Andre Avanessians, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
During a recent House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Congressman Albio Sires (D-NJ), and a panel of experts discussed the extent of Islamic extremism within Russia, and its impact on Putin’s domestic policy decisions. Although no policy recommendations were made, Russia’s recent military actions have sparked a necessary conversation within the United States about radicalization. Putin’s attempt to dissolve Islamic extremism may have paradoxical effects, driving Muslims towards fanatical groups like ISIS. However, in order to fully grasp Russia’s predicament, the historical shift in religious demographics since the fall of the Soviet Union needs to be examined.
Historical Context and Shifts:
Historically, religion has been viewed as a threat to communism. Under Karl Marx’s vision, religion was seen as a distraction against the real problems in society. He famously stated:
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”
According to a study conducted by Pew Research Center, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 61% of Russians considered themselves religiously unaffiliated. Since then, there has been a tremendous shift in Russians who are religiously affiliated. Putin’s current attempts to unite Russia under a new nationalistic identity surround Orthodox Christianity. While the number Russian’s who practice Islam has steadily increased over the last two decades, many practicing Muslims currently living in Russia had already settled within the territory long before the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.
There are two major groups of Muslims located within Russia: the Tartars and the Bashkirs. The Tartars of Tatarstan are a branch of Turkic descendants that settled throughout west-central Russia, Kazakhstan, and Siberia. The Bashkirs, also of Turkic descent, live primarily in the Ural Mountains of Bashkiria, although some also live in the former Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Muslim population in Russia has grown to over 16 million, comprising roughly 11.7% of the total population. Comparatively, the Muslim population in the United States accounts for 0.8% of the total population. These statistics illuminate why Russian extremism has become a geopolitical dilemma.
Russia’s Current Internal Threat of Islamic Extremism
Today’s Russian leaders have a growing fear about the rise of radical Islam within Russia’s borders. The infighting between separatist Muslim groups and the general Russian population has polarized multiple ethnicities. Alexey Grishin, the president of Religion and Society, a Russian information and analytical center, estimates that 80% of Muslims in some Russian regions are under risk of radicalization. As ISIS continues to gain political and cultural momentum, “pan-Islamic” groups within Russian borders continue to expand, hoping to achieve similar feats as ISIS. As these groups gain influence the likelihood of convincing moderate young Muslims in Russia to join the extremist cause increases.
One of the biggest problems facing Putin is the amount of propaganda penetrating the national psyche. According to Nikolay Bordyuzha, Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), 57,000 websites have been identified in the last six years to have extremist Islamist content. These websites spread propaganda and advocate recruitment into ISIS in Russian and other languages of the former Soviet Republic. Thus far the Kremlin’s only policy action to combat this propaganda is to take down any website that portrays or promotes radicalization. However this tactic is practically useless because it’s just as easy for extremists to create new websites as it is for the Kremlin to take them down.
Furthermore, excessive government action can worsen the threat of extremism. The extensive use of police forces has recently become a problem in Russia. As tensions in Syria continue to grow, young Muslim individuals have begun feeling pressure by the Russian government to suppress their religious activities. Under Putin’s attempt to unite the nation under a new national identity, managing threats by radical Islamic extremists has been complicated. In an attempt to prevent lapses in national security, Putin has been using security services to address potential threats to the homeland. However, attempting to enforce authority on the Muslim population through a militarized police force could backfire on Putin: Unnecessary oversight and discrimination may incentivize young Muslims to join extremist groups like ISIS that promise freedom in exchange for protecting Islamic values.
Necessary Steps Moving Forward
Sergey Malkov, a member of the Association of Military Political Scientists, states that in order to solve the issue of Islamic extremism in Russia, there needs to be what he calls “a government ideology” – an ideology that promotes religious acceptance and allows for Muslims throughout Russia to feel equally protected under national laws. It is imperative that Putin’s policies moving forward do not alienate Russia’s Muslim population. Doing so will only widen the divide between solving the problem of extremism and introducing a level of hostility towards the moderate groups looking to coexist peacefully. A strong inclusive identity needs to be the counter-narrative that will encourage religious figures within Russia’s Muslim community to step forward and promote multi-denominational unity within Russian society.