Thursday, July 28, 2016

Is Radicalization among Russia’s Muslims Really ‘a Fiction’ as Amelina Says?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 28 – Yana Amelina says that those whom she calls “the Muslim lobby” in Moscow and experts with Western ties like Aleksey Malashenko who speak about the radicalization of Muslims in Russia are engaged in spreading a false picture of the situation, but her attack on them provides evidence for exactly what she describes as “a fiction.”

            On the website of the Caucasus Geopolitical Club of which she is the coordinator, Amelina has posted the theses of a report she gave to a conference in Chelyabinsk on July 8 on “Islam in the History and Present-Day Life of Russia (

            She argues that one must distinguish between generalized support for the idea of “a true Islamic state (the caliphate)” and actual support for ISIS. Surveys show that most Muslims in Russia and elsewhere support the former although few believe there are real prospects for it in the short term and few support ISIS.

            According to Amelina, estimates of the number of Muslims from Russia who have gone to fight for ISIS range from 1700 to 5,000, not small to be sure but “an insignificant fraction of the 20 million strong Islamic umma in Russia.  Moreover, she adds, a recent poll shosa that 52 percent of Daghestanis support Moscow’s campaign against ISIS in Syria.

            That poll conducted by the Baikal Communications Group for the Daghestani media and information ministry (and with the participation of Amelina’s own organization) (,  however, also found some figures that point in a somewhat different conclusion than she offers.

            According to the poll, 14 percent of Daghestan’s Muslims do not support the Russian operation in Syria and 21 percent said they found it difficult to answer that question where the government-preferred response was obvious.

            If one extrapolates these figures to the Russian umma as a whole, that suggests that nearly seven million Muslims in the Russian Federation oppose what Moscow is doing in Syria against ISIS – and that figure represents five percent of the entire population of the Russian Federation.

            Among young Muslims polled, opposition to the Kremlin’s policy is even higher: 46 percent of young Daghestanis said they did not support Russian moves in Syria. Only among the oldest age groups was support for the regime’s approach high: Among those between 45 and 49, 59 percent backed Moscow and among those over 60, 64 percent did.

            The poll found, as Amelina emphasizes that “46 percent of all those questioned are convinced that the Russian operation in Syria is improving the relationship of Russian Muslims to state power.” But 11 percent said it was making those relations worse, while 18 percent said it was not having any impact at all.

            She adds that this poll found that only two percent of the entire sample and only five percent of those aged 18 to 24 said they were interested in ISIS – and she stresses that interest does not mean support. On the basis of that, she draws a conclusion that many have disputed in the past.

            According to Amelina, “the miniscule size of this statistic demonstrates the limits of the radical-Islamist niche even in Daghestan where the problem of ‘going into the forest’ or into ISIS stands much more sharply than in other North Caucasian republics.”  And she dismisses all other polls which show much more radicalism as being influenced by “the Muslim lobby.”

            In the same presentation, the North Caucasus specialist offers additional details from the survey she approves of.  Asked why ISIS and other radical Islamist groups were attractive to some, 42 percent of Daghestanis said that “the main reason is linked to the absence of opportunities to advance oneself, to work and to improve one’s standard of living.”

            Thirty-two percent spoke about “the low religious literacy of Muslim youth,” 21 percent mentioned that ISIS and other groups provided income, 10 percent pointed to the convincing qualities of Islamist propagandists.  Only six percent, Amelina says, said that support for ISIS was connected with the mistreatment of Muslims in Russia.

            Such data, she argues, “cuts the ground from under propagandistic speculations on such themes,” including articles like the one Malashenko published last month on “The War in Syria Through the Eyes of Russia’s Muslims” (

            In that essay, the Carnegie Moscow scholar argued that “it is risky [for Moscow] to take part in a war in the Muslim world having behind your back 20 million Muslim citizens. Especially when it is becoming ever more complicated to control their attitudes, if indeed that is possible at all. The Russian military presence in Syria has led to a definite radicalization of the Russian Muslim community.”
            “Unfounded assertions about the supposed ‘radicalization of Russian Muslims’ have appeared not only from the Carnegie Foundation but also from a number of other experts,” Amelina says. But none of these people, she continues, provides any arguments or evidence in favor of that conclusion.

            What she doesn’t acknowledge, however, is that the data she offers to oppose such conclusions in fact show that a certain degree of radicalization is taking place. She is correct that not all of Russia’s Muslims are being radicalized, but even her data show that some very much are.

            And as Amelina might be among the first to concede, at a time of instability and uncertainty, small groups can often play a big role. And even if only two percent of Daghestanis are interested in ISIS, that is no small matter, especially if one considers its extrapolation across the umma in Russia as whole.

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