Thursday, February 23, 2017

Moscow Revives Another Ugly Soviet Practice by Pitting Ordinary Criminals against Muslims

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 23 – Soviet prisons and camps were notorious for many reasons but one of the most horrific aspects of them was the communist practice of considering ordinary criminals as “socially close” to the population and using them to repress and control “the politicals” who were invariably viewed as socially “alien.”

            Now, the Russian authorities have updated this ugly practice by pitting ordinary criminals against Muslims convicted of both “extremist” and ordinary crimes and using the former to control the latter.  That may make the jailors’ job easier in the short term but only at the cost of further dividing Russian society and radicalizing Muslims who pass through the prison system.

            Last week, the Rosbalt news agency reported on a violent clash between a group of professional criminals and Muslims from Chechnya and Daghestan in a camp in the Tuvin Republic, a clash in which the professional criminals attacked the Muslim prisoners for religious and ethnic reasons to cement their dominance (

            Since then, more details have leaked out; and now two analysts, Azamat Dadayev of the OnKavkaz portal ( and Bakhtiyar Aripov for the Prague-based Caucasus Times (, have connected the dots.

            Dadayev says that the sharp increase in the number of Muslims who are in prison and the dramatic growth in radical jamaats there has frightened Moscow and led prison officials to turn to ordinary criminals as allies against them, a choice that is leading to deeper divisions and more radicalization among Muslim prisoners. The incident in Tuva is simply a case of this trend.

            But it is far more dangerous than its Soviet model was for two reasons.  On the one hand, the government’s alliance with professional criminals has only made it easier for radical Salafites to argue that Muslims must unite in tightly organized communities and be prepared to use violence to defend themselves.

            And on the other, these clashes within the prisons have had an echo outside not only when the Muslim prisoners are released back into the civilian population but even before when Muslim groups outside the penal system learn what is going on and decide to support their co-believers with attacks on professional criminals in the “free” zone.

            A few days ago, North Caucasian, Azerbaijani and Central Asian Salafis med in the suburbs of Moscow and decided to take revenge on professional criminals.  The powers that be were so frightened of the breakout of a war between the criminals and the Salafis that they increased the presence of siloviki in those parts of the Russian capital most likely affected.

            Aripov in his article concurred on all these points, but he added a number of details of his own.  He pointed out that students of this subject say that “at a minimum,” ten percent of Muslim converts submit to Islam while they are in prison or the camps, and that such people, often the most radical anyway, are further radicalized by the state’s alliance with professional criminals.

            Moreover, just as the professional criminals seek to impose their rules in a place where “the laws of the state don’t operate,” so too the Salafis try to do the same thing. The latter, of course, are not really about Islam as a faith but rather as a political mobilizing force. In that, he says, they are very much like the Black Muslims in the United States of Louis Farrakhan.

            “The organizational structure of the Caucasian jamaats is little different from Farakhan’s organization,” Aripov says, “despite the fact that here a different tradition – Salafism – is what is being used as a mobilizing tool and weapon.”

            The Caucasus Times commentator concludes by quoting the words of Valerio Bispuri, an Italian photographer who has won awards for his pictures of prison life around the world. Bispuri says that “a prison is a mirror that reflects the real situation in the country. Whatever happens in prison is an indicator of what will happen in society,”

            Aripov says that the conflict in the Tuvin prison is “a clear illustration” of that.

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