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Russia's Battle with Religious Extremism: A Return to Past Methods?

April 14, 2009 // 3:30pm5:30pm

As with many governments, the catalyst for Russia's decision to get serious about fighting religious extremism was the terrorist attack of 9/11, according to Geraldine Fagan, Moscow correspondent, Forum 18 News Service, and Title VIII-Supported Short-Term Scholar, Kennan Institute at a 14 April 2009 Kennan Institute lecture cosponsored by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Prior to that time, terrorist attacks in Russia were seen as overspill from the conflict in Chechnya and as the product of separatism rather than religious ideology. Today, the methods used to fight religious extremism in Russia are an element of the state's anti-terror policy.

The June 2002 law entitled "On Fighting Extremist Activity," also known as the Extremism Law, defines extremist activity in a specifically religious context: incitement of religious hatred; committing a crime motivated by religious hatred; obstruction of the lawful activity of religious associations accompanied by violence or the threat of violence; and propaganda of the exclusivity, superiority, or inferiority of citizens according to their attitude toward religion or religious affiliation.

Fagan described an incident in 2002 where the Rakhman mosque community was raided by FSB (Russian federal security service) officers and local prosecutors. Books were confiscated, and the community was later issued a warning under the Extremism Law. Under the law, two warnings in the course of a year are sufficient for a court to dissolve an organization. Later, an expert analysis commissioned by the prosecutor's office found that the books seized at the mosque were in violation of the Extremism Law for "belittling the national identity of Christians."

In 2003, the Russian Supreme Court banned 15 organizations as terrorist. While most were clearly violent, Fagan said, the list included a borderline group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which claims to be entirely peaceful but advocates the idea of a single Islamic state, or Caliphate. So, while the group does not endorse violence, it is branded as terrorist simply because its adherents aim to revive the Caliphate and are "working to create a schism in society." Following the Beslan school siege in 2004, trials of Hizb ut-Tahrir members for religious extremism grew more frequent. One trial in 2005 in Tobolsk resulted in five convictions of Muslims that were based not on proven participation in any terrorist acts, but solely on literary evidence. According to the expert analysis the prosecutors commissioned, the literature confiscated from the suspects was found extremist because it "propagandized the idea of the superiority of Islam—and therefore Muslims—over other religions and the people who adhere to them." Fagan stressed that the analysis confused propaganda of the superiority of citizens belonging to a certain religion (which falls under the definition of extremism under the 2002 law) with propaganda of the superiority of a religion itself. The latter, Fagan said, is a fundamental tenet of religious freedom: the right to say that yours is the only true religion.

Over the past two years, according to Fagan, authorities have moved to ban more and more Muslim literature. 2007 marked the publication of the first installment of the Federal List of Extremist Materials, which to date includes 367 items. Some items, Fagan noted, are violent in nature, extremely nationalist, or anti-Semitic. Yet the list also includes more mainstream Muslim works. And while the Ministry of Justice compiles the list, Fagan said, it does not edit the list. Thus, in practice, any low-level court can rule a work "extremist," at which point it is automatically added to the list and banned throughout Russia. Before the banning of one book written during the reign of Ataturk by a Turkish author, Russian Ombudsman for Human Rights Vladimir Lukin warned that "We must avoid a repeat of the prohibitions and persecutions of those with dissenting views and faiths that are characteristic of undemocratic, totalitarian states."

Finally, Fagan described the recent formation of the Russian Ministry of Justice's Expert Religious Studies Council. This council will have the power to investigate any religious organization or its literature for any reason, including for extremism. It is chaired by Alexandr Dvorkin, Russia's most prominent anti-cult activist. Fagan expressed concern that the trend of the Russian state battling against religious extremism is reminiscent of the Soviet Union's drive to stifle dissent.

Written by F. Joseph Dresen

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