The Contest Over Islam in Russia

Opinion

The Contest Over Islam in Russia

Rafael Ibrahimov

10 Nov 2015

Russia's religious landscape is fast changing, and a contest over religious practice in the country's heartland has implications both for Russia's internal stability and it's geopolitics, writes Rafael Ibrahimov.

The religious tapestry of today's Russia is radically different to that of the Soviet era. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union the country has borne witness to a struggle between the traditionalist version of Islam observed by the indigenous Muslim community and radical Salafi ideology. From the plains of the Volga River to the gritty Siberian permafrost the fiercest of ideological battles is raging.

This battle has been fought in towns and villages stretching across the Volga-Ural region and has seen the emergence of a distinctive new group: Slavic or ethnic Russian Muslims. Although a recent phenomenon (with roots in the late 1990s) and modest in number, this group is becoming increasingly influential in the religious dynamics of the country. So what do we know about these ethnic Slavic Muslims?

First, they are of great strategic importance to the Russian state. It's noteworthy that the main regions hosting Russia's long-standing Muslim population abound in natural resources and are instrumental to the country's economic prosperity. The two largest groups of non-Slavic Muslims are primarily Sunnis of the Hanafi and Shafi madhabs (schools of jurisprudence) spread across a vast territory of nearly 700,000 square miles. The autonomous okrugs (federal districts) of Khanty-Mansy and Yamalo-Nenets are behemoths for hydrocarbon production and are accountable for about one third of all revenues pouring into the state budget. Therefore, both the country's economic and political wellbeing hinges upon stability in these regions.

It is common for two sermons to be preached at Friday prayers: one traditionalist, one Salafi.

To a large extent the growth in the number of Russian Muslims is closely linked to the spread of Salafi ideology. Its popularity is in part attributable to the spiritual vacuum that arose in the post-Communist era and the popular frustration that traditional Islam does not address topical existential questions. However, this is not just the case for the traditionally Muslim population; Slavic Russians are increasingly remote from their spiritual roots. Reports place the pace of religious conversion at three ethnic Russians a week for every mosque. In some areas Russian converts now constitute 40 per cent of the congregants in mosques.

This new religious landscape is most evident in the role that Salafi imams play in local communities. They have integrated into the official religious structure and commonly present a high level of competence. Many have been educated in the Middle East and possess a significant educational advantage to the local Hanafi and Shafi madhab representatives. Salafi doctrine has created a parallel religious infrastructure, which is increasingly displacing that of traditional Islam. It is common practice for two khutbas (sermons) to be preached at the same mosque at Friday prayers, one traditionalist and one Salafi.

The efforts of the traditional clergy to check the growth of Salafism are undermined at grassroots level by immigrants from Russia's 'near abroad,' domestically raised Salafis and to a much lesser extent proselytisers from the 'far abroad.' These terms were coined in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to denote the former-USSR countries and the rest of the world, respectively.

However, it is not just religion that is driving the growth in conversion to Islam. Economic factors have a profound role to play. Amid poverty and unemployment the advantages of joining the Salafi ranks are numerous. Salafi communities are widely viewed as the purveyors of financial assistance, jobs and protection. Even the penitentiary system is not beyond the Salafi sphere of influence. Notably in 2013, an unusually high number of Slavic conversions to Islam was observed in the Khanty-Mansiysk prison.

Salafi communities are widely viewed as the purveyors of financial assistance.

Whilst it's impossible to determine Russia's exact Muslim population, various sources broadly coalesce on 20 million. The number of ethnic Slavic Muslims is even less certain, varying between extremes of a few thousand to 300,000. Whilst official clerical organisations tend to understate the figure, local law enforcement bodies, especially in areas high in Salafi influence, contradict them. For instance, the Astrakhan Police estimate that over a thousand Slavic Muslims live in the southern city.

Inside Russia, there is mounting concern about the frequency of progression from conversion to extremism. The recent case of Varvara Karaulova, a student of Moscow State University, attempting to join ISIS shortly after converting to Islam has sparked a debate within Russian society. Rinat Pateev, a Russian academic, believes that terrorism "by Slavic Muslim extremists is always more radical than that carried out by ethnic Muslims." Gusman Ishakov, Chairman of the Muslims of Tatarstan Directorate states that "examples of ethnic Russians' conversions are worrying: they usually have an increased propensity to aggression." Notable examples of this are terrorist attacks perpetrated by Russian Muslims, which include: the 2012 suicide bombing of the Daghestani cleric Sheikh Said by Anna Saprikina; the 2011 explosion in Pyategorsk perpetrated by Viktor Dvorakovskiy; and attacks by the leader of a North Caucasus jihadi group, led by former-Buddhist Alexander Tikhomirov.

Rais Suleymanov from the Centre of Ethno-religious Researches of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, has stated that after "converting to Islam Russian Muslims are eager to display their religious devotion and ...that they are equal to the ethnic Muslim members of the community. This 'newly-converted' syndrome may easily lead to radicalism... Conversion is welcome but an ethnic Russian Muslim will always play a secondary role in the community hierarchy... They will always be like someone accepted by the others but an outsider amidst their own."

Whilst it's clear that the religious conversion of Slavic Russians to Islam arises from a response to religious disillusionment, economic stagnation and a lack of any meaningful spiritual alternative, the role played by Salafi ideology in this resurgence of religiosity is significant. Many fear that this fact may come with the threat of greater propensity for radicalisation. The Russian government and religious authorities now face a challenge of an economic, political and spiritual nature. Russia's stance in the Middle East, perceived by many in the region as being against the Sunni world at large, can only play into narratives of victimhood. The challenge now lies in adopting a domestic policy of religious tolerance and inclusion, one that does not further marginalise the groups that are most vulnerable to radicalisation.

 

Sign up to receive the Roundup

Sign up to our Centre on Religion & Geopolitics Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.