Russian Campaign Against Muslim Moderates Strengthens Islamist Extremists


Those Russians who oppose the modernization and integration of Russia’s Muslims into the political and social life of their country are unwittingly providing support to the Islamist radicals who argue that “there is no chance for normal legal work for the development of Islam” in Russia, two Muslim commentators say.

Indeed, Ruslan Kurbanov and Rinat Mukhametov argue in a lengthy article on the “Russky zhurnal” portal, this ongoing campaign against those within the Russian umma who want to modernize Islam represents “a serious threat to the common state interests of security and development” (

The occasion for their article, Kurbanov and Mukhametov say, is “the unceasing media-administrative campaign against the Union of Muftis of Russia [SMR]and its leader [Ravil Gainutdin]” and the fact that this campaign is “a clear testimony to the sharpening of the situation in the social-religious life of the country.”

They say that there are now “serious concerns that influential forces would like to exclude even the potential possibility of the enlivening and even more productive activity of domestic Muslims not to speak about some sort of more serious steps such as attempts at the unification” of the Russian umma.

“No one is obligated to love Islam and Muslims,” they continue, but such efforts, “which are trying to tie down the Russian umma hand and foot represent a serious threat” to Russia, and it is not surprising, they point out that “all this is being carefully observed by the imamate ‘forest,’” a reference to the militants in the North Caucasus and elsewhere.

Unlike Talgat Tajuddin of the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD), Ismail Berdiyevof the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus, and Mukhammad Rakhimov of the Russian Association of Islamic Accord (RAIS), Gainutdin and his SMR have attracted negative comment precisely because of their support for Muslim modernization.

The SMR, in contrast to the three other umbrella MSDs, “has been attempting to lead young people along the path of what is called ‘constructive Jihad,’ of legal Islamic social, cultural, media, intellectual and other types of activity,” Kurbanov and Mukkhametov say, “and this for various reasons does not please a large number of people.”

Much of Gainutdin’s program remains “the level of declaration,” they note, “but this positive example of the possibility of the normal peaceful development of Islam, the modernization and integration of the Muslim intelligentsia and young people” is attracting the interest “of all Muslim Russia.”

That is because Gainutdin and his SMR represent the possibility that Muslims in Russia will be able to “establish real and effective mechanisms and models of adaptation of Islam within the framework of contemporary Russian statehood,” something “without which, the solution of the problem of extremism is impossible.”

“Islamophobes” – and these are “completely definite forces with political and financial interests,” the two writers continue, “do not see a future for Islam in Russia.” Some of them believe that Islam should not be part of a Russian nation state, and others argue that Islam should be reduced in influence so that Russian can become “part of the Western world.”

But both the one and the other, Kurbanov and Mukhametov say, “however suprising this may appear, are in agreement with the so-called ‘forest brothers’ in the Caucasus and with all those who sympathize with them [because] they too do not see Islam and Muslims as an inalienable part of Russia and Russian identity.”

The attacks on Gainutdin and the SMR, the two Muslim writers say, reflects a faulty logic, one that if applied to the Russian Orthodox Church would require everyone to blame Patriarch Kirill for the actions of the skinheads and serial murders of non-Russians. “We do not think that a discussion at this level is useful for the Russian state.”

Kurbanov and Mukhametov devote most of their article to a discussion of the history of Russian attitudes toward Islam and Muslim organizations, and they demonstrate that both in the pre-1917 period and now, Islamophobes opposed any modernization of Islam and promoted both the spread of Orthodox Christianity and Russification.

But in contrast to the sophistication of the pre-revolutionary leaders of this approach, the current Islamophobes are destroying their own case by promoting discredited leaders within Islam, leader who, Kurbanov and Mukhametov says, are “not cable of influencing Muslims the muftis of which they consider themselves to be,” in the hopes of destroying the umma.

The government-assisted rise of such leaders, they say, represents “a big gift to ‘the forest,’” one that the Caucasus Emirate “could not have imagined on its own.” The propagandists of that group treat what the Islamophobes are doing in Russia as evidence of the rightness of the struggle against Moscow.

“In ‘kafir’ Russia,” the Emirate’s propagandists say, “Leaders are imposed on Muslims who have lost any authority as a result of their declarations and activity; consequently, the development of Islam is blocked; and that in turn means that ‘our task is right’ and that ‘we will win.’”
In this way, and despite the failure of many to understand what is going on, Kurbanov and Mukhametov say, “the attack on the modernization of Muslim institutions is an attack on the security” of the country as a whole, all the more so because “without modernization [of the country],” Russia will not be able to respond to the challenges of the 21st century.
Those who oppose modernization generally and in the Muslim umma “are only playing into the hands of those who want that Russian Muslims do not feel themselves masters in their own land and of those … would like to remove the ‘Muslim’ bricks from the building of the single state and thus make possible the destruction of our entire common home.”
Russia’s Islamophobes oppose the consolidation of the umma on a platform of modernization, the two writers argue, and believe that the difficulties within the Islamic community there are not “problems of growth” but systemic and that “Islam always will be a factor of destabilization and a headache” for Russia.
These opponents of Muslims “advise the bureaucrats that it is necessary to continue the course on the step by step elimination of Islam – not ‘Islamism’ and ‘Wahhabism’ but Islam as such.” And to that end, they urge that “the official Islamic institutions in Russia remain at the level of Soviet times.”
But such an approach entails some really tragic consequences, Kurbanov and Mukhametov argue. It means that those really interested in Islam will be forced to go into “semi-legal or even illegal” places, that the official leaders will remain “illiterate and reactionary,” and that Islam n Russia will again be reduced to “rituals” rather than “faith.”
“In fact,” they say, what Islamophobes like Roman Silantyev are calling for would represent “a return to the pre-Catherine policy toward Islam, the core idea of which was Christianization by any means, including the use of force,” an approach that will in the present circumstances lead to an explosion.
That is because “the formation of the umma and the Islamic awakening in Russia are an irreversible process,” the two Muslim writers say. “The point of no-return has been passed.” The modernizers understand this and want to ensure that the rebirth of Islam takes place within Russia, while “the Islamophobes and ‘the forest brothers’ want this not to happen.”
“For different reasons, the one and the other do not want to see Islam within Russia.” But “sooner or later, a normal working system of interrelationships with Muslims will have to be developed. Those who have any doubts about this should carefully study the results of the last census of the population.”
“In order to avoid problems,” Kurbanov and Mukhametov say, “it would be better to do this sooner rather than later. The state, the Russian people, the Union of Muftis and ‘the modernizers’ have an interest in doing it sooner. The Islamophobes and ‘the forest’ want it to happen as late as possible or better still not at all.”

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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