How Islam Will Change Russia-1

This is one of the several articles that was prepared for a (dream) project in the USA called “Russia in Decline.” While Russia will reject it and the project outright, we have chosen to reproduce for the information that has been gathered regarding Muslims. It appears that ‘how Islam will change Russia’ expresses more the Western fears than Russian. But, obviously, as a warning, it could be given some thought by them.


Russia is becoming increasingly a Muslim country. Out of a total population of over 146 million (including two million in annexed Crimea), it counts about 15 million people of Muslim background—even if not all are believers and even fewer practice Islam. Given forthcoming demographic changes, by around 2050 Muslims will represent between one-third (according to the most conservative estimates) and one-half (according to the most ‘alarmist’ assessments) of the Russian population.

This ‘Islamization’ of Russia—not in the sense of radical Islam but of a rising number of citizens self-referring to Islam—will impact both Russia’s domestic situation and its foreign policy options in the medium and long term. Islam’s growing importance in Russia will shape the future of the country in at least five main directions: the overall demographic balance of the country; the strategy of ‘normalizing’ the regions of the North Caucasus; Russia’s migration policy; Russia’s positioning on the international scene; and the transformation of Russian national identity.


The Russian authorities’ incessant promotion of the Russian Orthodox Church, Orthodox symbols, and supposed “Orthodox cultural values” hides an understudied, contradictory trend: Russia is becoming increasingly a Muslim country. Russia counts about 15 million people (in a total population of over 146 million, including two million in annexed Crimea) of Muslim background or about 11% of its population. All are not fervent believers, and even fewer practice Islam routinely. Moscow has the largest Muslim community in Europe: about one million Muslim residents and up to 1.5 million Muslim migrant workers. Given demographic changes, Muslims will represent between one-third (the most conservative estimate) and one-half (the most generous estimate) of the Russian population by around 2050.

Russia’s Muslims mostly belong to the country’s traditional ethnic minorities, many of whom are demographically on the rise. To this should be added about five million labor migrants who also belong to traditionally Muslim populations—from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan—and whose activities spread Islam well beyond the historically Muslim regions of Russia, the North Caucasus and the Volga-Urals.

Widespread Internet and social media use characterize Russian society; the upshot is that the Islamic digital world is increasingly available to Russian Muslim citizens, who are no longer isolated from global trends, whether feminine Islamic fashions or debates about halal food or radical online preaching.

This “Islamization” of Russia—not in the sense of radical Islam but more of a “Muslimization,” that is, a rising number of citizens self-referring to Islam—will impact both Russia’s domestic situation and its foreign policy options in the medium and long term.

The Public Debate on Islam

The Official View: Russian authorities have elaborated three parallel discourses on Islam to appear both Islamophile and fighting radical Islam.

First, they uphold the discourse—inherited from the Soviet regime—on “friendship between peoples”: Russia is a multinational and multi-religious country in which all the historical traditional religions are recognized as equal.

The Constitution’s preamble acknowledges Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism as inseparable parts of the country’s historical heritage—while elevating the “special contribution” of Orthodoxy to the country’s history and to the development of its spirituality and culture.

Vladimir Putin regularly receives high-level Muslim dignitaries, in particular leaders from the two main institutions that represent Islam in Russia—Talgat Tadjuddin for the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Russia based in Ufa, and Ravil Gaynutdin for the Muftis Council based in Moscow—and he has created an Interreligious Council of Traditional Religions.

In 2009, then-President Dmitry Medvedev noted “Muslim foundations are making an important contribution to promoting peace in society, providing spiritual and moral education for many people, as well as fighting extremism and xenophobia.”

Second, and in parallel, Russian authorities have crafted a narrative on radical Islam in which all non-conformist versions of Islam are subsumed under the label “Wahhabism.” At the start of the second war in Chechnya in 1999, the Russian regime began denouncing supposed Wahhabi violence as a way of delegitimizing Chechen combatants; ever since, the regime has utilized the post-9/11 mantra “War on Terror” in order to lengthen the list of religious currents deemed Wahhabi and therefore banned from operating on Russian territory.

Several anti-extremist pieces of legislation have attempted to codify this policy, such as one banning the Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Tablighi Jamaat movements, which are often decried in the Russian media as Wahhabi despite sharing no theological doctrine with this Saudi current. Non-conformist Islam, or non-traditional Islam, by this interpretation, is necessarily “foreign,” and not recognized by the Spiritual Boards.

Russian authorities have, therefore, been cultivating the image of a regime that shows no pity toward “non-traditional” Muslims that they consider “radicals.” They tend to amalgamate three different phenomena: people promoting a literal reading of the Qur’ran (Salafis), those calling for Islam to become a political ideology, and those inclined to terrorist violence for religious or other reasons.

Third, Russian authorities use the theme of Islam within the international arena to promote Moscow’s great power strategy. Russia presents itself as the defender of traditional “conservative” religions, that is, of both Christianity and Islam—with a special focus on the topic of the traditional, heterosexual family—in their opposition to the West’s supposed moral decay and its growing recognition of sexual minorities. This enables the Kremlin to cultivate its international relations with Muslim countries while parading itself as uncompromising in its fight against Islamist violence. In his speech of 2009 mentioned above, Medvedev announced that owing to its large Muslim population, “Russia does not need to seek friendship with the Muslim world: Our country is an organic part of this world.”

On the domestic scene, public debates around Islam are less subtle and compartmented than those of the central state institutions. Many famous politicians, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky or current deputy Prime Minister and former leader of the Rodina (Homeland) party, Dmitry Rogozin, have been in the spotlight for their Islamophobic remarks. Drawing connections between labor migrants and the spread of Islamic radicalism are mainstream in the Russian media, and even at the level of institutions such as the Federal Service of Migration and law enforcement agencies.

Yet, at the regional and local level, relationships to Islam vary considerably. In traditionally Muslim regions, references to Islam are an integral part of public life, and all local leaders attempt to position themselves as supporters of traditional Islam. However, in regions where Islam is only visible through the activities of migrants, tensions are noticeable and on the rise. As in Europe, requests made by Muslim communities to build new mosques are often not well-received by local populations, and the authorities remain cautious about any authorizations they grant.

The Popular View

At the popular level, while there is widespread xenophobia against labor migrants, hate-crimes against Muslims are less common. Obviously, it can sometimes be difficult to dissociate xenophobia of an ethnic nature from xenophobia with religious motives, as migrants mostly come from nominally Muslim populations. Ethnic violence against people with Muslim backgrounds accounts for a considerable portion of all ethnic violence data collected by the Moscow-based SOVA Center, ranging from 30 to 60% depending on the year.

However, the percentage of admitted religious violence—in other words, when Islamophobic comments made by the attackers have been reported—is small. Indeed, few cases of explicit violence against people of Muslim background—or those considered as such by the attackers—have been documented, almost all in Moscow. Between 2013 and 2015, SOVA reported, for instance, three attacks on women wearing traditional Islamic clothes, and one against a man as he left a Moscow mosque.

Violence can also be committed by law enforcement agencies and private security services: in 2013 police officers attacked a group of 30 men of different nationalities sitting in a halal café, and in 2015 a man wanting to pray in a commercial mall was beaten up by a private security guard.

Concerning violence against Muslim architectural symbols, cemeteries or prayer rooms, the numbers of hate acts are higher. Between 2010 and mid-2016, SOVA listed 58 such acts of violence, a number that increases year upon year. Indeed, in 2011, 2013 and 2014 desecration of Islamic symbols topped the list ahead of Christian or Jewish ones. This kind of violence has been perpetrated most in the Novosibirsk region, wherein 2011 a series of attacks against Muslim cemeteries was carried out, followed by Orenburg and then Moscow. This kind of violence is often committed by skinhead groups, who usually destroy Islamic symbols and paint Nazi swastikas, Orthodox crosses, or representations of pigs on Muslim graves.

Rampant Islamophobia, however, shows up in much more than hate crime statistics. The world of social media has been developing quickly in Russia over the last decade, and nationalist groups of all ideological persuasions are heavily involved in it. Specific news stories are liable to focus on Islamophobia among ordinary people, such as when, in March 2016, an Uzbek nanny—who was subsequently acknowledged to be psychologically unbalanced—decapitated the baby she was minding. People expressing themselves in online debates and chats made numerous associations between Islam and violence. Yet, compared with the majority of European societies, Russian society overall remains fairly non-Islamophobic: cultural tensions continue to center on inter-ethnic distinctions rather than on religious motives.

The Expert View

The perspectives of the Russian expert community on Islam vary. The majority of experts position themselves in line with the state’s interpretation: traditional Islam is welcome in Russia and is celebrated as part of the nation’s history, while non-traditional or foreign Islam is considered dangerous. However, many specialists also recognize that this dissociation is artificial, as Russian Islam is now globalized: it is becoming irrelevant to try to dissociate what is national from what is foreign. A good overview of the diversity of viewpoints can be found expressed in the monthly digest Rossiia i Musul’Manskii Mir (Russia and the Muslim World), which has been published by the Institute of Information for Sciences and Social Sciences (INION) at the Russian Academy of Sciences since 1992.

Insofar as the role of Islam in Russia is concerned, two leading members of the policy-oriented scholarly community deserve mention: Aleksei Malashenko, chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program; and Sergei Markedonov, from the Regional Studies and Foreign Policy department of the Russian State University for Humanities. Both are among the most well-known Russian scholars in the United States and Europe. Malashenko follows Islam in Russia, in Central Asia and in the Arab world, while Markedenov works on both the North and South Caucasus, as well as on issues of security in the whole of Eurasia. Both have warned the Russian authorities for several years about ongoing radicalization occurring among some parts of Russian Muslim youth.

In late 2015, Malashenko stated: “Russia’s official Muslim establishment blames the West for the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and refuses to admit that radical Islam has a real social base, ignoring the radicalization of many ordinary Muslims in Russia and Central Asia.”

Both scholars follow the new trends of so-called non-traditional Islam. Malashenko does this for Central Asia—he has observed that many Tajik migrants now obtain jobs as imams in Russian mosques—and Markedonov for the Volga-Ural region.

The two scholars consider the Islamic State to be gaining influence in the North Caucasus, especially as the prestige of the Caucasus Emirate fades and local insurgents seek new branding and financial support. Malashenko has observed how the Kadyrov regime now takes a pragmatic view of the Islamic State’s influence on the situation in Chechnya and is committing itself to “exorcizing” would-be recruits or returnees from the Middle East, rather than merely destroying them.

Markedonov argues that the Islamic State may weaken both the North and South Caucasus and that the fight against it could be a catalyst for cooperation among the three South Caucasus states (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia) and Russia. Both are critical of the Chechen regime’s evolution and its relationship to Moscow and have warned, as Markedonov puts it, that “while previously developments in the North Caucasus were looked at primarily from the viewpoint of inter-ethnic relations and regional policies, today this theme has expanded to a pan-Russian scale. It is not Chechnya, Ingushetia, or Dagestan per se that matter; rather, it is how the Russian heartland perceives those regions.”

Indeed, the high level of internal migrations of North Caucasian youth to Russia’s main cities and of labor migration from Central Asia means that Islam is no longer, as it was for centuries, an issue of regional concern for Russia. It is now a pan-Russian question.

Demographers and sociologists are more divided in their interpretations of Islam. Opinions range between those who do not support mass migrations because of their fear that Russians are at risk of ethnic extinction and those who, often from the liberal camp, consider demographic and cultural transformation a normal and globalized process that should not be interpreted in cultural terms.

An example of the former group is Yuri Krupnov, a scholar at the Institute for Demography, Migration and Regional Development who participated in writing Russia’s demographic doctrine and is known for his nationalist views. He has advocated the notion of “national preservation” (sberezhenie natsii), which became popular in the mid-2000s in discussions around the need to “preserve” the “ethnic gene pool” (genofond) of Russians against migrants. This view was widely adopted by politicians such as Dmitry Rogozin.

The latter group is represented by Zhanna Zayonchovskaya from the Institute for Economic Forecasting at the Russian Academy of Science. Zayonchovskaya is a leading scholar on post-Soviet migration and a vocal figure who has appealed for people to see migration as a chance for Russia’s future. She has accordingly endorsed a liberal migration policy.

Some Muslim public figures also participate in the general debate on the place of Islam in Russia. Among the most famous and polemical figures is Geidar Dzhemal, one of the founders of Russia’s Islamic geopolitics. Dzhemal advances a paradoxical brand of geopolitics that combines pro-Islamic, pro-Russian, and pro-fascist traits in an eclectic “postmodern” blend. His Islamic liberation theology is inspired by Iran’s (he is himself a Shiia).

Dzhemal’s blending of different strains of politics and ideologies resonates with the current debates in many Muslim countries and Islamist movements, which call, as he does, for Islam to become a new Communism, able to drive a new revolution against US-led social injustices in the world. At the same time, Dzhemal reproduces the mainstream geopolitical narrative of Russia nationalists, denouncing the West’s hidden goal of negating Russia’s status as a great power. He differentiates himself by supporting the leftist opposition to Putin and not participating in the so-called systemic opposition, which defends the Kremlin’s position, for instance on the Ukrainian issue.

Dzhemal continues to be a fellow traveler of Western far-right esoteric groups and their Russian allies, echoing Alexander Dugin’s rehabilitation of occult theories that have historically fueled fascist movements. Dzhemal thus encapsulates the paradox of simultaneously representing leftist Islamic liberation theology and/or a kind of Islamo-Fascism, a mix of genres typical of digital geopolitics.

Another figure is Abdul-Vakhed Niazov, the director of the Moscow Islamic Cultural Center. Niazov is one of the leading figures on the Muftis Council, the rival institution to Tadjuddin’s Spiritual Board. He has supported several initiatives for Russian Muslims to be politicized in favor of the Kremlin regime: the Union of Muslims of Russia, the Refakh movement, the Eurasian Party of Russia, and the “Muslims for Putin” movement.

In 2012, Niazov launched Salamworld, an alternative to Facebook that claims to respect “core Islamic values” and is supposed to offer a clean slate for Islamic social media. Shamil Sultanov, the President of the Strategic Center “Rossiia-Islamskii mir,” (Russia-Islamic world) is another figure and close ally of the neo-fascist theoretician Alexander Dugin.

(To be concluded)

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