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April 06, 2006 Edition 13

The situation inside Russia
Alexey Malashenko

If on the map of Russia we were to mark the "wahhabi sites", the resulting spectacle would be more than impressive. The "wahhabi web" covers Russia from Kalinigrad to Vladivostok and from Murmansk to Orenburg. Manifestations of wahhabism have been noted in Tatarstan (in Naberezhnye Chelny, Al'met'evsk, Nizhnekamsk and Kukmor); in Bashkiria (Agidel', Baimak, Oktiabr'sk, Sibai and Ufa); in Mordvinia (Belozer'e); in Samara oblast (Togliatti); and in Kurgansk, Orenburg, Penza, Perm', Ul'ianovsk, Cheliabinsk, and Tiumen' oblasts; not to mention southern Russia from Rostov and Volgograd to the republics in the northern Caucasus. There are wahhabis in Moscow as well, although there are no signs that they engage in regular activity in the capital. (Wahhabi is the term used in Russia for all supporters of radical Islam, and above all those who subscribe to the normative Hanafi and Shaf'i schools that are traditional for Russia, as well as Sufiism.)

Articles in this edition
The situation inside Russia - Alexey Malashenko
Russia, sole winner of the Iran crisis - Yin Gang
Ambiguity triumphs - Konstantin von Eggert
However, it is practically impossible to find precise data or even accurate approximations regarding the total number of wahhabis in Russia, or to determine just how strong are the networks of ties between them; nor has a united Russian "wahhabi bureau" been exposed. In general, the largest Russian cities, unlike those in Europe, do not contain Muslim quarters and are not prone to the spread of Islamic radicalism.

At press conferences, the representatives of the security services always talk about the cells of wahhabis that have been crushed and the seizure of field commanders. However, in doing so they confirm that the very phenomenon of wahhabism, or Islamism, has not disappeared, but on the contrary has become even more entrenched.

Some causes for the rise of Islamism are common to the entire Muslim space of Russia. The first and most notable is the global nature of Islam itself and its primordial aspiration to regiment social life. A second factor derives from the first--it is natural for discontent in any Muslim social unit to be expressed in a religious form. And there are more than enough reasons for such discontent in Russia.

The third factor is the lack of stability in the northern Caucasus, the source of which is not only Chechnya but, since 2003-2004, the general situation in the region. There is no need to dramatize its influence on the Russian Muslim population, but at the same time it should be acknowledged that the reverberations of the struggle against local Islamists have echoed throughout Muslim Russia.

A fourth factor is outside influence. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia had the opportunity to fully savor more than just western cultural tradition. Russian Muslims underwent indoctrination from the south and exposure to ideas of "pure Islam" and Islamic fundamentalism--in other words, to other previously unknown types of Islam. In the eyes of certain segments of the Russian Muslim population, especially the youth, these ideas were attractive and seemed more genuine than the brand of Islam personified by the ignorant mullahs and imams, many of whom were reputed to have been agents of the KGB. The appearance of new ideas was accompanied by intensive penetration by foreign Islamic government and non-government organizations, as well as international organizations pursuing both humanitarian and political aims.

Notwithstanding the common factors that explain the revival of Islamism, some distinctions must be made between its appearance in the northern Caucasus and in other regions. Above all, there is a difference in intensity. The level of activity in the northern Caucasus region cannot be compared to what we have in the Volga region and the southern Urals. The Islamists of the northern Caucasus are firmly ensconced in a system of local political ties. They are covertly supported by a number of local politicians and take part in a system of political checks and balances.

In addition, Islamists can and do act according to their own logic and ambitions. They are capable of using Islam as a means of social and political mobilization and they exploit the support of the population that, even if it cannot exactly be described as massive, is sufficiently broad.

The responses to the question of how many wahhabis there are in the northern Caucasus are so diverse that it is impossible to reach a definitive conclusion about their popularity. Thus, in Dagestan the active members of jamaats number 20,000-100,000, and the Ingushetia jamaat has been said to include all adult men in the republic. Following the events in Nal'chik in December 2004 the local jamaat, which allegedly had been destroyed, numbered 20,000 members. True, there are statistics that present a very different picture, e.g., in Dagestan the number of wahhabis remaining is no more than 2,000, in Ingushetia several hundred, and in Chechnya in the range of 1,000. The truth seems closer to the first set of data.

In spite of the discrepancies cited above, it is impossible to ignore the presence in Dagestan of 12 and possibly even more jamaats (and here the data are precise). Hence the Islamists are viewed as a very real political force.

In the Russian Volga region, in the Urals and in Siberia, the Islamists are not very conspicuous. The sphere of their activity is limited and their popularity far less than in the northern Caucasus. At the end of the 1990s, it seemed the Islamists had no chance of gaining strength among the Russian Tatars and Bashkirs. However, at the beginning of the 21st century it became clear that the Islamic radicals had reserve forces. Returning to their homeland, graduates of Arab and Turkish institutes of higher education were able to consolidate in several dozen mosques and gather around them groups of radically inclined Muslim youth. They succeeded in establishing connections with similar-minded people from the Caucasus, as well as contacting radical groups from Central Asia, in particular Hizb al-Takhrir.

As in the northern Caucasus, it is impossible to determine the number of Islamists among Tatar and Bashkir youth. However, there is little doubt that radical Islam has become a more permanent fixture of religious ideology and, in a certain sense, of political practice not only in the south of Russia.

The Islamists have created a split in traditional Islam, having pitted the established Russian Islamic schools of Hanafism, Shafiism and the Tariqatism of the North Caucasus against a trend akin to the Hanbalist school, i.e., "Arab Islam". The conflict between traditional Islam and the Islamists has become ubiquitous. Apart from the northern Caucasus, where it can be observed in its most extreme form, including even armed clashes, it is present in Bashkiria, Volgograd, Ekaterinburg, Izhevsk, Moscow, Omsk, Perm, Petrozavodsk, Tiumen' and other Russian cities.

Unraveling the true potential of Islamism in Russia is a highly complicated task. An entire mythology has developed around it, created by forces within the state--above all, politicians and the special services--by journalists, and by the Islamists themselves. All of them, albeit for different reasons, tend to exaggerate the power of the Islamists. The special services inflate the power of the adversary, and by doing so accentuate their own strength and political significance; journalists traditionally tend to exaggerate in an effort to interest readers. As for the Islamists, including the Chechen insurgents, they are ready at all costs to build for themselves a profile of mujaheddin trying to shake the foundations of Russian statehood. This elevates their own self-image, gives them authority (and inspires terror) among Muslims and, in addition, creates a basis for receiving outside assistance. There are quite a few well known examples in which insurgents claimed responsibility for catastrophes with which they were totally unconnected, for example the 2004 Moscow power failure.

This mythology is disseminated by the experts, particularly in Europe and the US. Their publications and accounts are rife with citations from the Russian mass media, which in turn are based on Islamic websites and excerpts from personal conversations with Muslim politicians, including insurgents. This mythology is exemplified by the discussion about the prospects for "Islamic revolution" in Russia.

It would seem that there is no threat of any kind of Islamic revolution in the Russian Federation. But it does appear that Islamism has evolved into an enduring ideological and political factor. Its ultimate potential has yet to be determined, but it does appear to be on the rise. In any event, the Russian Islamic community considers itself to be a valuable part of the world umma; it shares the idea of Islamic solidarity; and no small portion of it, openly or clandestinely, sympathizes with the Islamists.- Published 6/4/2006 © bitterlemons-international.org

Alexey Malashenko is a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (MGIMO), and scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center. From 1986 to 2001 he headed the Islamic Department at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.

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