Islam in Russia: History, Politics and Culture

November 05, 2003 // 1:00pm3:30pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Middle East Program

A recent conference organized by the Kennan Institute and cosponsored by the Middle East Project brought together Russian and U.S. experts to discuss the role of Islamic identity and ideology in Russian society historically and today. Speakers discussed a number of issues, including the potential for integration of Muslims into Russian society, the existence of a distinctly Russian variety of Islam, and the danger of radical political Islam in Russia.

The difficulties and possibilities of integrating Muslim citizens are frequently debated in many European countries. However, several speakers pointed out that Russia is different from states such as France and Germany in that Muslim peoples have lived in the territory of Russia for centuries. Robert Crews of Stanford University argued that there is a historical model of Muslims as loyal citizens/subjects of a Russian polity. According to Crews, the Tsars were willing to use Islam as an instrument to secure political loyalty from Muslim subjects. All the speakers agreed that the recent increase in expression of Islamic identity among Russian Muslim groups is not, in most cases, an anti-Russian phenomenon. Shireen Hunter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies emphasized that an individual's identity is always made up of many layers. Most Russian Muslims recognize both Russian and Islamic aspects of their identity. In addition, Radik Amirov of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Russia noted that Russia's Islamic leaders promote loyalty to and cooperation with the secular Russian state.

There was some difference of opinion as to the existence of a distinctly Russian variety of Islam. According to Talib Saidbaev, an advisor to one of Russia's top Muslim leaders, foreigners have played a major role in the post-Soviet Islamic revival because there is a lack of native Islamic theology and learning. However, Rustem Shukurov of Moscow State University noted that centuries of interaction with Russian Christians and decades of Soviet secularism have deeply influenced the worldviews of Russian Muslims. Kate Graney of Skidmore College argued that the government should encourage the development of a Russian variety of Islam in order to highlight the substantial overlap between the interests of the state and of its Muslim citizens, and in order to discourage more fundamentalist varieties of Islam that have been "imported" from other areas.

Concern over the threat of Islamic radicalism in Russia is on the rise, especially with the potential spread of radicalism from Chechnya. However, Aleksei Malashenko of Carnegie Moscow Center argued that Islamic political groupings have failed to gain a foothold in Russia. He also maintained that the relative popularity of radical Islamic thought in Chechnya arose in response to the brutality and privations of the war – Islamic fundamentalism did not cause the original separatist movement. John Dunlop of the Hoover Institution emphasized that most Chechens do not want an Islamic state and do not see their struggle with Russia as a holy war. He nevertheless cautioned that the common perception of the Chechen war as a conflict between Russians and Muslims could lead to increasing instability in Russia's other heavily Muslim regions.

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