Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Approach to Islam Seen Threatening Russia’s Future

by Paul A. Goble  |  May 4, 2005  |  ARTICLES

Moscow’s confrontational approach toward the rapidly increasing Muslim population of the Russian Federation already has helped to generate Islamic fundamentalism there and if continued may ultimately threaten both that country’s territorial integrity and even the survival of Russian culture as such.

That sweeping and disturbing judgment is offered by Aleksei Ignatenko, a Saint Petersburg-based scholar who has written frequently on Moscow’s relationships with the Muslim world and on the growing impact of Islam both in Western Europe and in the Russian Federation (http://www.rosbalt.ru/print/211284.html).

Ignatenko links the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Russian Federation to Moscow’s decision to invade Chechnya in 1994.  Prior to that time, Russia’s Muslims used either Arabic or Kazan Tatar in their religious services, something that had the effect of reinforcing the quiescence they inherited from Soviet times.

But after 1994, ever more Muslim refugees from the Caucasus appeared in the mosques of major Russian cities. And because they did not speak either Arabic or Tatar, these refugees helped push many mosques to conduct their services in Russian, a development that helped spread the anger of the North Caucasians to other groups.

The Russian government’s response, Ignatenko continues, only exacerbated that problem. Like its tsarist and Soviet predecessors, the Russian authorities adoped a confrontational stance, insisting that all Muslims who did not subordinate themselves to the state-supported Muslim Spiritual Directorates were enemies.

These institutions, which were created by Catherine the Great in 1778 and which have no basis in Islamic theology or practice, had the effect not of reining in the Muslim communities of the Russian Federation but rather of further radicalizing Russia’s Muslims, Ignatenko says.

That would be dangerous enough, the Saint Petersburg writer insists, but demographic forces are transforming that danger into a genuine threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation and even to the continuation of the Russian culture in anything like its current form. “The asymmetry between the growth of the Islamic population [of the Russian Federation] and the depopulation of Russians is creating the threat of a geopolitical catastrophe,” Ignatenko argues, one that could lead to the secession of the Muslim Middle Volga -- known to Turkic speakers as Idel-Ural -- and thus cut Russia in half.

Some officials – including Sergei Gradirovskiy, the advisor to the Presidential Plenopotentiary in that region – understand that threat and have urged that Moscow reach out to Muslims rather than push them away.  But Ignatenko notes, their projects -- christened as “Russian Islam”-- have drawn more criticism than support from Moscow.

And consequently, Ignatenko suggests, there may be an even greater threat lying in wait for the Russian Federation as a whole.  Noting that both Russia and Western Europe are likely to be Islamicized over the next century, Ignatenko draws a sharp contrast between what he says Europeans are doing and what Russians are.

Ignatenko argues that history suggests that countries subjected to Islamization have two options, which he calls the Egyptian and the Iranian approaches. The Egyptian, he says, failed “to adapt its culture to Islam and thus became an Arabic Republic.” The Iranian, on the other hand, was able to do so and thus “saved” its ancient national culture. 

Despite all the popular anger about Islamic in-migration, Ignatenko insists, Europeans are more prepared than Russians are to enter into a dialogue with Muslims there who support the ideas of EuroIslam, a point of view within the Muslim world that sees Islam and democracy as fundamentally compatible.

Europe is thus responding to Islam the way that the Iranians did, Ignatenko says, and such an approach will help to ensure that the fundamentals of European culture will survive with its Muslim population being Europeanized even as Europe itself is being Islamicized.

The current Russian government, in contrast, is taking just the opposite tact, Ignatenko says, refusing to reach out to Muslims and indeed pushing them away.  On the one hand, that is not only further radicalizing Muslim opinion but deepening and sharpening the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims there.

And on the other, if it continues into the future, such an approach almost guarantees that once the Muslims do gain a majority in the Russian Federation, they are less likely to have been Russianized that the Muslims of Europe are to be Europeanized, something that would put Russian culture after a thousand-year run at risk. 

Ignatenko’s argument is certain to strike most people as overblown and wrong.  It is far from clear, for example, that the Western Europeans are doing quite as much to reach out to Islam as he suggests, and it is unlikely that Moscow’s policies toward Islam will remain unchanged as Muslims become an ever larger share of the population there.

But the very starkness with which he lays out the alternatives and the way in which he links current Russian policies, the radicalization of Muslim opinion, and the possible dangers ahead for the Russian Federation may spark a new debate about whether the Kremlin’s current approach, one he describes as “clumsy,” should in fact continue.