Staunton, December 15 – Given that Vladimir Putin has said that he doesn’t get involved in the distinction between Sunni and Shiia Muslims, it is perhaps not surprising that many Russian officials assume that all Salafi Muslims support ISIS and have subjected those on the territory of the Russian Federation to repressive actions.
But Mikhail Roshchin, a senior specialist at the Institute of Oriental Studies, points out that “not all Salafis” are for ISIS and that acting as if they are deprives those opposed to the Islamic State of allies and even drives some Salafis who had been opposed into its arms (kavpolit.com/articles/daish-22058/).
Moreover, he points out, many analysts are giving ISIS credit for things it doesn’t deserve. Many areas and groups that are now counted as ISIS conquests in fact emerged and gained strength long before the Islamic State made its appearance. That too needs to be taken into consideration.
“The great strength of ISIS,” he writes, “was of course in the proclamation of the caliphate,” something that even Al-Qaeda did not decide to do. Given the importance of that institution to Sunni Muslims, this has “great importance.” Since the end of the caliphate in 1924, discussions about reviving it have been a constant in Islamic discourse.
But sympathy for that idea is not the same as support for ISIS. Not only is ISIS losing on the ground in Syria, but many of its supposed conquests abroad happened long before ISIS made its appearance, Roshchin says.
“Those groupings which have sworn allegiance to ISIS outside of Iraq and Syria as a rule are old movements such as Boko Haram on the territory of Nigeria, Chad and Niger, who have their own compact territory which they controlled even before the foundation of ISIS,” the Russian scholar says.
The same thing is true in Libya and in the Sinai where militants have taken advantage of the Camp David accord’s limitation on the military presence of Egypt to set up shop, something they were doing again long before anyone had heard of ISIS. Consequently, giving the Islamic State credit for what those people are doing is a mistake.
And in large measure, the same thing is true in the North Caucasus where “a struggle for hearts and minds” is taking place. “The ‘forest’ movement more or less has been preserved in the form in which it existed, although with a definite reduction in the level of activity” given that many of its fighters have left to join the battle in the Middle East.
To deal with it, Russia needs counter-propaganda,” but such propaganda must be based on realities and not on false assumptions. “Many of those who [went to Iraq or Syria] were disappointed.” And many, including large numbers of Salafis, were horrified by the cruel policies of ISIS, as shown by the denunciations of the Islamic State by some Salafi leaders.
Assuming that all Salafis are supporters of ISIS and attacking their mosques in the North Caucasus as happened last week in Makhachkala is not only “completely incorrect” but potentially counterproductive because such attacks may be used by ISIS supporters to win over Salafis not now on their side.