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  • Russias Muslim Strategy by Walter Laqueur

    November 1, 2009 :: Number Six ...

    Islam is Russias fate.This was the prediction made a few years ago by Aleksei Malashenko, one of Rus-sias leading (and most reliable) experts on Islam. This may be an exaggeration, but perhaps not by much.

    Demography is also Russias fate; if the situation and the prospects were less critical, Islam would be less of a threat. With equal justice it could be said that Russias historical misfortune (and fate) are its obsession with imaginary dangers and neglect of real ones. Stalin, it will be recalled, trusted no one, es-pecially not old Bolsheviks, but he was cer-tain that Hitler would not attack the Soviet Union. It is a fascinating syndrome, and one that has again become crucial with the ree-mergence of Russia as an important player in world politics.

    And an important player it is. It took Ger-many a mere fifteen years after defeat in the First World War to reappear as a major power on the global scene. It took Russia about the same time to reemerge after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The reemergence was made possible, above all, by the boom in the price of raw materials such as oil and gas, which Russia has in abundance. Despite all the violent ups and downs in the world econ-omy, the demand for these raw materials will continue to be a source of strength for Rus-sia. At the same time, the new Russia con-


    Walter Laqueur :: Russias Muslim Strategy 1 Middle East Papers :: Middle East Strategy at Harvard

  • fronts major domestic and external chal-lenges that did not exist (or did not exist to the same extent) before. Russias future de-pends upon how well it copes with them.

    One of the main challenges facing Russia is its relationship with Islam, both on the inter-nal front and in foreign policy. It would cer-tainly be too much to say that the Russian leadership and public opinion have failed to recognize this, but the full importance of the issue has not been appreciated. The reasons are not shrouded in secrecy: it is the deeply-rooted belief that America, and the West in general, constitute the main peril facing Rus-sia in the past, present and the foreseeable future.

    In fact, Russia and the West share certain common interests in the Middle East and the Muslim world in general. But a realization of this truth collides with the new Russian doc-trine as it has developed in recent years, ac-cording to which Muslim countries are Rus-sia's natural allies in the inevitable and per-ennial confrontation with the West. This on-going debate, largely ignored in Western capitals, forms the subject of this paper.

    Resistance, romance, neglect

    The Russian encounter with Islam dates back many centuries. In parts of Russia, Islam appeared on the scene before Christianity. Just as Europe was under pressure from the Ottoman Empire for centuries, Russia was threatened by Muslim powers from both the east and south. While the danger to Europe abated after the defeat of the Otto-mans before Vienna in 1689, the

    decisive date for Moscow was 1552 when Ivan IV (the Terrible) occupied Kazan and shortly thereafter the whole middle Volga re-gion. But the still-powerful Crimean Khanate raided southern Russia for many more years, and in 1571 occupied and burned Moscow.

    However, once the wars with the Ottoman empire lost their importance, and the Tsarist empire established itself firmly from the Prussian border to Vladivostok, Russians gave little thought to their relations with Muslim minorities inside Russia and with neighboring Muslim countries. The Russian conquest of the Caucasus inspired two gen-erations of Russian writers from Pushkin and Lermontov to Tolstoi, but it seemed to be just another colonial war, comparable to similar wars fought by other imperial powers. It was the attraction of a strange and exotic world that inspired them, comparable perhaps in some ways to Kiplings fascination with In-dia. There was the occasional hostile or con-temptuous remark, such as Lermontovs fa-mous lullaby about the evil Chechen with his kinzhal (big dagger) crawling about the house, obviously up to no good. The fact that

    Lermontov had called one of his fellow officers a gorets (Muslim highlander) led to the duel in which he lost his life. But by and large, these were the exceptions. Griboe-dov, one of the greatest Rus-sian writers of his day (and a diplomat), was killed by a fanatical mob in the Russian embassy in Tehran. This, though sadly received, did by no means generate Islamo-phobia, as it was considered


    Walter Laqueur :: Russias Muslim Strategy 2 Middle East Papers :: Middle East Strategy at Harvard

  • more or less normal behavior in less civilized countries.

    Islam as a religion and a spiritual influence hardly preoccupied the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian philosophical and religious thinkers of the nineteenth century such as Chaadayev, and the Slavophils Chomyakov and Solovev, occasionally mentioned Islam in their works, but they were not very well-informed about the subject and most of what they wrote was speculation. The Moscow man in the street hardly encountered Islam except perhaps when meeting his janitor; among them, Tatars were strongly repre-sented.

    Resistance against Russian domination con-tinued on a local scale, but it was suppressed by the central authorities without much diffi-culty. Examples include the Central Asia re-bellion in 1916, when about one-third of the Kyrgyz people fled to China; and the Bas-matchi campaign after the Bolshevik take-over, which last almost seven years. These were considered events of limited local im-portancetensions inevitable in the relation-ship between colonial powers and their sub-jects.

    It was widely believed among Western ob-servers in the 1930s and even after the Sec-ond World War, that the Soviet Union, what-ever its other shortcomings, had succeeded in solving the national question. This was the consensus that emerged from the books of experts such as Hans Kohn and Walter Ko-larz. Hannah Arendt shared their view. The impression was not mistakenup to a point. Soviet power had managed to win over sec-tions of the native political elite and to edu-cate a new intelligentsia which accepted the

    official Communist ideology. This local in-telligentsia had been integrated and given leading positions in their republics. Some had even been accepted in the center of power, just as the Caucasian aristocracy had been socially and politically accepted in Tsarist St. Petersburg and Moscow.

    But the general inertia and stagnation (zastoi) of the 1970s and 1980s also had strong re-percussion in the Muslim regions. Brezhnev, who tried to evade conflict whenever possi-ble, upbraided the Central Asians on more than one occasion for not pulling their weight, and for depending on economic and other assistance from the center which could ill afford it, thus becoming more and more of a burden.

    Post-Soviet stress

    The breakdown of the Soviet Union aggra-vated the situation, when it appeared that the often-invoked friendship of the peoples (druzhba narodov) was not, to put it mildly, deeply rooted. Many millions of ethnic Rus-sians left the Central Asian republics, where they were made to feel unsafe and unwanted.

    The major Muslim republics became politi-cally independent, but in many other respects their dependence on Moscow continued or became even stronger. The quality of the new leadership was bad, and the ideology that had faded was partly replaced by Islam and Isla-mism, spearheaded by emissaries from Saudi Arabia and other Arab and Muslim countries. They built hundreds of new mosques, launched various religious-nationalist organi-zations, and reorganized the hadj, the pil-grimage to Mecca (albeit at the modest level of about 20,000 pilgrims a year).


    Walter Laqueur :: Russias Muslim Strategy 3 Middle East Papers :: Middle East Strategy at Harvard

  • The Moscow central authorities tolerated this influx of foreign money and ideas, partly be-cause their main preoccupations were else-where, partly because they felt powerless to intervene. The KGB does seem to have been concerned about the spread of Wahhabi in-fluence, particularly in the northern Cauca-sus, and also the appearance of other radical Muslim sects and movements such as Hizb al-Tahrir. According to some reports, the KGB (now FSB) established some Islamist groupings of its own in order to be better in-formed about the activities of these circles.

    The religious-political reawakening of Islam (and often of radical Islam) coincided with the growth of a radical nationalist mood among the Russian population. This had partly to do with the influx of Muslims in the major Russian cities. Greater Mos-cow is reportedly now the home of close to two million Muslims (many of them illegal resi-dents); it is certainly the European city with the largest Mus-lim population. In the 1990s, individual attacks against Muslims in these cities led to Muslim complaints about the demonization of Islam and, as in Western Europe, growing Islamophobia. In truth, the attacks were usually turf wars in or around local markets, but there is no denying that the very presence of so many alien new-comers generated hostility and xenophobia.

    While the Russian security services worried mainly about the subversive and separatist

    character of radical Islam, the Russian for-eign ministry was preoccupied with the for-eign political impact of anti-Muslim senti-ments on Russ