The Bear and the Crescent: Russia, Islam and the War on Terrorism
In a recent meeting at the Kennan Institute, Ariel Cohen, a Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, discussed the importance of Islam in both historical and contemporary Russia. He explained that because of Russia's large Muslim population, the country has a unique role in the war on terrorism. According to Cohen, Russia faces the challenge of confronting radical Islam within its own borders (Chechnya) as well as within its periphery (Central Asia). Cohen posited that Russia must continue to foster partnerships with the United States and China in order to counteract the radical Islamic forces located on its periphery.
Cohen described the historical context of Islam in Russia and explained that the first Russian contact with Islam came centuries apart as a result of two imperial expansions. He noted that Russia's subjugation by the Tatar-Mongol empire introduced Islam to Orthodox Christian Slavs. The second imperial expansion, led by Peter the Great, brought Russia into Caucasus and the Kazan region. Leaders of many of the ethnic groups located in the path of Russian expansion in the northern Caucasus used Islam as a "centerpiece of resistance" towards Russian imperialists.
During the Soviet era, Cohen continued, Stalin executed many of the more moderate Muslim leaders, forcing the Islamic movement underground where it remained until the late 1980s. Cohen contended that the defeat of the Soviet military in Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, gave new life to the Islamic movement within Russia and along the country's periphery. According to Cohen, the rediscovery of Islamic roots in Central Asia has proven to be very appealing to the rising generation. However, Cohen noted, a greater challenge for Russia is handling the mixed Muslim/Orthodox Christian population in the regions like the Northern Caucasus.
Cohen discussed the current debate regarding Russia's role in the war on terrorism. He said that while many Russians view the radical Islamic political ideology as a threat, others perceive the threat to be less serious thanks in part to Russia's vast Muslim population. He posited that the Russian government has attempted to create partnerships that might help stabilize the situations in Chechnya and Central Asia. He noted that in 2001, Russia and China signed a treaty establishing the Shanghai Corporation Organization, which brought China into Central Asia to share some of the security responsibilities. Cohen contended that the agreement failed to create a serious intelligence infrastructure that could combat al Qaeda and the Taliban. Therefore, he continued, when the United States approached Russia about moving military assets into the region to fight the Taliban, Russia grudgingly gave their approval.
He concluded by stating that it appears that Russia will need additional help in combating the Islamic fundamentalist movement in Central Asia. He cited recent reports that indicate that many of the strongest safe havens for fundamentalist groups are located in Tajikistan, in spite of the strongest Russian military presence in Central Asia. Cohen also warned that Islamic fundamentalists continue to view Central Asia as a likely place to establish strongholds because the region's secular government regimes are weak.