Islam is “Russia’s fate.”
This was the prediction made a few years ago by Aleksei Malashenko, one of Russia’s leading (and most reliable) experts on Islam. This may be an exaggeration, but perhaps not by much.
Demography is also Russia’s fate; if the situation and the prospects were less critical, Islam would be less of a threat. With equal justice it could be said that Russia’s historical misfortune (and fate) are its obsession with imaginary dangers and neglect of real ones. Stalin, it will be recalled, trusted no one, especially not old Bolsheviks, but he was certain that Hitler would not attack the Soviet Union. It is a fascinating syndrome, and one that has again become crucial with the reemergence of Russia as an important player in world politics.
And an important player it is. It took Germany a mere fifteen years after defeat in the First World War to reappear as a major power on the global scene. It took Russia about the same time to reemerge after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The reemergence was made possible, above all, by the boom in the price of raw materials such as oil and gas, which Russia has in abundance. Despite all the violent ups and downs in the world economy, the demand for these raw materials will continue to be a source of strength for Russia. At the same time, the new Russia confronts major domestic and external challenges that did not exist (or did not exist to the same extent) before. Russia’s future depends upon how well it copes with them.
One of the main challenges facing Russia is its relationship with Islam, both on the internal front and in foreign policy. It would certainly be too much to say that the Russian leadership and public opinion have failed to recognize this, but the full importance of the issue has not been appreciated. The reasons are not shrouded in secrecy: it is the deeply-rooted belief that America, and the West in general, constitute the main peril facing Russia in the past, present and the foreseeable future.
In fact, Russia and the West share certain common interests in the Middle East and the Muslim world in general. But a realization of this truth collides with the new Russian doctrine as it has developed in recent years, according to which Muslim countries are Russia's natural allies in the inevitable and perennial confrontation with the West. This ongoing debate, largely ignored in Western capitals, forms the subject of this paper.
The general inertia and stagnation (zastoi) of the 1970s and 1980s had strong repercussion in the Muslim regions. Brezhnev, who tried to evade conflict whenever possible, upbraided the Central Asians on more than one occasion for not pulling their weight, and for depending on economic and other assistance from the centre which could ill afford it, thus becoming more and more of a burden.
The breakdown of the Soviet Union aggravated the situation, when it appeared that the often-invoked friendship of the peoples (druzhba narodov) was not, to put it mildly, deeply rooted. Many millions of ethnic Russians left the Central Asian republics, where they were made to feel unsafe and unwanted. The major Muslim republics became politically independent, but in many other respects their dependence on Moscow continued or became even stronger. The quality of the new leadership was bad, and the ideology that had faded was partly replaced by Islam and Islamism, spearheaded by emissaries from Saudi Arabia and other Arab and Muslim countries. They built hundreds of new mosques, launched various religious-nationalist organizations, and reorganized the hadj, the pilgrimage to Mecca (albeit at the modest level of about 20,000 pilgrims a year).
The Moscow central authorities tolerated this influx of foreign money and ideas, partly be-cause their main preoccupations were elsewhere, partly because they felt powerless to intervene. The KGB does seem to have been concerned about the spread of “Wahhabi” influence, particularly in the northern Caucasus, and also the appearance of other radical Muslim sects and movements such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. According to some reports, the KGB (now FSB) established some Islamist groupings of its own in order to be better informed about the activities of these circles.
The religious-political reawakening of Islam (and often of radical Islam) coincided with the growth of a radical nationalist mood among the Russian population. This had partly to do with the influx of Muslims in the major Russian cities. Greater Moscow is reportedly now the home of close to two million Muslims (many of them illegal residents); it is certainly the European city with the largest Muslim population. In the 1990s, individual attacks against Muslims in these cities led to Muslim complaints about the “demonization of Islam” and, as in Western Europe, growing Islamophobia. In truth, the attacks were usually turf wars in or around local markets, but there is no denying that the very presence of so many alien newcomers generated hostility and xenophobia.
While the Russian security services worried mainly about the subversive and separatist character of radical Islam, the Russian foreign ministry was preoccupied with the foreign political impact of anti-Muslim sentiments on Russia’s relations with the neighbouring Muslim countries. Following the initiative of the then-foreign minister Evgeni Primakov, the Russian ministry of foreign affairs arranged a high-level conference in 1998 devoted to damage control. (Primakov had started his career as an Arabist and later rose to the highest positions in the state apparatus and the KGB.) The reputation of Russia in the Muslim world was already at a low point due to the Afghan war and the first Chechen war (1994-96). To repair some of the damage, the foreign ministry argued that if Islamophobia were to grow in Russia, this would be a fatal blow to the Russian traditional of tolerance and integrity. In truth, they were worried lest Russia be isolated and possibly miss political opportunities in the Muslim world.
However, anti-Russian sentiments were by no means universal in the Muslim world, despite the impact of the Afghan and Chechen wars. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (to give but one example) refused on more than one occasion to accord membership to Ichkeria, the political organization of the Chechen rebels. Once Russia withdrew from Afghanistan, it ceased to be a target of both Muslim propaganda and military (terrorist) action. There were individual cases of anti-Russian propaganda and even some sporadic, half-hearted preparations for terrorist action (for instance against Russian diplomats in Iraq). But there was very little general Muslim solidarity with Russian Muslims and their political demands. Likewise, Russian Muslims showed little interest in the affairs of their coreligionists in other countries. An appeal to contribute money to the victims of the Gaza campaign in 2009 yielded 100,000 rubles, not an impressive sum considering the presence of more than 20 million Muslims in Russia.
A mediating role?
During the 1990s, something akin to a Russian strategy vis-à-vis Islam developed. Russia had abandoned old illusions of a close alliance with the “progressive” Arab countries, such as had prevailed in earlier decades. It was well remembered that Arab countries had seldom if ever paid for massive Russian arms deliveries, which certainly did not generate political support. But the idea that Russia could play the role of a mediator between the West (above all America) and the Muslim world began to take root. So Moscow did not approve of the first, let alone the second Iraq war; it tried to mediate in the Tadjik civil war (which would have petered out anyway after more than 100,000 people were killed); it made certain suggestions in the context of the Iranian nuclear programme (which led to nothing); and in 2006 it invited the Hamas leadership to Moscow. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah are now included in the list of terrorist organizations of the Russian intelligence services.
It did not take long for the Russian leadership to realize that such attempts at mediation failed to produce tangible results or generate any benefit to Russia. Nevertheless, low-level contacts continued, perhaps to demonstrate that Russia was still interested in the Middle East and had to be regarded as a major player. Moscow continued to argue that Iran could be persuaded not to use its nuclear installations for military purposes, even though there was little factual evidence to this effect. In 2007, the Hamas foreign minister Mahmud Zahhar paid another visit to Moscow, without any tangible results. The only benefit accruing to Russia as the result of its mediation was that Muslim countries refrained from giving open support to fellow Muslims inside Russia—much to the disappointment of the Islamists within Russia.
In brief, Moscow followed a strategy of mediation without attaching great hopes to it. On many occasions, Russia emphasized its respect for Islam, the Muslim countries and their leaders, as well as the need to promote reconciliation between different cultures and civilizations. At the same time, there was mutual distrust and the deep-seated conviction that any rapprochement with the Muslim world could only be of a tactical character. Quite obviously the Muslim countries would not have launched a campaign against Russia (just as they refrained from doing so against China and India), even had Russia not cast itself as “honest broker.” Russia is a major nuclear power, as are China and India, and these considerations are decisive.
(Part 2 to follow)
Walter Laqueur has written more than twenty books. He was a co-founder and editor of the Journal of Contemporary History in London and the Washington Quarterly. Concurrently he chaired the International Research Council of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He has taught at Georgetown, Chicago, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Brandeis, and Tel Aviv universities. He lives in Washington, D.C.
This paper first appeared in the Middle East Papers of Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH)