Monday, January 21, 2013

Window on Eurasia: More than 100,000 Islamist Radicals Now Operating Within Russia, Mufti Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, January 21 – There are more than 100,000 Islamist radicals now operating within the Russian Federation, according to a mufti there, the product of immigration from Central Asia, the training of a new generation of mullahs abroad, the inadequacies of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD), and the failure of Moscow to take the situation seriously.

In remarkably blunt language, Mufti Farid Salman, who has had close ties to Central MSD Chief Talgat Tajuddin, says that Russia is now threatened by a link-up between these radicals and those protesting social conditions, something he suggests could lead Russia to follow in the footsteps of Egypt or Gaza (

And these 100,000 Salafites, he continues, are “ideologically” prepared to defend their positions, something especially dangerous in the Russian Federation today because traditional mullahs and imams “are not ready” to react in an effective way. Indeed, the poor preparation of the latter for this gives the radicals yet another victory.

For a variety of reasons, Salman says, young people in Russia are “today being radicalized,” something that everyone must recognize even though one frequently sees in the media and the political spheres “attempts to minimize the danger of this process and to treat it as a purely intra-religious conflict.”

But “closing one’s eyes” to what is happening in Daghestan, the North Caucasus, the Middle Volga and elsewhere, the mufti says, has now become “simply impermissible” not only because of the direct threat such Islamist radicals pose to the country but also because of the ways they can be exploited by “the geopolitical enemies of Russia.”

Islamist radicalism first entered Russia after the 1917 revolution when Riza Fakhrutdinov, the mufti of the country at that time, returned after spending time in Saudi Arabia and castigated “all the traditional norms of Islam” as practiced by the Tatars.  He died, either on his own or with someone’s help, however, before he could do real damage.

But the radical upsurge really began in 1991, Salman continues.  The first attempts to recruit young Muslims were made by Saudi emissaries at that time.  They offered assistance in placing students abroad and financial support.  And these “Saudis,” the mufti says, were responsible for breaking apart the Central MSD and forming alternative centers of power.

Those trained abroad – and they were numerous, the mufti says – were reinforced by Islamist radicals who were forced to leave their native Central Asian republics because the governments there were far more thoroughgoing in suppressing this threat to traditional Islam and traditional governance.

And the Russian government has made mistakes that have added to the problem as well: It has declared some books extreme which are not, thus discrediting that process. And it has confined those Salafis it has arrested to the general prison population where they have recruited new supporters for their radical views.

Russia is “considered a democratic country, but if we deal with this issue in a soft manner, then we will obtain a situation like present-day Egypt or the Gaza Sector,” especially since it is “inevitable” that the Islamists in the country will link up with other protest movements in Russia.

What is still worse, Salman argues, is that there are many officials in regional and local governments who support the Salafis. They used to do so for “financial” reasons, but as the radicals have strengthened their hand, more and more officials are choosing to support them directly or covertly for “ideological” ones as well.

If Russia is to have any chance of stopping these trends, the mufti suggests, then the entire system of relations between the state and the Islamic community in Russia must be changed.  “The existing model is out of date” and the MSDs “must be reformed to take into account the traditions and era in which we live.”

The Russian government “must understand that the weak institution of the MSDs today is not in a position to oppose the strong Wahhabi-Salafi, Hizb-ut-Tahrir ideological advance.”  Salman says that he thinks that “today the government understands this.” But it needs to act and take “unusual, rapid, and original steps” to win.

            It is likely Salman is overstating the numbers and influence of Salafis in Russia in order to promote the idea that the MSD system must be completely overhauled.  But even if he is exaggerating to some extent, the mufti’s words suggest that many inside the Russian government and MSD system are now more frightened of the radicals than ever before.

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