly prepared. The army was weak after years of negligence under neoliberals in the government. As a result Russia got on its hands a protracted military conflict and a rise in Chechnya of a terrorist regime, which had nothing to do with real Islamic values. In 1999 it attacked another Russian federal entity - Dagestan with an aim to spread chaos and feuds all over Caucasus. This time Russian government acted swiftly and with determination - the intruders were defeated and a political decision was taken to pursue separatists deep into Chechnya.

Subsequently military actions in Chechnya dragged on for two years though the main units of separatists were crushed in the first few months of the anti-terrorist military operation. Though the conflict has not turned into a war between Christians and Muslims and is confined to several localities in Chechnya, it has a potential to poison the life of the country for years to come and undermine the cooperation between Moscow and Muslim countries.

It is a fact that the conflict in Chechnya has acquired international dimension. Quite a few Muslims in recent years went to Chechnya to fight against federal forces though there number is often exaggerated. This interference from outside may prolong military actions and contribute to destabilization of the situation in the Caucasus region. 

It is a must to Russia to settle the situation in Chechnya as quickly as possible. Full-scale military operation was ceased long time ago but day-to-day localised hostilities and terrorist acts continue. At this stage of the conflict the settlement can be achieved only through political means and diplomatic skills. Violence will never bring victory to anybody. 

Russia is too strong for separatists to be defeated. Still violence and terrorism may bring to Russians and Chechens years of sufferings. In the end they are citizens of one country and there is no other way to deal with each other as in terms of goodwill and neighbourliness.

After anarchic years of Yeltsin's rule, President Putin promotes fresh approached to Russia's problems. He emphasises pragmatism of his domestic and foreign policy. He is not afraid of speaking openly about Russia's national interests, which were forgotten in the 1990s. Such an approach may be very fruitful in the case of the Russian foreign policy toward the world of Islam.

The desire of Moscow to promote relations with other countries is to be based on objective reality and diversity. This is a painstaking process but there is no other alternative as the stability of Russia depends on further harmonisation of its relations with the outside world, including Muslim states, as well as with its own Muslim population. 

The Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov explains: "It is important to stress that we will be guided by principles of realism and common sense, taking into account the reciprocity and readiness of our CIS partners to respect Russia's national interests. Integration will not be imposed on anyone nor will anyone be excluded from the process. This requires close interaction and mutual respect." 

The key words in terms of assessing the present and the future of Islam in Russia and the psychological climate surrounding it are "mutual respect". If it exists in any society, including Russia's, there is room for "close interaction". If it does not exist, then hostilities emerge.

How tragic is the record of states where ideologies promise "a new world" to the population. To a large extent the USSR fell victim to unfulfilled promises, including respect to all religions and faiths. 

To respect Islam or any other religion and a way of life does not mean that we have to agree with all their manifestations, especially when they become the factor of destabilization of a society. Radicalism may be found in any religion. At the same time for many it will take a long time in Russia to come to terms with different views and institutions, including the central government and the Orthodox Church. We are still to achieve a breakthrough in spiritual revival and resurrection of hopes in the hearts of anguished millions. This task stands before both the West and the East. Events in Indonesia, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Chechnya prove that there is a lot to be done to avoid the clash of radicalism, fanatism, terrorism and other "isms".

Nowadays orthodox Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Judaists are in search of mutual respect and common ground for cooperation. The main obstacles to achieve this aim are political and geopolitical, the desire of some regional elites to use "the right of self-determination" for the sake of separatism and cessation. There is not a single country, which may afford this.

The winds of despair blow in Russia from many directions. The spread of anarchy and violence characterize social, economic and religious systems in many regions of the world. It is not only events in Chechnya but also aggression and conflicts in other parts of the world that manifest dangers of the clash of civilizations, including the Western and the Islamic. Such a clash should be avoided at all costs. Russian and the Western countries, for their turn, must understand Islam much better than today. The Western mentality should not be regarded as exclusive and dominant.

Often the roots of Russia's fear of Islam are based on stereotypes and prejudices, imposed from the West. Islam is presented as a political and economic threat to Europe. This vision dates back to the Middle Ages. It is no coincidence that Dante placed Mohammed before the last circle of hell in "Divine Comedy", right next to Satan.

In the past, a common view of the Orient, especially at the time of 19th century European colonialism, was permeated with anti-Eastern sentiments. In the Western mass media Arabs often were and are depicted as diabolic and dishonest. Misperception of Islam in the West and lately in Russia leads to a false view that it is inherently militant. Islam is hold as a global menace. One of the lasts works on this subject is a book by John L. Esposito "the Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?" He writes: "They [the Western mass media] exaggerate and distort the nature of Islam, the political realities of the Muslim world and its diverse relations with the West… reinforce an astonishing degree of ignorance and cultural stereotypes of Arabs and Islam".

In Russia, where many politicians and political scientists copy Western approaches on issues of international relations, misperception of Islam is based on recent developments in Russian history, especially events in Chechnya. Never before suspicion of Islam in Russia was so strong and painful in the aftermath of the invasion from Chechnya to Dagestan and blasts, which destroyed several living blocks with hundreds of their inhabitants in Moscow and some other cities. The second war in Chechnya in the 1990s started in 1999. In this militarised atmosphere the mutual satanization began. Until now it is a huge mental block on the road of a lasting peace.

Not only in a daily press but also in academic journals Islamic resurgence, which assumes a variety of forms, is often interpreted emotionally and outside of a solid historical context. As a result important security considerations are put aside of forgotten. For example, the present situation in Russia is assessed as comparable to the times of "Golden Horde", when in 13-15th centuries a big part of Russian lands were under occupation of Mongols tribes. There were many battles fought, Moscow and other principalities paid to conquerors heavy contributions.

Today it is often proclaimed that we live in times when a new "Horde" is trying to dismember Russia. "Today Russia, - states a well-known political scientist, - must again take upon itself a task, which underpins its viability and destiny of Europe. This task is to rebuff international Islamic fundamentalism. In the recent years the latter brought to life acute political and military conflicts and even wars. It had a certain success in Russia, created its base in the Northern Caucasus. Its aim is to establish in Russia and later in the rest of Europe a certain order. The prerequisites for the offensive of this fanatical movement against Russia are quite serious: weak economy, considerable Muslim population (25 million), notorious sovereignty of the republics, the absence in the time of Yeltsin of determination to resist terrorism and separatism that act under religious banners".

Such ideas reflect real apprehension and fear of the world of Islam. They may be understood but not justified. "Islamic fundamentalism" is not identical to extremism. To think of them as synonyms is to fall into an ideological trap. It does not matter how extremists and terrorists of all kinds call themselves. They may hide under the banners of "fundamentalism", "nationalism", "true believers" or "conservatism". But their real essence is different - a desire to make other people to converse to their views not by force of argument and conviction, but by force of arms, fear and trepidation. They crave for absolute freedom of behaviour and do not take into account the complexity of the human society and established norms and ways of life. Such a violence-like and war mentality excludes any compromise.

The main danger for Russia is the fear of "Islamic threat" that has been globalized by an academic and political debate, sparked by Samuel Huntington's "class of civilizations". It became fashionable to explain local and regional conflicts in the light of confrontation between Islam and Christian values. Islam is viewed as a triple threat: political, civilizational and demographic. The Muslim world is portrayed in offensive terms, and the West - in defensive.

Today the government of Russia conducts the policy of stabilization through religion and ethnicity becoming important identification factors. From this point of view "fundamentalism" should be judged as internal religious factor of Islam and not as a vehicle to involve Russia into any sort of civilizational clashes.

For the USA and Western Europe relations with the world of Islam mainly develop beyond their borders in spite of the fact that already they have a big Muslim population. For Russia it is different. She is a part of the Muslim world. Instead of confrontation with "fundamentalism" and a mentality of "fortress' against Islam Moscow should keep to the only realistic line of building multinational and multireligious society.

At the same time the unity of Russia should be respected by regional elites, including their religious representatives. As to the central government, it should modernize its approach to Islam, to see it as not an enemy but as an ally, an integral part of the society. The foreign policy of Moscow also needs friendly relations with Muslim countries, first of all with its CIS neighbours. Such a policy should go hand-in-hand with good relations with Western countries. It is not a "zero sum" game. Moscow, being a Eurasian country, is destined to urge good relation with its Western and Eastern neighbours.

The West, for its part, must take into account the national interests of Russia and treat Moscow not as "a defeated rival", but as an important partner. Otherwise Russia will be pushed to change the balance of its West-East policies and incline towards its existing and potential friends in the East.

Pragmatism and sound judgement are key factors for stabilization and conflict resolution. It is an imperative, which no events may overrule.

With best regards,
Anatoli and Alexey Gromyko