By Julia Sweet*
In recent years, Russian society has increasingly acknowledged terrorism as a national and global threat. Terrorism, with its significant uncertainty in both the likelihood of occurrence as well as the extent of its consequences, infuses certain public fears and concerns.
There are a number of myths about terrorism and radical Islam, established in Russian society. This article is an attempt to articulate some of myths but not all of them. Among others, I have to emphasize the following: terrorism equals crime, terrorists are mentally ill, all terrorists are Muslims, and US is one of the main sponsors of terrorism.
Problem with the definition: Terrorism as crime
In Russia, terrorism is interpreted as a criminal act, which embraces such illegal actions as hooliganism, burglary, weapon trade, human trafficking, etc. Putin’s administration has portrayed terrorists as bandits, members of criminal gangs or criminal elements, and used these notions interchangeably. In fact, the Russian government demonstrated a flexible approach to “terrorism”: during the second Chechen war, people who advocated for the independence of Chechnya were demonized as “criminals”, “terrorists” and “bandits”. For instance, in 2012, during the meeting Putin reported that “ … during last months, the FSB, military forces and police conducted joined operations, where they detained 479 bandits and killed 313 terrorists, which did not want to obey…” . In the speech after the Boston bombing of 30 March 2011, Putin called the brothers Tzarnaev criminals but not terrorists!
However, terrorism is more than a run-of-the-mill criminal action. Underlining the political aspect of terrorism, Russian politicians rarely refer to its ideological base, which makes hard to compare terrorists with other criminals. On one hand, the majority of people do not observe religion as an important part of social life, and as a result, Russians are ready to equalize terrorists and criminals. On the other hand, in the Russian mind, Islam is connected to terrorism; they barely understand this connection which leads to stereotyping and the oversimplification of terrorism as a phenomenon (all Muslims are terrorists; All terrorists are Muslims). In part, this can be explained by the atheist Soviet heritage, the inability of the Russian Church to raise its reputation within its own population, low interest in religion, and the absence of knowledge about Islam and its radical sects. For instance, according to the Levada survey of 2015, 26 % of respondents stressed that they have no knowledge about Islam and Muslim traditions.
Terrorists are mentally ill people
Our media was not perceptive about how frequently and in what way it presents terrorism. So, discussing terrorism, a common speculation that people hold is that ‘terrorism is a sign of insanity or mental illness or that terrorism is a mark of a lunatic fringe. This suggests that terrorist behavior is only adopted by deranged individuals with poor education, detrimental habits (drugs), criminals, or people with a criminal past. Sergei Goncharov, a Chief of “Alfa” Veteran organization and a deputy of the Moscow city Duma stresses that terrorists are irrational actors which are stimulated by drugs or antipsychotic medicine. The same suggestions of psychological abnormality were expressed by the following political figures such as Zhirinovsky , Zyuganov, Putin, Patrushev , etc. Nonetheless, the reality is different. Alla Saprikina, a suicidal terrorist, had a high education and worked in the Russian Theater in Dagestan. Doku Umarov had an engineering degree. Zakaev Akxmed had a university degree. Such perception leads to misconceptions about terrorism of terrorism and its nature.
All terrorists are Muslims
Interestingly, people that participated on multiple Russian TV reality shows, (including Orthodox clerics, common people, intellectuals, political figures) do not take reports about Russian terrorists (converts to Islam) seriously. Despite the high involvement of Russian coverts in terror attacks against Russian citizens, there is no concern to raise this issue or discuss it. Several documentaries, produced by the most popular TV channels, reveal detailed information about converts’ activities in radical organizations, views, testimonies of relatives, friends and coworkers. But they failed to ignite a public interest to this problem.
Despite the fact that the number of Russian converts to radical Islam is not very significant, they present a threat to national security, as well as to the image of the entire Muslim community. Some Muslim clerics and scholars underline that converts were engaged in more ferocious actions than ethnic Muslims . They suggest that the conversion of Russians to Islam is a dangerous event because non-Muslims often join to radicals . Dmitry Sokolov, Anna-Amnat Saprikina, and Vitaly Razbydko – these Russian converts are well known in Russia. Although, there is a litany of Russian converts who conducted terror actions against innocent people.
The US is one of the main sponsors of terrorism
In many speeches Putin, Patrushev, Medvedev, as well as military experts, and hosts of shows underline the decisive role of the US in sponsoring terrorism and rejecting beneficial cooperation in the count-terrorism field. They have tried to deliver and incorporate the idea about the US helping terrorist groups and organizations which challenge the unity of the Russian Federation through emotional appearances, images, expert’s opinions, or public speeches. To support these speculations, people are referred to 9/11. Shortly after the attack, the media circulated various conspiracy theories (for example, Dylan Avery and Jason Bermas).
Politicians made direct and indirect statements about US double standards in the international stage and support to certain terrorist organizations. For instance, Patrushev repeatedly underlines the dubious role of the leading Western democracies and in particular, the US in the global fight against terrorism. Such statements allowed common people to make wrong conclusions.
Worth noting is that the traditional anti-Americanism of the post-Soviet society, which is now revived, made the people ready to accept the most unreal falsifications. For instance, during the TV reality show “Vockrecnij Veter c Vladimirom Colov’evim” in May 2013, an Islamic cultural leader, Djemal received a higher online score among Russian audience than his opponent, Professor Satanovcky; Djemal stressed that Bin Laden was not killed by the US troops, and that this military operation was another concocted story for American voters .
These myths prevent a clear comprehension of the reality and modern threats in this fast changing world. On one hand, under the burden of these assumptions, Russian society cannot adequately address security concerns to the authority. On the other hand, the government receives an opportunity to manipulate by wrong assumptions in order to strengthen control over its people.
About the author:
*Julia Sweet, PhD Candidate, Rutgers University, NJ
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy