The incident at Moscow’s Historical Mosque on 26 September, when angry parishioners forced the release of one of their number who had been detained by OMON riot police, has made the capital’s Islamic community and commentators think again about both the radicalisation of young Muslims and the lack of places for them to worship. The authorities may claim that Moscow has quite enough mosques, but young men forced to pray on the street, where they are subjected to police harassment and xenophobia, are increasingly showing an interest in extremist movements.
Friday prayers on the street
To test the mood of Moscow’s Muslims, you just need to turn up to Friday prayers and be the only non-Muslim there. Five thousand men, occupying a considerable stretch of Bolshaya Tatarskaya Street, sink to their knees in unison at the Mullah’s chanted prompt. The silence is palpable; and on the entire street there are only three men left standing – two riot police, sent to keep order, and me. For the police this may be a common enough situation, but I have just discovered what it’s like to be in a minority.
Five thousand men sink to their knees in unison at the Mullah’s chanted prompt.
‘Brothers, we must obey the law, ignore attempts to provoke us, and look out for our young brothers so they don’t do anything stupid,’ come the words of the sermon out of a loudspeaker set up in the middle of the street. The words are not accidental: it was here, on 26 September, that the first warning bell rang, announcing young Muslims’ growing discontent with the Russian government’s attitude to them. That week, Adam Oskanov, a young Ingush, and his friend, arrived late for Friday prayers. Traditionally, Bolshaya Tatarskaya Street is closed off a couple of hours before the faithful start to arrive; riot squad buses park in front of the mosque; and plain clothes officers from the Ministry of the Interior’s Centre for Combating Extremism take up positions around the street.
Московские мусульмане стоят в очереди на вход на улицу недалеко от Исторической мечети. (с) Григорий Туманов
Seeing that prayers were nearly over, Oskanov and his friend left their car on the street and rushed past the barriers, unrolling their prayer mats as they went; their way was barred by riot police, who told them they could not park there. The conversation turned into a slanging match that ended up with Oskanov getting into his BMW, putting his foot on the accelerator and almost knocking over a policeman. He was then pulled out of the car, put into an arm-lock and led away to a waiting police bus, with his friend being dragged along behind.
A scene guaranteed to arouse the average Muscovite’s xenophobia – rabid migrants about to beat up police officers.
The mass of worshippers had missed the start of the incident; all they could see was their fellow Muslim being led off by the cops. ‘The lads were gnashing their teeth,’ Muslim rights activist Ali Charinsky told me. ‘You can’t interrupt the prayers, but there was obviously something bad happening to a brother.’ By the time the prayers ended, the people in the bus had evidently reached an agreement: Oskanov would be charged with a minor administrative offence. But it was too late: furious Muslims were mobbing the bus, chanting ‘Allahu Akbar!’ [God is great]. Then a few people pushed the police officers aside and dragged the two detained men out of the bus.
The cops, surrounded by hundreds of angry young Muslims, decided not to provoke any more trouble and just shut themselves in the bus. So here you had a scene guaranteed to arouse the average Muscovite’s latent xenophobia – rabid migrants and people from the North Caucasus, in the city centre, about to beat up police officers while attempting to free their disobedient countryman. At police headquarters, the same thoughts were evidently going through senior officers’ heads as they pondered what to do next. This delicate situation was also complicated by the fact that a major Islamic festival, Eid-al-Adha, was taking place the following week, so drastic action was not an option. In the end, they decided to keep Oskanov and his friend in custody, charged with assault on the police. Another few dozen people who had taken part in the clash were detained, awaiting deportation, and some were also fined.
On the following Friday there were even more people gathered in front of the mosque. Young Muslims in green waistcoats with ‘Volunteer’ on the back, were stewarding the crowd; and the cops were trying to be courteous and, especially, low key. The danger appears to have passed, but probably not for long.
Growing anger with the authorities
Ali Charinsky, explaining what happened outside the Historical Mosque, talks about young Muslims’ keen dislike of the government machine. It’s not, he says, a question of mass brainwashing by online Al-Qaida mullahs or recruitment videos by Caucasus Emirate militants. ‘A year ago, nobody paid any attention to what went on,’ he tells me as we walk back to the metro, ‘people just went on praying while the police harassed them as much as they wanted. But the young guys got more and more angry, and that’s dangerous.’
‘It’s not a question of mass brainwashing by online Al-Qaida mullahs.’
The claim that extremists can be regularly found at the Mosque is also dubious. One of the first mosques in Moscow, founded as long ago as 1823, it was for a long time the heart of the capital’s traditionally moderate Tatar community, which ex-mayor Yury Luzhkov described as a ‘city-building nation.’ At one time, members of the Saudi-based fundamentalist Wahhabi movement, or ‘beardies’ as other Muslims often call them, tried to preach there and recruit new followers, but they were driven out by Dagestani and Ingush members of the congregation. Another potential explanation for this sudden desire to rescue a fellow Muslim from the forces of law and order could be the North Caucasian propensity to form a huge mob at the slightest provocation; and asking the reason later, but this is also unconvincing, as there were also plenty of Uzbeks and Tajiks mobbing the police bus on 26 September.
Ali Charinsky is clear: young Muslims, whether citizens of Russia or of other countries, are just tired of the government’s attitude to them. ‘The very fact that on the video they can be heard shouting "Allahu Akbar" is immediately taken for extremism. But we shout this at the end of each prayer; it’s what you’re supposed to do. When Orthodox Christians shout, "Christ is risen," nobody takes it for extremism’ he says. But it’s not just the everyday xenophobia in Russia that irritates its Muslims. When nationalist-minded Russians say that Eid-al-Adha paralyses the city as thousands of Muslims take to the streets to celebrate, they probably don’t realise that this happens because they have nowhere else to go. Moscow’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin constantly repeats the mantra that the capital doesn’t need any more mosques, because the majority of Muslims are not only not native Muscovites, but are not even Russian citizens. His logic is simple: the fewer facilities you create for migrants, the fewer will settle in Moscow. At the Historical Mosque, however, migrants form a minority of parishioners.
The problems start back home
It doesn’t help that many young men from the North Caucasus have had less than friendly relations with the police even before they came to Moscow. Umar Said, a designer from Makhachkala in Dagestan, told me that he had been forced to move to the capital after attending an anti-government rally. A couple of days after the rally, an armoured personnel carrier pulled up outside his home and masked men forced their way inside, terrifying his mother and other family members. As they grabbed and restrained Said, telling him ‘you can thank your lucky stars we didn’t bring weapons,’ a neighbour, an ex-con who had done several stretches for burglary and robbery with violence, remarked enviously, ‘to think they sent a whole squad for this geek, and I only ever got picked up in an old jeep.’ Down at the police station, detectives threatened several times to rape him with a bottle, and asked him to inform on an opposition group who, they claimed, had links with armed insurgents. ‘But when I came to sign the incident report,’ he said, ‘I discovered that I was just a witness, not even a suspect. And this kind of thing happens all the time.’ Now he lives in Moscow, full of resentment at Russia in general, trying to avoid the police, and studying every media reference to ISIS with great interest, seeing something good in its aims, if not its methods.
Мусульмане стоят на коленях во время молитвы перед полицейским кордоном. (с) РИА Новости/Владимир Астапкович
Detectives at the police station threatened several times to rape him with a bottle.
Another example of this alienation is Gasan Gadzhiyev, also from Makhachkala. It’s the old story: he dropped out of a building course and ended up hanging around on the streets. There have been no job or career prospects in the North Caucasus for a long time, and the ‘forest’ where the insurgents hide is close by. ‘I started reading Islamic literature for myself, and began to understand it in my own way,’ he told me. ‘And then I realised that my only way forward was to join the insurgents. What else was there for me here? The police were out of control, there was no work, nothing.’ He did, however, find another possible way out, the Hizb ut-Tahrir organisation, banned in Russia since 2003, whose stated mission is to establish a pan-Islamic state, but using only non-violent means. Unfortunately, the riot police stormed one of the first meetings he attended, and ordered everyone face down on the floor. Gasan got away with an ordinary interrogation, but decided he’d be better off in Moscow. He doesn’t seem like a radical; he’s no Wahhabi ‘beardie,’ he’s more like any young Dagestani who’s moved to the big city; he tries to visit the mosque as often as he can, he’s looking for work; and also he doesn’t miss a single Facebook post about the persecution of Muslims anywhere in the world, and often uses his own page to post calls to attend rallies in support of any Muslim figures who have been arrested.
I realised that my only way forward was to join the insurgents.
In Moscow, there are hundreds of people like Said and Gasan. ‘I’m in the Caucasus now and I see how people who don’t generally support the militants are pleased when they hear news of some government figure being killed by them,’ says Ali Charinsky. ‘And these people can’t be called extremists; they go to the same mosques as everyone else, they go to work and you can find them in every social group.’
Small incidents can spark something big
It is impossible to tell when, or indeed where, this discontent will ‘blow up.’ The police authorities used to produce regular reports about the closure of some semi-legal prayer hall organised either in an ordinary flat or some rented space. These places were allegedly being used by militants to gather together before heading off to fight in Syria, or by radical preachers whose bookshelves were packed with publications banned by the Ministry of Justice. According to Charinsky, this was all considerably exaggerated, in the interests of enhancing police clear-up rates. Moscow is full of extremists, potential militants and Wahhabis, but they don’t gather in any particular place. ‘In this crowd there will be at least a dozen people who either just hold extremist views or plan to go and fight somewhere,’ he tells me as we head towards Novokuznetskaya metro station through the stream of worshippers. ‘But you’ll never spot them. I can’t spot them unless I know them.’ He tells me about a recent case where a young man mingled with the parishioners in the same mosque, and asked them to go to Syria. ‘The war was still at an unclear stage, so everybody was happy to help their brothers pay for their plane tickets.’
‘In this crowd there will be at least a dozen people who hold extremist views or plan to go and fight somewhere.’
This can all look like a run-of-the-mill scare story for the average Muscovite, but it’s a fact, says Charinsky. The bus incident may be the only obvious example of the radicalisation of young Muslims, but they are increasingly fed up with general contempt towards them, and the appeasing pronouncements made by their official clergy. For the moment, it’s unlikely to spill over into mass protest, and it’s unlikely to turn into an excuse for terrorist action, but Charinsky believes that there will be more and more small incidents, and that sooner or later these will add up.