By Paul Goble
The Russian government and its media routinely treat all Muslims as potential terrorists, Denis Sokolov says, creating a dangerous situation in which “terrorism, the struggle with it, and the criminal world are fused into a single market of force, subordinate to the laws of the marketplace and not to the Constitution and conspiracies of the special services.”
“And this market,” the Moscow sociologist says, “unfortunately is becoming the main driver of [Moscow’s] domestic and foreign policy. And this war with an entire religious group … where the frontline is between citizens of one country can lead to a situation in which the market of force simply swallows the state, together with its power vertical.”
Writing in Vedomosti, the head of Moscow’s RAMCON Research Center says that the situation has deteriorated in the wake of the St. Petersburg bombings because both the regime and the population think that any moves against Muslims are justified as a form of insurance against terror (vedomosti.ru/opinion/articles/2017/04/11/685050-pobeda-nad-razumom).
And they are especially ready to apply harsh penalties against any Muslim from Russia who has gone abroad for whatever reason, forgetting that while “about 7,000” Russian citizens have fought (and about 3500 have died) fighting for ISIS, there are “tens of thousands absolutely peaceful Muslims who have emigrated from Russia because of fears for their freedom and life.
Despite their experience in their homeland, these people “do not intend to take part in the caliphate or a war or ‘Islamic terrorism,’” and acting as if they all are doing so and as if their relatives at home can be mistreated or used as hostages only has the effect of helping the radicals by radicalizing more of their number.
According to Sokolov, “the majority of emigres never have supported armed struggle or international terrorism: they simply were forced to flee and have not returned. Among this many-thousands-strong flow are preachers, imams, leaders of communities, several former muftis of entire Russian regions, Islamic activists, journalists and enlighteners.”
In short, they constitute “a large part of the intellectual and spiritual leaders” of the Muslim community of “the former CIS” now are in exile. And this means, although Sokolov does not say so, that once again the Muslims of Russia are being left without their own domestic transmission mechanisms, something that has potentially serious consequences as well.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the communists expelled or killed almost all the imams, mullahs and muftis, degrading the members of traditionally Muslim nationalities to the status of “ethnic Muslims,” that is, people who knew they were Muslim but did not know what being a Muslim entailed.
Such people were thus especially at risk of being led astray by radical Muslim missionaries after it became possible, in the wake of the collapse of the USSR, for such people to to enter Russia and the other post-Soviet states. Now, albeit in a slightly different way, Moscow is taking steps that could provoke similar burst of radicalization in a much less distant future.
Sokolov continues: “In Russia and the Central Asian republics, using laws on extremism and an imprecise set of definitions which leave an enormous space for local initiatives, Muslims are being kidnapped, arms and drugs are being planted on them, and they are given enormously long jail sentnences.”
“While we are citizens of one country, we in fact live in various world: In the North Caucasus, for example, the torture of prisoners has long been the norm, and the persecution of people for different opinions was practiced 15 years before the adoption of the Yarovaya law.”
In Central Asia, he points out, there has been “a wave of ethnic and religious cleansings from Namgan and Andizhan in Uzbekistan to Osh in Kyrgyzstan.” And many Muslims in western Kazakhstan in recent years “have been arrested or have emigrated.”
There are two distinct “generations” of Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in Syria: the first consists of members of the Caucasus Emirate and the second of newly urbanized young people “who in the 1990s moved from auls into the cities.” There Islamic knowledge came from “the Internet and [so-called] ‘Google sheikhs.’”
At the present time, the behavior of the Russian authorities is driving many Muslims to emigrate and some to join the ranks of ISIS, Sokolov says. Far more effective in convincing Muslims from Russia not to join that group have been those who are convinced Muslims or those who have gone to fight and been horrified by what they have seen.
Unfortunately, he continues, the Russian authorities view both such groups as the enemy rather than as potential allies; and consequently, if Moscow continues to view all Muslims as a threat, the number who will become one almost certainly will grow first in Syria and then in the Russian Federation itself.
As the sociologist concludes, “It is impossible to deny the terrorist character of the Caucasus Emirate which is banned in Russia; but as an opponent of ISIS, it is very effective.” Unless Moscow can learn to make such distinctions, the future will be very bleak indeed.