After Volvograd: Thoughts on Russian Islam, Terrorism in Russia, & What It Means for Pakistan

Published in Hilal English Feb 2014

Written By: Didier Chaudet

For the last few years, more or less regularly, there had been terrorist attacks in Russia. The terrorist attacks in Volvograd were only the last example of a security-related problem that has been around for a while. The international media talks about it, and later forgets about it, until the next attack, making the situation difficult to understand, at best. At worst, Russia is described as “islamophobic” by some Western analysts, as a force eager to destroy its Muslims. Of course, there are tensions between the Russian Center, which is traditionally Orthodox Christian, and a periphery, North Caucasus, which is overwhelmingly Muslim. But somebody reading Western analysts on Pakistan can know all too well how they can over-simplify issues, to say the least. And for the author of this paper, it is clear that Russia is suffering from the same biased Western approach. And analysis on Russian Islam is just a collateral damage of such fact.

What is the situation of the Muslim minority in Russia? First, one should know that the main Muslim minorities in Russia are not Chechen or Dagestani (from North Caucasus) but rather Tatar (the 2nd ethnic group in Russia, and a third of the Russian Muslims) and Bashkir (the 4th ethnic group in Russia, 11% of the Muslims). Indeed, they have been conquered by a Russian state dominated by Christian Slavs. But one should keep in mind that before Russians could dominate them, they were dominated by those Tatars, Bashkirs, and other Muslim populations included in what was called the “Golden Horde”.

Traditional History focuses too often about conquests, victories and defeats, without taking into account the cultural and people’s histories. And when one takes this more modern approach, it is possible to follow the point of view of one of the most important Tatar intellectuals (and an advisor to the first Tatar President, Mintimer Shamaiev), Rafael Khakimov: he analyzes the Russian state not as a Slav project, but rather as a Tatar-Russian one, born already from the time of the Kipchak Khanate (another name of the Golden Horde). At first the Eurasian area was dominated by a political structure that had chosen Islam as its state religion by 1313, under the reign of the Khan Uzbeg. Then the Tsars, their former vassals, imposed their suzerainty. But such historical issues are far away from modern Russian Muslim minds. Nowadays, when one talks to a Muslim Tatar or Bashkir, or to a Christian Slav, what matters is not the rejection of the “Tatar Yoke” by Ivan III, but rather the memories of the “Great Patriotic War” (Second World War), when all of them had a grandfather fighting and often dying in the Russian/Soviet war to the death with the Third Reich. As the Russian saying goes, “Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tatar”… Muslims, at least outside of the North Caucasus, are indeed seen as 100% Russians by the vast majority of the population.

It may be linked to the fact that actually, differences in terms of religiosity and ways of life are not that important. The issue is not any given religion in Russia, but rather the lack of it. Russian Christians and Muslims are both strongly secularized. Indeed, if official numbers talk about 80 million Orthodox Christians, the real numbers, according to specialists, are closer to 40 million Russians being still linked, one way or another, by this religious tradition. As for the Russian Muslims, in 2010, they were 16.4, after being 14.64 million in 2005. This is indeed a substantial minority, but again here, one could talk about Islam as a tradition for most of them, rather than as a strong religious way of life. After all, according to a 2007 study from Gallup, 50% of the Russian Muslims drink alchohol, 27% eat pork, 46% do not know how to pronounce the Shuhada, and 49% never pray (66% for the younger generations). Hence, for better and for worst, Russian Muslims and Orthodox Christians are culturally and religiously very similar.

Hence, if there are tensions, it is less because of a specific “Islamophobia” than related to an all-too-real “Caucasophobia”. Mainly because North Caucasus has a pretty different history from the other Russian Islamic territories. It was conquered in a colonialist fashion at the end of the 19th century. But it was a difficult conquest of proud people with a natural rejection of control of by a far-away centre. Between 1940 and 1944, the Chechens and their North Caucasian cousins, the Ingush (together they known as the “Vainakh” people) rebelled against the Kremlin, hoping the Second World War would destroy the Russian/Soviet state. But it did not work, and North Caucasian people were punished, like others, for “collaboration” with the Third Reich. The Chechens were condemned to an exodus to Central Asia that killed 100,000 of them. It is no surprise that after the fall of the Soviet Union, they were very eager to gain their independence. They won a de facto recognition of their independence after a first war against Russian troops (1994-1996). But for obvious reasons such situation was unbearable for the Russian Federation. The USSR had already fragmented, and for the Russians as well as numerous other post-Soviet people, it has been a trauma, as it has meant the loss of an important international status and well as of a state that was providing schools, hospitals, and other advantages to the average citizen. All of this was replaced by a weaker state, more corrupted in the 1990s than it was before, with oligarches and criminal groups taking over the economy of the country.

With the end of the First Chechen War, the formerly mighty Russian Army felt humiliated, and the Russian political elites began to fear another partition of the country. The former Interior Minister A. Kulikov summarized the feelings of numerous Russians when he said in 1999 “a state inside the Russian Federation's Borders (which) does not recognize Russian federal law… does threaten the integrity and security of Russia”. Vladimir Putin has built his political ascent as an answer to those national fears. When some jihadist groups decided to influence warlords in Chechnya and to use their country as a safe haven to strike elsewhere in North Caucasus, he did not hesitate to start a second Chechen War. Militarily it had been a success: the Chechen independent state had been conquered. But at what cost politically? During Yeltsin's presidency already, the Kremlin had done everything possible to isolate the independent Chechnya diplomatically, making sure it does not get the economic means to work as a normal state. Doing so, it made life difficult for the moderate nationalists who were in power… giving the more extremist ones, influenced by radical foreigners like the jihadist Ibn al-Khattab the means to get more influence politically. The Second Chechen War, from 1999, was the final stroke against the moderates in the Chechen separatist side. Now the ones controlling the rebellion in the North Caucasus are the most extreme kind of nationalist, associated with jihadists having the dream of a Clash of Civilizations.

It is a well-known fact that some have been fighting in Syria on the side of the rebels. Their ideological vision of their political fight makes compromise impossible now. Indeed, they represent only a minority of people in Chechnya and North Caucasus. But it is exactly why they do not limit themselves to Chechnya anymore: they have been using local nationalisms of the different people of the region, as well as the regional exasperation with local corruption and with the violence of the local security forces, to find new recruits. Because of a political approach being only based on repression, the Russian state has been losing the war for the hearts and minds of the people in North Caucasus. It makes the Kremlin even more dependent of the local satraps who are the main source of the discontent of the people. This political vicious circle explains how rebellion against the Russian state can still exist 15 years after the Second Chechen War already began… But besides the need to better understand a situation one can hear about on the news, why is it of interest for Pakistan to follow news related to Russian Muslim populations?

First, it is important for Pakistani policy-makers to get their own understanding of Russia as a whole. If they rely only on analysis from abroad, mainly in English, coming from the United States and the UK, they will only get a dark image of the Kremlin, and the idea that Russia could only be seen as an enemy of Islam. As we have shown here, relations between Russia and Islam are much more complex, and the same way this country considers itself as a bridge between Europe and Asia, it is in more ways than only a cultural and religious bridge, from a historical point of view, between Christianity and Islam. To see Russia this way, and not only as a European country, can help make relationships easier and more natural between Pakistan and Russia; it could be interesting to build a people-to-people relationship, with Pakistani religious scholars invited to Russia to see the Islamic specificities of the local Muslims, understand their history, and their life in a non-Muslim country, while Russians from religious institutions (with a priority for Muslims of course, but also Orthodox Christians) could be invited in Pakistan to discover a world much more diverse religiously and culturally than what they would think. Because the same way some Pakistanis can think that Russians are “islamophobic”, the Russians can have a dark image of Pakistan because of information they are getting… mostly from American and English newspapers. It is time for Pakistan and Russia to discover each other by themselves, and a good way for Pakistan to do that is through an interest in Russian Muslims, and through relationships with Russian Muslim institutions. Over time Islamic institutions and personalities from Russia could be a natural bridge between Moscow and Islamabad.

Second, the issues that Russia has to deal with in North Caucasus and the ones Pakistan has to deal with in FATA, if they are not totally similar, are not without commonalities. In the two cases, it is a security problem based on tensions between a political centre and its peripheries. It is linked to local rebellion, radical “jihadism” as it is called in the West, with possible manipulations coming from overseas. Hence the military personnel from the two countries could learn from each other, from their experiences, and indeed, also from their mistakes. Maybe the mistake the Russians made in North Caucasus was always to use repression first as the main reaction to terrorist attacks. Seeing the work the Pakistani Army is doing in the FATA area, or in Balochistan, not only to oppose rebels, but also as a nation builder, could be an inspiration for them. Over time, military-to-military relations could help bring the two countries closer, diplomatically and in terms of trade related to weaponry and military affairs. Last, but not the least, Russia and Pakistan can be seen as two states having, now more than ever before, common interests in the fight against transnational “jihadists” who should rather called “miscreants”, the terrorists inspired by Al Qaeda. This is the same ideology that is targeting the state in Russia and in Pakistan, the same targeting the Muslims who do not accept their theological/ ideological points of view. This is the same destructive and non-Islamic approach which could find some safe haven in Afghanistan after 2014 and target the FATA through the TTP, post-Soviet Central Asia, hence Russia's “Near Abroad”, through IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), the main Central Asian terrorist group, close to the TTP and other Central Asian jihadists, and may be even Russian territory itself. The last two years, there have been more articles in Pakistani press talking of a diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries. But such vision has been too often based on wishful thinking and does not take into account the old links between India and Russia.

To build better links with Moscow, even making it an ally after some time (to some extent: difficult to imagine a relationship that would be as strong as the one with China), there is a need to find common ground, areas of common interest. Economically speaking, it would be difficult for Pakistan to compete with India. But from a political and security-related angle, it is possible: Islamabad and Moscow have a common interest in the fight against Al Qaeda and with stabilization in Afghanistan. Clearly Pakistanis have a better knowledge of Afghanistan, its regional environment, and of the extremists being a threat for peace there. After 2014, Pakistan can initiate a diplomatic friendship based on common interests and the need of stability in this part of the world, offering to the Russians an understanding that for now limits itself to the good relations they have had with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Indeed on security-related issues, Russia could not find a better ally than Pakistan in the region. More broadly speaking, such a rapprochement could mean seeing Pakistan, over time, being part of the Russian strategy to get more influence in its foreign policy towards the Muslim world. After all, if the Kremlin wants to be heard there (which clearly seems to have been Putin's strategy since he arrived in power), what could be better than to befriend one of the most important Muslim nations on Earth? This is something that Pakistani diplomats could explain to their Russian counterparts if a solid security dialogue exists between those two countries.

The writer is a Visiting Research Fellow at Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI). He is in charge of the Programme on Iran and South Asia at IPSE (Institute for Prospective and Security in Europe). This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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