Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Window on Eurasia: RISI Scholar Says Anti-Islamic Hysteria in the Media Threatens Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 5 – An expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI), a frequent source of anti-Muslim commentaries in the Russian media, warns that  “anti-Islamic hysteria [in the mass media and society as a whole] is extremely dangerous” for the Russian Federation harming the country both at home and abroad.

            In an interview with Vera Ilina of, Azhdar Kurtov, a RISI scholar, says that the situation with regard to media coverage of Muslims and Islam is getting out of hand because journalists and their bosses are constantly chasing after sensationalism in order to attract more readers, listeners or viewers (

            In that pursuit, the journalists target their work to what they see as their average consumer, often “people without a higher education or a clear understanding of what is true and what is an invention.” But in doing so whether intentionally or not, the media writers make the situation worse, often creating the very sensations that they have incorrectly reported.

            Russian media outlets today feature “alarmist” subjects like explosions, bandit attacks, catastrophes and conflicts, Kurtov continues. They rarely talk “about normal peaceful life.” And nowhere is this tendency to simplification and sensationalism greater than in discussions of subjects involving Islam where “anti-Islamist positions” are typical.

            According to the RISI scholar, what looks like a media campaign is not something directed from above – Vladimir Putin, he notes, has frequently criticized attacks on Islam and called for a respectful attitude toward the faith – but rather the product of the way the media work.

            That is not to say that government policies about the Caucasus or the Middle East do not play a role, Kurtov continues, but in general, the state is more conscious of the damage that negative coverage of and attacks on Islam can have both domestically and for Russia’s standing abroad than are members of the media.

            Asked whether the regime should intervene in media coverage of Islam given that some articles and programs do touch on “the question of national security,” the RISI expert says that such orders are anything but easy to give because once such coverage starts, it can quickly lead to “uncontrolled hysteria” on the part of the audience and thus feed on itself.

            Once that happens, “various excesses” occur when “the Russian authorities certainly don’t need.”  Russia has enough problems domestic and foreign, and adding some inter-ethnic or inter-confessional ones is hardly “the wisest policy.”  But he suggests that given all the demands on their time, the country’s leaders may not fully understand that reality.

            Kurtov’s comments are interesting for three reasons. First, RISI employs a number of experts who have played a role in promoting exactly the kind of hysteria about Muslims inside the Russian Federation that he suggests is dangerous. Kurtov’s remarks suggest that at least some in that organization may now be concerned about the monsters they have helped to produce.

            Second, his words are clearly designed to deflect responsibility for what in many cases looks like an old-style Soviet media campaign away from the Kremlin and onto journalists, a shift designed to burnish the reputation of the former and possibly set the stage for new official attacks on the latter.

            And third, and most hopefully, Kurtov’s comments, coming from the organization from which they do, may reflect an increasing awareness on the part of scholars and officials in the Russian Federation that the continuing drumbeat of attacks on Muslims and Islam is dangerous and may be producing some of the very dangers that the media attacks had overstated.

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