Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Moscow Losing Ideological War against Islamists, Russian Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 23 – Moscow has been relatively successful in fighting Islamist radicalism by the use of force, but it has been much less so in the ideological sphere, often committing mistakes that give its opponents an opening which they have eagerly seized to promote their ideas.

            Perhaps the most horrific of these unintended mistakes, one Russian commentator says, was Vladimir Putin’s decision to exclude all holy books, including the Koran, from being examined as sources of extremism.  That has made some Russian judges reluctant to examine materials that contain citations to the Koran.

            And their reluctance, one analyst says, has the Islamists celebrating.  “’Finally,’” they openly declare, “we have been given the chance to freely disseminate everything that we want. Allah protects us and the Koran preserves us from the judges of the Russian Federation’” (

            But if that is the most egregious failure on the ideological front, it is far from the only one the Russian authorities are committing, according to Moscow commentator Yekaterina Trofimova, who on the basis of consultations with Russian experts points to a large number of others.

            The Russian government’s support for immigration from Central Asia has allowed Islamist radicals from there to seize control of many of the mosques in Russian cities and transform them into recruiting centers for ISIS and other radical groups, according to Aleksey Grishin, head of the Religion and Society Center.

            Moreover, he says, the Russian authorities have compounded this error by seeking the help of these mosques to adapt the migrants to Russian conditions.  Thus, the Russian state itself is sending Muslims to Islamist recruiters and appears oblivious to the consequences of its own blindness.

            Moreover, when it cracks down on migrants, it also fails, according to Georgy Fedorov, a member of the Russian Social Chamber. To the extent that its targets remain in Russia, they form underground mosques that are inherently radical; and to the extent they return home, they become a source of instability in their own countries.

            Indeed, as a result of Russian government policies in this regard and the economic recession at the present time, Russia has been transformed from “an importer of Islamist extremism” into an exporter, something the Central Asian countries recognize even if Moscow does not.

            Indeed, the governments in that region have concluded, Fedorov continues, that “the main path to Syria for these migrants passes through Russia” because that is where those who are now fighting for the Islamic State were first exposed to Islamist messages. They thus threaten Russia’s allies and Russia itself.

            But the threat of Islamist extremism is not restricted to migrants, Trofimova continues.  Galina Khriziyeva, a researcher at the Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISI), says that it has domestic sources as well given Moscow’s failure to support official Muslim hierarchies, despite being asked, and the lack of the authority of those institutions relative to ones controlled by the extremists.

            One of the reasons that Moscow has failed to understand this, Khriziyeva says, is that it is addressing the problem too narrowly. The issue is no longer that of recruitment for the Islamic state, although that continues, but rather “the formation of a new system of convictions” among Muslims who have concluded that they have the opportunity to seize power in Russia too.

            As a result, Trofimova says, ever more mosques and soon some of the Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs) have become centers of extremism without Moscow taking note. Indeed, according to Grishin, the center isn’t even in the position to provide advice to local officials on how to cope with such extremist actions.

            When he worked in the Presidential Administration, Grishin says, “governors telephoned and asked how to respond in this or that situation” regarding Islamist activists. But neither he nor his colleagues had a well-developed set of advice to give them; and the extremists exploited that lack as well.

            Just how bad things are as far as the official response to Islamist radicalism is shown by the following story, Grishin continues. One official who visited a summer camp for Muslim youth told him that the young people attending were told that “Muslims must love their motherland.”

            That was true, the Moscow expert says; but if one listened to the tape, one heard that “’Muslims must love their motherland only if their motherland doesn’t persecute Islam.’” To another question, “must a citizen defend his motherland?’ The response was “’he must, but he must understand that where citizenship and faith are concerned, faith must take priority.’”

            That is not a message, Grishin suggests, that the Russian state can afford to allow Islamists to deliver.

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