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Russia and its Muslim Population

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    Russia and its Muslim population: a balancing act Pravda Friday, September 10, 2004 As last week s terror campaign against the Russian Federation reached a
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 10, 2004
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      Russia and its Muslim population: a
      balancing act

      Friday, September 10, 2004

        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

        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

        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

        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

        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

        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
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