Thursday, January 2, 2014

Window on Eurasia: More Ethnic Russians are Converting to Islam and a Few are Becoming Terrorists

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 2 – Official identification of one of the terrorist bombers in Volgograd as an ethnic Russian from Mari El who converted to Islam and fought on the side of the militants in Daghestan has attracted attention to a trend that most Russians have been reluctant to discuss: the growing number of ethnic Russian converts to Islam and the extremism of some of them.

            Until relatively recently, few ethnic Russians converted to Islam, and indeed the numbers involved even now are relatively small.  In the past, converts tended to be among women who married Muslim men rather than members of both sexes who converted out of conviction or for ideological reasons.

            But the numbers of such converts are rising, with estimates running as high as 100,000 being offered.  Nonetheless, discussions of this phenomenon have been relatively infrequent for three reasons.  First, ethnic Russians see such conversions as further evidence of the weakness of their identity and a direct threat that some of their number will now assimilate to other peoples.

            Second, both Russian Orthodox and Muslim groups have usually opposed conversion in either direction, viewing it as something that undermines the mutually re-enforcing nature of ethnicity and religion and as a challenge to their authority given that converts often display a  more radical form of the faith than the traditional leaderships want.

            And third, ethnic Russian converts to Islam present a particular challenge to the authorities. On the one hand, such converts in order to prove their bona fides with the members of their new community sometimes feel compelled to engage in radical actions, including acts of violence.

            And on the other, the authorities and many ordinary are terrified of this possibility because ethnic Russian converts to Islam do not stand out the way that many more traditional Muslim groups do and thus can move about without attracting the suspicions that all too often members of traditional Muslim nationalities do.

            Most of these stories and others like them were based on materials published outside of Moscow. But now the subject of ethnic Russian conversions to Islam is attracting the attention of Moscow outlets and Western ones as well. Among the most recent in Russia itself is an article carried by on Tuesday (

            Noting that ethnic Russian names increasingly appear among the lists of those engaged in terrorism, asked two experts, Ruslan Kurbanov of the Institute of Oriental Studies and Harun Sidorov, the president of the National Organization of Russian Muslims (NORM), why there has been an influx of “ethnic Russians into the Wahhabi underground?”

            Kurban for his part said that it is “obvious” that the number of ethnic Russian Muslims is “increasing” and that the number of ethnic Russians in the ranks of the militants is going up as well. There are many reasons for the former, but the latter reflects the fact that ethnic Russian Muslims are viewed with suspicion by other Russians and that there are no arrangements made for their adaptation to their community.

            As a result, the orientalist says, such converts feel isolated and alienated from their own community, and “many simply are pulled into radicalism.”  Indeed, given the prejudices against them, it is very difficult for such converts to “remain within the framework of moderate positions.”

            Sidorov largely agreed.  (He subsequently published a full text of his interview with on Facebook because the Russian outlet had used only a small portion of it.  That fuller text is available at What follows is taken from it.)

Sidorov points out that “a single individual can carry out an explosion in which dozens of people die. If this is repeated several times over the course of a month, everyone will speak about the flood of ethnic Russians into Islamic terrorism, although in fact, [such actions] are carried out by several individuals from among the many tens of thousands of ethnic Russian Muslims.”

According to the NORM leader, the number of ethnic Russian converts to Islam who have been involved in terrorism in fact has fallen in recent years. But some still are, and the question arises: “why are they used in such [actions]?” He suggests that there are three main reasons.

First of all, such people “blend into the crowd.”  Second, using them “inflicts a psychological hit on the opponent” by suggesting to Russians that they are threatened not just by “people from the Caucasus” but by their own.  And third, the use of ethnic Russian converts in such actions increases the alienation of all ethnic Russian Muslims from their society and makes more of them likely to be willing to engage in this way.

That there are ethnic Russian converts to Islam should not surprise or disturb anyone, Sidorov continues.  “Today Russians [because of their number and their opportunities] are to be found everywhere from the Columbian mafia and bordellos of Abu-Dhabi to Buddhist monasteries and the camps of Caucasus militants.” 

Often commentators and government officials forget this.  When North Caucasian militants launch an attack, Russian officials are careful to suggest that most North Caucasians are not involved. But if an ethnic Russian attacks, then “guilt is laid on all ethnic Russian Muslims and no one will support [them],” a pattern that only makes the situation worse.

Ethnic Russians are going to continue to convert to Islam, but none of them will be violent radicals if Russian society treats them with at least as much respect as it says it does the traditionally Muslim nationalities of the country and in fact moves toward “the normalization of Russian-Islamic relations” more generally. 

Given that terrorism is the work of individuals not large groups, Sidorov says, it is probably impossible to prevent it entirely. But it can be kept to a minimum by showing respect to religious communities and having the Russian special services focus on “real terrorists” and no engage in “witch hunts” against ethnic Russians who happen to be Muslims.

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