ISSN 2330-717X

Ethnic Russian Converts To Islam Adding To Islamization Of Russian North – OpEd

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Nearly four years ago, Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist Dmitry Steshin called attention to the growing number of Central Asian and Caucasian Muslims working in the oil and gas cities of the Russian North and warned that local officials are at a loss as to what to do (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2017/11/there-could-be-siberian-khalifate-in.html).

The influx of workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus to the Russian North has continued, and some of them have become radicalized via the Internet and the work of diasporas. But according to observers there, often those most radical Muslims are recent Russian converts to the faith.

In a new Komsomolskaya Pravda article, journalist Darya Aslamova surveys the views of officials, members of the diasporas, and of a local Russian Orthodox priest. All agree that the ethnic Russian converts are an increasing problem precisely because they are far more likely to be radical than others (kp.ru/daily/27277/4412147/).

Workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus are often “ethnic” Muslims. That is, they are people who identify as Muslims but do not make Islam the center of their lives. Moreover, they generally know what is expected of them by others and do not challenge the latter by public displays of their commitments.

But Russian converts are another matter. They pray where they shouldn’t or at least where they are certain to offend Russians. They insist that Russian women who marry them wear the hijab even if women in their homelands often don’t. And they are ready for recruitment to radical causes in Russia or abroad, officials and experts say.

Father Sergiy, the pastor of a Russian Orthodox Church in a northern oil and gas city, says that he isn’t surprised ethnic Russians are converting to Islam. “We are Ivans who don’t remember our backgrounds,” he says. “And when someone with a clearly expressed and tough position talks to young Russians without a spiritual core, this is always attractive.”

            “It is simply the case,” Sergiy says, “that we are degrading. There are no authorities. And the church now is a voice crying in the wilderness. It calls, but who listens?”

To be sure, the numbers of ethnic Russian Muslims even in the northern cities is small, and the percentage of representatives of Muslim nationalities in the general population of such cities is still under a third. But the numbers of both are growing, and the ethnic Russian Muslims are now a real challenge to public order, Aslamova says.

\Appended to her article is a comment by Aleksey Starostin, a Yekaterinburg historian who specializes on Islam and Islamic peoples. He says that the Khanty-Mansiisk district is “a unique Siberian region” in that about 15 percent of its population consists of Muslims, mostly from the Middle Volga, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Those from the Middle Volga, mostly Tatars and Bashkirs, have never presented a problem; but radicalism was widespread among the Central Asians and Caucasians until the local authorities clamped down hard between 2015 and 2020. But now the powers that be are confronted by a new challenge.

Using both the Internet and personal contacts, the remaining Islamists are recruiting others not only from their own ethnic communities but from ethnic Russians as well. These people are the real radicals now, Starostin says, because their Islam is not moderated by national traditions or by the impact of Soviet policies.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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