by Giuliano Bifolchi
Islam is the nation’s second most widely professed religion in the Russian Federation. According to official data and the nationwide survey, the number of Muslims in Russia is approximately 20 million people. In the capital Moscow there are four mosques while in the entire country the number of mosques is around 8 thousand. The Russian president Vladimir Putin stated that Russia is a Muslim country which sits as an Observer State in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and traditional Islam is an essential part of the country’s spiritual life.
The Islamisation of the Russian territory started in the 7th-8th centuries during the Arab conquest in Dagestan and the Caspian region (the South of Russia) and lasted in the 19th century when the Tsarist Empire conquered the Caucasus and Central Asia and faced the opposition of the local population.
During the Soviet Union, there was an ‘official Islam’ which supported the central government in the domestic and international policy. As Alexandre Bennigsen stated in his researches Islam in the Soviet Union (1967) and Mystics and Commissars, Sufism in the Soviet Union (co-authored with S. Enders Wimbush, 1985), the Kremlin exploited ‘official Islam’ in the country to promote the Soviet ideology and the ‘Soviet man’, while abroad aimed at creating a connection with the Muslim-Arab world transforming Tashkent (Uzbekistan) and Baku (Azerbaijan) as the main religious centres for Sunni and Shia Islam.
During the ‘80s and after the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russian Federation experienced an Islamic revival which brought to the spread of political Islam and Islamist ideologies such as Wahhabism, Salafism, Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ul-Tahrir. Radicalisation and terrorism characterised the first two decades of the Russian Federation, especially in the North Caucasus where the First Chechen Conflict resulted in the establishment of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and the affirmation of jihadist Salafism and the following creation of the terrorist organisation Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) led by Doku Umarov who wanted to establish an emirate in the North Caucasus based on sharia law.
Since the ‘90s the Russian Federation has been targeted by terrorist attacks, radicalisation and jihadist propaganda. If in the first decade of the 21st century the Kremlin contrasted Imarat Kavkaz and the terrorist phenomenon of the North Caucasus, since 2014 with the rise of the Islamic State the Russian government has been involved in the fight against the ideology and propaganda of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers. The fact that a significant number of North Caucasians fought among the ranks of the Islamic State, the recent terrorist attack in Saint Petersburg in 2017, and the promotion of jihadist propaganda in the Russian language via websites, social networks and magazine such as Istok, underline the Russian necessity to face the problem of radicalisation with the help and cooperation of the Muslim community and elaborate an adequate counter-terrorism strategy.
On the one hand, the government highlights the significant role of traditional Islam and describes Russia as a multiconfessional country where any religion is protected by the central authority and the federal law, but on the other hand media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) denounce human rights abuses and the latent feelings of Islamophobia which opposes the Orthodox ethnic Russians against the Muslim non-ethnic Russians and the new migrants from Muslim post-Soviet states such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan.
Our organisation had a deep insight of the Russian Muslim community’s current situation and the Kremlin’s strategy to contrast radicalisation and terrorism thanks to the meeting with Albir R. Krganov, chairman of the Spiritual Assembly of Muslims of Russia, deputy head of the Commission on Harmonisation of Interethnic and Interreligious Relations of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation and head of the Working Group on Counteraction to Pseudoreligious Extremism of the Counterterrorism Coordination Council.
Dear Mr Krganov, can you give us an overview of the Muslim community in Russia to better understand the importance of Islam in the Russian Federation?
“According to official statistics, in Russia, there are around 20 million Muslims considering also the migrants coming from Central Asian countries. Most Muslims live in the Volga region, Siberia, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and the North Caucasus although it is possible to note a relevant presence of Muslim believers in the main and biggest cities of the country.
Today the capital Moscow might be a good example of cohabitation among different religions: the number of Muslim people is increasing and we must answer to the Muslim community’s desires. I can say that in Moscow and in the entire country we do not have problems or confrontation between Sunni and Shia Muslims who live together respecting each other.
The Muslim community has lived on the Russian territory for more than a thousand year, this means that Islam in the Russian Federation is not a new or contemporary phenomenon but finds its root in the sociocultural historical process. During the centuries there were several episodes and events which link Islam to Russia and this is the reason why nowadays it is possible to talk about ‘official traditional Islam’ which results from a long process. Our history differs from that of the European countries and Islam can be considered part of our national religious identity: many Muslims lived under the Tsarist Empire where they built mosques and religious centres. Also, during the Soviet period, our country showed that the coexistence between different religious groups was possible and the Muslims played important roles in different fields.
Probably the biggest difference between Europe and Russia is the experience in managing different religious groups. Indeed, in the past, the Islamic presence interested mainly Southern Europe and the Balkans while nowadays because of the migration crisis Islam is spreading among the continent also in the North and becoming a serious aspect of the society. This means that some European countries are facing only now problems regarding the harmonisation of different religious and ethnic groups while we have a long tradition and experience thanks to our past which we can share.”
How it is possible to create nowadays a single Russian nation where different religious and ethnic groups live and at the same time balance the Russian Orthodox values with the Muslim and local values? Regarding this harmonisation, what can you tell us about Islamophobia?
“Russia has a Soviet heritage which has a religious tradition as I explained before. Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism have been present in our country since the Tsarist era. Under the Romanov family was signed an agreement which guaranteed the coexistence of different religions showing that it is possible to create a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic state characterised by tolerance and respect.
Regarding Islamophobia, I can tell you that this is a problem or phenomenon usually reported by media and international organisations which do not know the real sociocultural situation and sometimes they even promote a propaganda message against us. At the governmental level, any kind of discriminatory ideology such as xenophobia, Islamophobia, Christianophobia, Judeophobia is condemned, forbidden and contrasted and does not represent the national policy.”
During the ‘90s there was an ‘Islamic revival’ and foreign countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, supported the spread of their ideologies and radicalisation financing local organisation. Is it true as media and academia often have stated that Saudi Arabia is a threat or ‘enemy’ of Russia because Riyadh has used its religious role in the Muslim community to spread Wahhabism and for its geopolitical strategy?
“First, I would like to distinguish between Salafism, an ideology which belongs to Islam, and the pseudo-Salafism promoted by some terrorist organisations and foreign actors which through radicalisation want to achieve political goals. This pseudo-Salafism has nothing to do and in common with Islam and can spread among the population, especially young generations, because of the lack of education. We consider important and essential the field of education and establishing a programme where the young generations can get the right Islamic teachings.
We had a radicalisation problem among students and young generations because some organisations as Pakistani, Turkish, and Arabic jamaat have ideated an assistance model (i.e. buying entire buildings to host students, paying salaries for social activities) to promote their ideologies.
Regarding Saudi Arabia, we do not perceive the Saudis as our enemy because between our people there are no problems. There are some issues at the governmental level but our relations are good.”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation has experienced different waves of terrorism. The main question is how it is possible to contrast jihadist propaganda and terrorism and guarantee freedom of religion and civil rights?
“We experienced terrorism in the south of Russia as everyone knows. Chechnya might be considered a good example of contrasting terrorism and managing Muslims communities and non-ethnic Russians. What happened during the ‘90s was a consequence of different factors and external influences such as that of Saudi Arabia with Wahhabism but we overcame this situation thanks to our experience and historical past. In fact, Chechnya was a republic ruled by a mufti (something extraordinary if we compare with the West) who was at the same time a political and religious figure.
This strategy had outstanding results because today the Chechen Republic is a stable country different from the destroyed one of the ‘90s and after the war. The capital Grozny host one of the main mosques in Russia and religious freedom is guaranteed by the federal and local law. Chechnya has become an economic and financial hub able to attract foreign investments.
There are some allegations that our strategy does not guarantee civil rights and is transforming the country in a police state, but the reality is different. Most of the Muslims are integrated inside the government and central authority and they work in different state institutions. We live and work as Muslim Russians together with the Christians, the Jews and the Buddhists and we strive to create a balanced society. Hence, I can’t believe that those Muslims who work for the government can allow the existence of a police state or authoritarian regime.”
Terrorist ideologists in their jihadist propaganda in the Russian language usually described ‘official traditional Islam’ as an invention of the central authority and Russian religious figures as ‘Kremlin’s puppet’. Can you give us a comment on these affirmations/allegations? Also, can you tell us if Russia can be considered as dar al-harb (house of war) or dar al-Islam (house of Islam also known as dar al-salaam ‘house of peace’)?
“Those people who promote jihadist propaganda do not read and know the Quran. They do not know what really means sharia and the Koranic suras where it is stated that it is important to defend and preserve your homeland, culture, values and tradition. What they are spreading is wrong and the consequence of their bad knowledge of Islam and the Quran.
Russia is neither dar al-harb nor dar al-Islam like the European countries. It is a territory of dialogue where the government talks with its citizens as we did during the Soviet and Tsarist time. Those people who label Russia as dar al-harb show that they do not know our national and cultural history and ignore the fact that on the Russian soil there is a Muslim community well integrated inside the society.”
Can Russia face the internal problem and a new wave of terrorism and ethnic conflicts if the country will be affected by economic crisis and recession? In simple words, might the Russian Federation live again what happened during the ‘90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
“If we compare the current situation with that of 25 years ago we can see a huge economic improvement and development as demonstrated by the new airports, train stations, highways, factories and stores built on the Russian soil. The main challenge is the foreign competition of other countries, but we are ready to face it and work to improve our economic development.
The migrants who are coming to Russia can find a job and be integrated into the economic process and society. When there is economic stability and when a person has a job and can create his/her destiny, radicalisation cannot find a fertile ground. We are working in this direction and the government has proved to be on the side of the citizens. This means that there are all the conditions to improve citizens’ social status and avoid the repetition of what happened during the ‘90s.”