Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Astrakhan is Not an Islamist Bridge Between the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga, Historian Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 12 – Following the publication last month of “A Map of Ethno-Religious Threats” by the Moscow Institute of National Strategy, there has been much speculation that Astrakhan represents a bridge between the Islamicized North Caucasus and the traditionally more moderate Islamic peoples of the Middle Volga.

            But Astrakhan historian Andrey Syzranov argues in the course of an interview to a media outlet there that this image is far too simple and that the situation of the Muslim community in his city is far more complicated, a reflection of the enormous natural diversity among Muslims in all times and places (

            Radical Islamists from the North Caucasus have made inroads in Astrakhan, Syzranov acknowledges, most infamously by arranging telephone marriages between local Muslim men and radicalized Muslim women from the North Caucasus, something entirely illegitimate in Islam and recently exposed in the course of an FSB raid.

            Moreover, there have been Salafi groups in Astrakhan since the 1990s, some of whom have conducted intense missionary activity. But these are not all of a piece, Syzranov says. There are radicals, of course, but there are also moderate Salafis who want nothing to do with the extremist element.

            The historian notes that many of the Muslim women who attend his university classes now wear the hijab, but that does not disturb him because “it is more important what is inside their heads than on them” and universities should be “much freer structures than schools” where introducing a dress requirement is entirely possible.

            Many people now talk about “traditional” Islam, he continues, but when they do so, they usually put it within quotation marks.  That is entirely appropriate. On the one hand, every country and every people has its own “traditional” form of Islam just as it has its “traditional” form of any other religion.

And on the other, Russian officials often talk about “traditional” Islam to refer to “the more moderate and tolerant Islam of muftis and spiritual administrations which cooperate with the authorities.”  There is nothing inherently wrong with such cooperation: it occurs in many countries. But some although far from all Salafis see it as a big “minus.”

            As one would expect, Syzranov says, “there are various kinds of people among the Salafis.”  There are “bandits,” there are those who “are disappointed in their lives, and there are those who genuinely accept that brand of the faith. There are reasons for each group to have turned to that trend in Islam, and these must not be conflated.

            The Salafi element in the North Caucasus, he argues, reflects that region’s specific experiences over the last two decades. “An entire generation of young people has grown up under the conditions of the Caucasus war. They do not know how to write, but they know how to shoot a Kalashnikov.” Muslims with different experiences are will remain different.

            Salafism and especially its radical interpretation remains attractive to many because it like other sectarian creeds presents the world in simple black and white terms and allows those who accept it as special.  According to its “clear picture of the world, Allah is great, we are the best, and all the rest are fools and enemies.”

            Those who know more about Islam – and they can learn about it from the Koran, from the hadith, and from theologians – recognize that the world is more complicated than that.  “Salafi writings and websites are only a drop in the bucket of Muslim theology which has been formed over the course of centuries.”

            “Islam,” Syzranov concludes, remains “a religious of peace and kindness” and “this isn’t changed by the Islamists!”  Their actions “only bring harm to Islam by discrediting it with terrorist actions, murders and other types of force. This is incompatible with Islam,” as they fail to understand but other Muslims recognize.

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