By Paul Goble
Most of the official leaders of Russia’s Muslim community have denounced the Paris terrorist violence as something organized by non-Muslim forces interested in discrediting the umma, but at least 500,000 Muslims in Russia support ISIS and view the attacks very differently, according to Aleksandr Malashenko.
Such divisions will intensify with each new terrorist incident and with Moscow’s increasing involvement in Syria, the Carnegie Moscow Center expert says, leading “not only” to deeper splits within the Muslim community “but also to a growth of Islamophobia … and inter-ethnic tensions” in Russia (carnegie.ru/commentary/2015/11/18/ru-62009/im13).
Russia’s roughly 20 million Muslims, he says, divide in various ways on ISIS, Russia’s actions in Syria and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. “The representatives of the Muslim political establishment and religious usually treat the actions of the Islamic radicals exactly as do the [Russian] authorities,” blaming outside actors rather than Islamist extremists for them.
Such assessments, Malashenko argues, reflect a desire to “’de-Islamicize’ ISIS” and to treat “Islamism as an illness brought from outside, even as ‘a cancerous tumor,’” one that can be eliminated exclusively with the help of ‘forceful surgery.’”
But they “consciously ignore the fact that Islamism is a global religious-political trend which has spread throughout the entire Muslim world and which is based on the idea that it is possible to build a state and society on the basis of Islamic tradition.,” an idea many Muslims find attractive.
There are many Muslims in Russia who support that idea and they are found throughout the country and not just in the North Caucasus as formerly, the Carnegie expert says. The aging traditional clergy isn’t able to compete, and the radicals are taking over many mosques. In addition, they have founded “thousands of Salafi circles” to promote radical views.
“According to various estimates,” he says, “from two to seven thousand Muslims from Russia are now fighting for ISIS.” No one has any exact statistics on “the number of those who sympathize with the Islamic State,” but “their number could reach 500,000” – or about one in every 40 Muslims in Russia.
Of course, he says, not all those who support the idea of an Islamic state back the use of terrorism. Many are as opposed to that as their official leaders. But the idea attracts many and that can’t be ignored, Malashenko says. Nor can Moscow afford to ignore the fact that many Muslims in Russia view the Kremlin’s attacks in Syria “as a war against Islam.”
Many of Russia’s Muslims also believe those behind it should be punished, and their number too will only grow as the fighting continues.
“Today,” Malashenko says, “many write that after November 13 France became different. That is possible. But did Russia become different after Dubrovka or Beslan? On the other hand, the Muslim community in which is taking place differentiation among people and groups over whose interpretation of Islam is most accurate is constantly changing.”