- 23rd August (morning)
A SPECIAL REPORT ON ISLAM IN RUSSIA:
Understanding Syria means understanding the Russian position on Syria. To do so it is important to understand Russia’s concerns regarding “the Muslim Question”. The following report is by the NCF’s Russia analyst:
As well as the traditionally recognized heartlands of Islam in the Middle East and South Asia, Muslim countries include nations such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Muslims will be 26.4 percent of the total world population by 2030. The number of Muslims in Western countries with will increase, and Pakistan will overtake Indonesia and become the most populous Muslim country in the world.
Russia has the largest Muslim population in Europe. There are around 19 million Muslims living in Russia. The Muslim share of the country’s population is expected to increase from 11.7% in 2010 to 14.4% in 2030. The growth rate for the Muslim population in the Russian Federation is projected to be 0.6% annually over the next two decades. By contrast, Russia’s non-Muslim population is expected to shrink by an average of 0.6% annually over the same 20-year period.
Russia's overall population is dropping at a rate of 700,000 people a year, largely due to the short life spans and low birth rates of ethnic Russians. But Russia's Muslims are bucking that trend. The fertility rate for Tatars living in Moscow, for example, is six children per woman, while the Chechen and Ingush communities are averaging 10 children per woman. Since 1989, Russia's Muslim population has increased by 40 percent to about 25 million. By 2015, Muslims will make up a majority of Russia's conscript army, and by 2020 a fifth of the population. If nothing changes, in 30 years people of Muslim descent will definitely outnumber ethnic Russians. For many ethnic Russians, the prospect of becoming a minority in their country is unthinkable, because Russia is historically a Slavic, Orthodox Christian land.
Islam is the second most widely professed religion in the Russian Federation. According to a poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 6% of respondents considered themselves Muslims. Muslim minorities make up a seventh (14%) of Russia's population. Muslims constitute the nationalities in the North Caucasus residing between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea: Adyghe, Balkars, Chechens, Circassians, Ingush, Kabardin, Karachay, and numerous Dagestani peoples. Also, populations of Tatars and Bashkirs reside in the middle of the Volga basin, the vast majority of whom are Muslims. Islam is one of Russia’s traditional religions, a part of Russian historical heritage. Kazan has a large Muslim population (probably second only to Moscow’s urban Muslims and the biggest indigenous group in Russia).
Islam arrived in the Caucasus in the late Middle Ages, developing into a moderate form of Sufism infused with local customs. But religion was forced underground during the atheistic years of the Soviet Union. In Dagestan, believers buried their Qurans in the forest and suffered silently as their mosques were destroyed. When religion began to re-emerge in Russia as the Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s, Salafism - a puritanical form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia - began to drift into Russia through Afghanistan. The disillusionment and chaos of the 1990s, as Russia struggled to replace communism with democracy, provided fertile ground for it to take hold.
Since the end of the Soviet Union, only a minority in Russia has accumulated great wealth while the average citizen has been disappointed by lack of opportunity and an increasingly authoritarian government run on corruption and disregard for law. Ethnic tension has grown.
Until recently, it was the insurgency in neighboring Chechnya that had posed the biggest challenge to Russian leaders. But now, it is the traditionally independent Muslims from Caucasus Republics whose resentments turned violent, finding expression in a conservative form of Islam.
In Dagestan, violent and unsolved deaths have become a routine part of life. All policemen have become targets, because they represent government authority and because they are accused of treating the population brutally. Numerous civilians have become collateral victims of these attacks.
Authorities blame Muslim extremists for the unrest. Conservative Muslims blame government repression. The fighting sometimes appears dangerously close to civil war, with imams attacked and killed, alcohol stores blown up, and angry young men taking up arms and going into hiding - which in the North Caucasus is called going to the forest.
In March, 2011, Chechen-born rebel leader Doku Umarov Russia’s most wanted man, called on Muslims throughout the country to wage jihad against the state in videos posted on websites. Umarov, in a separate video, urged his “brothers and sisters in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries” to “create a revolution, and by this I mean instating the word of Islam… the law of Allah”. He also urged the Arab world to usher in radical Islam during the resulting unrest. Umarov, who styles himself the emir of the Caucasus, is hiding in the wooded peaks of Russia’s North Caucasus mountains. He has said he ordered the bombing in January 2011 of Russia’s busiest airport in which 37 people were killed, as well as twin suicide bomb attacks on the Moscow metro. Umarov said he wanted Russia’s occupied Muslim lands such as the oil and petrochemicals producing regions of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, to join in jihad.
Umarov’s words foster fears expressed by Russian leaders Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev who have warned of the dangers of radical Islam being spread by Arab unrest and igniting more unrest in the North Caucasus. Despite the billions of dollars Moscow pours into the North Caucasus, violence is increasing and political analysts say Europe’s largest Islamist insurgency is gaining membership and size.
The growing power of radical Islam in Russia has already become cause for general concern throughout Russia. In July 2012, in the Republic of Tatarstan, which is located in central Russia, top Islamic leaders were attacked. The attack took place on July 19 in the capital of the Central Russian republic of Tatarstan - Kazan. The government-backed Islamic leader - Ildus Faizov - was injured and his deputy (Valilulla Yakupov) killed in two separate attacks. Both men were known for their opposition to radical Islamists who support the strict Salafist version of Islam.
Last year, mufti Faizov was elected supreme leader of Muslims of Tatarstan. After that, he began to make statements about numbers of foreign religious leaders arriving in Tatarstan in support of radical Islamism. Mufti Yakupov acted in the same vein as Faizov. The incident in Tatarstan perhaps indicates just how radical Islam has spread beyond the southern regions.
Islam is not a danger for Russia, whereas radical Islam is. Radical Islam is gaining strength, said the director of the Russian Institute for Middle East Yevgeny Satanovsky. This situation is delicate and could lead to a repeat of the first Chechen war, but this time in the North Caucasus. As for the political leaders in the West, Satanovsky believes that currently there are no leaders who can offer reasonable, balanced and pragmatic policies that can create conditions that prevent terrorism and eliminate jihad.
Today's Russia is engaged in an undeclared war with Islamic extremists. Many Russians associate Islam with extremists from Chechnya, who have carried out dozens of bombings and other attacks against civilians.
Western powers blame Russia for its support for Assad in Syria. However, part of Putin’s support for Assad is a consequence of the fear that if religious extremists win in Syria, or if chaos allows them to develop bases and networks, fighters, money and other things will start moving through the mountainous regions into Russia itself. The so-called “Sunni surge” sweeping the Middle East threatens Russia through the Caucasus and through Central Asia.
Moreover, there are a lot of Russian Muslims in Syria. Estimates of the size of Syria’s Circassian community vary from 55,000-100,000. There are an estimated 5,000 Chechens in Syria, and up to 700 Ossetians.
Bashar al-Assad has close relations with the Circassian minority in Syria and so if the government falls or is otherwise unable to protect the Circassians, the Circassians will look to Assad’s primary backer, Russia, for help. If Russia does not help, it will trigger an immense protest reaction among the Circassians, according to analyst Sufian Zhemukhov. Moscow is very interested in strengthening Assad’s government. Apart from the foreign policy dilemmas, the Syrian crisis clearly has domestic implications for Moscow. In particular, some Russian analysts believe that relocating Syrian Circassians to the North Caucasus and the corresponding increase of the Circassians’ influence in the areas adjacent to the city of Sochi could obstruct the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.