Cycles of Violence: Dangers of Islamophobia in the Russian Federation

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Islam in Yakutsk, Sakha Republic

People gather to pray at a mosque in Yakutsk, Sakha Republic.
Image: Makki Masjid Manchester

In November 2013, a legal case was brought against a member of the Kyrgyz diaspora living in the Far East of Russia, in Yakutsk, Sakha Republic. He was accused of being an Islamic extremist because he is a member of the Tablighi Jamaat, a pietistic group of Islamists founded in India that is legal in over 100 countries but not in most post-Soviet states. Members proselytize Islam as by definition against violence. Human rights activists, and those of us concerned about the growing religious polarization in Russia, noticed the arrest and were puzzled.

The Sakha Republic, indeed the entire Far East, is far from the violence-prone North Caucasus and hardly known as a hotbed of Islamic radicalization. Yakutsk, the capital of the republic, gained its only mosque about ten years ago. The mosque is respected as a center of quiet community worship for Central Asian and Caucasus migrant workers in the region. These local Muslims, a tiny minority within the republic, agreed to not have a call to prayer ring out over their neighborhood to avoid offending non-Muslim sensibilities. Their mullah is a charming, articulate man, willing to shake my hand (attached to a Western, non-Muslim, unveiled woman). In 2003, he explained that the money to build their mosque came from member contributions and local republic government support.  He carefully distanced himself from the strict Salafi teaching of Sunni Islam that Saudi Arabia is known to propagandize.

The mullah’s moderate approach, and the Kyrgyz migrant’s arrest on Islamist charges, suggest several clues for understanding Islam in Russia. First, we should acknowledge the constantly shifting resonance of Islam and politics in Russia. Second, along with Evangelical Christianity, Sunni Islam is one of the fastest growing religious faiths within Russia, and Muslim converts have increasingly come from ethnic backgrounds that extend beyond the “traditionally Muslim” groups of the Middle Volga, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Third, Sunni and Shia Muslims in Russia, especially (but not only) migrants, are increasingly monitored and arrested throughout the federation. Fourth, dangers of street level, haphazard Russian nationalist aggression, augmented by official policies against selected Muslims, could stoke a backfiring cycle of serious violence that could then create the very polarization and extremism that most rational government officials have been trying to avoid.

(For diverse perspectives, see also: Geraldine Fagan Believing in Russia; Hans-Georg Heinrich, Ludmilla Lobova, Alexey Malashenko, eds. Will Russia Become a Muslim Society?; Sergey Markedonov The Rise of Radical and Nonofficial Islam Groups in Russia’s Volga Region; Shireen Hunter Islam in Russia; and Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, ed. Religion and Politics in Russia.)

Some Russian nationalists argue that forceful repression of Muslims is the only way to “stem the tide” of Muslim migrants and extremism. However, street violence and official crackdowns have only exacerbated the intertwined interethnic and interreligious tensions. In 2006, in the town of Kondopoga, Karelian republic, a brawl in a café involving Chechen migrants and local Russians turned into a massive civil disturbance lasting several days, in part because of Russian nationalist calls over the Internet for reinforcements against “the Muslims.” Several other “mini-Kondopogas” ensued. The more recent, better-known Manezh Square Moscow riots in 2010 pitted Russian soccer fans and nationalists against those perceived to be from the North Caucasus after a young fan was killed by a man from Kabardino-Balkaria. In 2013, further injuries were incurred when interethnic riots broke out at the Biriulovo market on the outskirts of Moscow, with police seeming to condone Russian youth violence as they arrested many sellers from the Caucasus.

Such disturbances are sometimes fueled by Islamophobic slander against Muslims, and they have sharply increased a climate of mutual suspicion in Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities. This is the context for terrorism that has led to escalating security measures in the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga regions. Muslim youth Jihadists, termed “brothers who have gone to the forest,” are allegedly creating underground cells using impassioned Russian converts as well as local and migrant activists. The recent firebombing of four Russian Orthodox churches in the republic of Tatarstan may mark another stage in the cycle. Muslim and Russian Orthodox elders jointly have condemned the bombing as a “provocation” to turn Tatarstan into another Chechnya. Religious leaders also worry that police overreaction may be a function of enterprising police copycat accusations of crimes or of central authorities’ quota-like expectations of arrests.  Three additional terrorist bombings in the southern Russian town of Volgograd in the lead up to the Sochi Olympics have intensified everyone’s security concerns.

Our best-informed analysts, such as Paul Goble, Irina Starodubrovskaia, Sufian Zhemukhov, and Akhmet Yarlykapov, insist that we should separate diverse kinds of non-traditional Islam from violence-advocating Jihadists. Conflating followers of the theologian Said Nursi with terrorists, or members of Tablighi Jamaat with the more radical group Hizb-ut-Tahir, is counterproductive. This returns us to the Sakha Republic and the need to balance legitimate concern about extremism against overreactions by authorities. On a plane to the Far East last summer, I found myself next to a young energy industry engineer from Dagestan, who shyly explained that he had moved his Muslim family to Yakutsk precisely because it was calm there; the local Sakha and Russians were treating their small Muslim community “like normal people” in the republic. I now fear for his family, but I hope that recent sparks of interreligious and interethnic enmity will be doused by more sane authorities and citizens heeding the needs of a fledgling civil society.

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Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer

Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer is a Research Professor in the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and Eastern European Studies (CERES) and the Department of Anthropology at Georgetown University. Dr. Balzer has research interests in social theory, inter-ethnic relations, religion, the dynamics of nationalism, and the anthropology of the Russian Federation and has done extensive fieldwork in Siberia and Central Asia.

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