April 12th 2007 · Prague Watchdog / Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS

The spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Russia

By Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh for Prague Watchdog

Ever since the beginning of Gorbachev’s reforms almost a generation ago, Russia’s large and growing Muslim population has been continuously restless. While at the beginning of the process many Russian Muslims actively integrated Islam into the nationalist discourse of the various ethnic groups of the Russian Federation, which has historically professed Islam, a new trend has recently emerged. The Islam that was integrated into the various nationalist ideologies has increasingly been replaced by a universalistic jihadism.

Although there are many different reasons for this transformation of Islam in Russia, one or two major causes can be singled out. First, the unworkability of nationalistic Islam as an ideology of national revival and possible independence or semi-independence from Russia. Second, the fact that the ideology of universalistic Islamism has increasingly become a replacement for universalistic Russian imperial nationalism.

And because of this, Islam has become increasingly popular among a wider range of converts, mostly ethnic Russians for whom Islam is not connected with any particular national aspiration and who seek in Islam what they have been unable to find in traditional Russian nationalism. The Russian converts seem to find in Islam a global appeal that transcends ethnic and national boundaries, something that has been known historically as the “Russian idea,” implying that Russia, as a sort of collective messiah, will lead humanity to a sort of Omega Point that represents the ideal society.

The rising tide of Muslim fundamentalism, like the influence of the Muslim religion in general, has a complicated relation to Russian nationalism. On the one hand, the assertiveness of some Russian Muslims increases the role of Islam as an ideology that successfully competes with Russian nationalism and the Orthodox Christianity that is enmeshed in it, and the rising number of ethnic Russians converted to Islam testifies to this.

On the other hand, the increasing influence of Islam, especially in its extremist form, which is usually connected with terrorism, has led to the rise of xenophobic and anti-Islamic feelings among ethnic Russians. And this has implications not only for Russia’s internal policy but also for her foreign policy – for example, Russia’s relationship to Iran.

The spread of militant jihadism among Chechens

Chechens have been engaged in a protracted war with Russia since the beginning of the 1990s, and it is among the Chechens that the evolution of Islam from its nationalist to its jihadist form can most clearly be seen. In fact, the Chechen evolution has pointed to a trend in the same direction among the other historical Muslim minorities of the Russian Federation.

What are the reasons for the increasing interest in jihadism among Chechens? One reason, paradoxically enough, is in the inability of the Chechens to defeat Russian forces in open battle. It has become clear to members of the resistance that an independent Chechen state is unlikely to emerge, at least in the near future. In this sense, the struggle with the Russian troops has become open-ended.

A second, and even more important reason, is that Chechen jihadism has plugged into the global Islamic movement which, in a way, has replaced eschatological Marxism. In this case, Marxism plays a role that is different from its “National Bolshevist” modification, where Marxism had become a sort of transmogrified nationalistic ideology.

In its early form, Marxism played a different role: it rejected nationalism and promised the salvation of humanity after the Armageddon of class struggle. And here Marxism emerged less as a cold scientific creed than as a kind of religion. The proponents of revolutionary Marxism champion a global proletariat revolution that would bring a global-wide socialist society and, later, communism. Communism, like the Caliphate, does not only possess a global dimension – it also provides absolute harmony for mankind. The implication is that humanity will undergo conversion, e.g. become the “proletariat” of the Marxist context, or at least define itself as the dominant group.

In the jihadist interpretation, “true” Muslims play the role of the revolutionary proletariat, and it is they who will lead humanity to global salvation.

In this context, the open-ended nature of the fight against Moscow and the spread of eschatological Islamic extremism has changed the minds of the Chechen elite, who have moved away from the narrowly nationalistic animus of the early stages of the conflict.

And the jihadist scenario has become quite convenient, as can be seen in the discussion between Movladi Udugov and Akhmed Zakayev in 2005. Zakayev proclaimed the view that Chechens should strive to create a Chechen state similar to that of other states. Udugov on the other hand rejected this goal, on the grounds that it would merely replicate the ills of other states - a corrupt bureaucracy and an elite that abused the majority of the people.

It was not the Chechen state but the universal Caliphate that would transcend the limitations of conventional states and even of human history. The Caliphate would be a global community where all Muslims would live as brothers. As an Omega of human history, this universal Caliphate implied a sort of global Islamization of humanity: all people would become Muslims, and all Muslims become brothers.

The jihadist element in Chechen resistance ideology has not diminished with the passage of time, and the response of Chechens and some other Russian Muslims to Saddam Hussein’s execution clearly demonstrates this.

The death of Saddam Hussein and the response of Russian Muslims as a sign of the persistence of jihadism

The execution of Saddam Hussein evoked different emotions among different people, possibly because Saddam himself was a multi-faceted figure in both life and in death. The response to his death is interesting in itself because it provides insight into the development and changes in the minds of a variety of groups in world politics.

It is clear why Iran was possibly the only strong global power to unequivocally praise Saddam’s execution. Not only the bitter memory of the Iraq-Iran War (1980-88), which decimated up to a million Iranians, but also quite pragmatic considerations made them see Saddam’s death as a great achievement for Iran’s geopolitical designs. The execution made any reconciliation between Sunni and Shia in Iraq impossible. The emerging order would push either the entire country or the largest, Shia, part of it closer to Iran, and this would extend the power of Iran to a degree unknown since the time of Achemenides.

The reasons for the response of some other groups and states to the execution are not always clear. Still, a close examination of their response could reveal much about the political and intellectual development of these groups and states, including their concern with the increasing importance of Islamic extremism. And, here, Russia would be a good example.

It might be assumed that the Chechens and other Russian Muslims would be strongly against Saddam’s execution and his being made into a martyr. However, an analysis of the Internet publications of Russian Muslims shows that this does not appear to be the case. To be sure, all of them regard Americans as cynical imperialists who were clearly behind Saddam’s execution; but these sites did not present him as a martyr. His atrocities were duly acknowledged - his behavior led to his inevitable doom.

One publication provided more details. The author of the article saw the problem of Saddam in the fact that he was a nationalist dictator who was also implicitly an atheist. In reality Saddam had no true faith in Islam, and this led to a lack of morality and sound judgment. As a result, he imitated Stalin in the purging of the country, and engaged in assisting an anti-Islamic power - the United States - which used him and then disposed of him when his usefulness expired.

But who would be seen as a political role model opposite Saddam? The Chechen publications provided the answer, albeit in an indirect way. While most of the Western mass media focused its attention on the war in Iraq and on the way in which Hussein’s death had contributed to the destabilization of the country, the Chechen site concentrated on events in Afghanistan and on the Taliban – implicitly on al-Qaeda – in their fight against the forces of the coalition. And those in charge of the site implicitly saw in al-Qaeda a model of the type of ideology they wished to follow.

This transition from nationalism to universalistic jihadism created potential problems for the Russian authorities. One of the problems was that this universalistic premise made it possible to appeal not only to those who had traditionally professed Islam, e.g., the various ethnic groups of the northern Caucasus, but to the wider community, including ethnic Russians.

Specific aspects of Islam in general and jihadism in particular – for example, the vision of an eschatological battle for the ideal society of the future and the universal appeal which forsakes nationalistic prejudices – have made Islam increasingly popular among ethnic Russians. For them, Islam in its trans-ethnic form has become a substitute both for the “Russian idea” of Slavophile/Eurasian messianic nationalism and for Marxism. (During most of Soviet history, Marxism was integrated into the “Russian idea” of messianic nationalism.)

Conversion to Islam seems to be gaining momentum. This has occurred despite the rise of xenophobic and anti-Islamic feelings among considerable numbers of ethnic Russians. These converts - as is usually the case with converts to any religious or philosophical creed - could form a major pool of potential terrorists. Russian converts could be especially dangerous, for they could easily blend with the general Russian population.

This is why the state has become extremely apprehensive with regard to Russian converts. An obvious example is the case of the Russian Imam, Anton (Abdulah) Stepanenko, an ethnic Russian whom the authorities accused of being engaged in extremist activities. He is still under trial and has been brutally tortured. The repression of the Russian Imam has actually become a much broader drive against those groups of Muslims who cannot be easily controlled by the authorities. And the very fact that Islam does not have a rigid, centralized, bureaucratic structure that can be easily controlled by the authorities has become a liability to the Muslims.

The state’s drive has not prevented more conversions, nor has it helped to more easily incorporate the converts into the officially approved structure, but has actually driven them deep underground. And, in fact, this drive to the underground can be regarded as the general trend in Putin’s Russia where state policy makes legal protests less and less easy.

Thus, Muslims who have gone underground have become easy targets for jihadist propagandists; and, while decreasing in numbers, the jihadist resistance has become more violent and has spread beyond the Caucasus.

This fear of the spread of Islamic or related extremism/terrorism does not merely provide the rationale for increasing repressiveness and control but also has implications for Russian foreign policy – in its relationship with Iran, for example.


The response to Saddam’s execution revealed the political views of the various global players, including the Chechen resistance. And in their case, it revealed the persistent jihadist transformation of the Chechen resistance. The jihadists’ philosophy and practice are not limited to the people of the northern Caucasus, who have always been traditional Muslims, but has spread among other groups, including ethnic Russians. In many cases, this is due to the universal appeal of jihadism and the increasingly parochial self-centeredness of Russian nationalism. The government’s repression and its desire to prevent the spread of extremism have actually made the problem worse.

Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History at Indiana University South Bend, USA, and an irregular contributor to Prague Watchdog. His most recent book is "East Against West" (Publish America, 2005).


 · Islam and Politics in Chechnya (PW, 21.3.2001)



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