A new 226-page book written by a group of scholars widely reputed to be close to the Russian security services argues that Islamic State (IS) is, first and foremost, an ideological phenomenon. As such, this militant group can only be contained and then defeated on the territory of the Russian Federation by the articulation and mobilization of a counter-ideology based on the rapprochement of traditional Russian Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church.
The book, entitled ‘The Islamic State’: Essence and Opposition, was prepared under the editorship of Yana Amelina, of the Caucasus Geographic Club, and Andrey Areshov, of the Scientific Society of Caucasus Specialists. It was released in mid-October, in Vladikavkaz. The work describes the emergence of the Islamic State and devotes particular attention to its expansion in the North Caucasus, the Middle Volga and Crimea. It contains not only analytic materials about these issues but also a chronology, maps and key documents (full text available at Kavkazgeoclub.ru, accessed October 19).
But what makes the book especially noteworthy is its argument that Moscow’s current use of force against the group’s adherents inside Russia is not only failing but counterproductive. As such, ‘The Islamic State’: Essence and Opposition calls for an entirely different approach, one based on a recognition that Moscow is engaged in a war of ideas with the IS and can win only by actively promoting a traditional Islamic–Orthodox Christian ideology.
Specifically, editors Amelina and Areshov’s book concludes with a clear recognition that “the continuation of the current lack of an ideological dimension [in this fight] is impossible” and that “the only way out of the current dead end is the mobilization of forces of the believers of the traditional confessions for the maximum unity of Russian society and the realization of the national interests of Russia, both in the sphere of geopolitics and in social-political life.”
This book makes six specific and quite remarkable recommendations for action:
· It advocates “all possible support for the Islam that is traditional to Russia, including organizational, financial, methodological, and other assistance and the provision of security at a necessary level of Islamic theologians and religious figures who are leading the ideological struggle against religious extremism.”
· It calls for “the development and strengthening of cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSD), both in the sphere of joint activities and for a common improvement of the moral climate in Russian society via joint efforts against information campaigns of an atheistic and anti-Russian nature.”
· It says that these two religions working with the state should conduct “a constant active explanatory-propagandistic campaign to unmask the misconceptions of the Islamic State and other radical-Islamist groups via the media and social networks, and work directly in youth groups in high-risk areas.”
· It calls for the “creation and development of a system of Islamic education and a Muslim theological school that will harmoniously combine the traditions of Russian Islam with the ancient basis of world Islamic academic and scholarly centers.”
· It urges Russian law enforcement agencies to avoid “anti-Islamic rhetoric as such” and it calls for a review of the Federal List of Extremist Materials in order that “classic Islamic texts”—a far broader category than just the Koran—not be routinely included on that list.
· And it calls for restrictions on “the free dissemination in Russian media, the Internet, other means of mass communication, and in the expert community of marginal and, at times, openly inadequate judgments about the supposed limitation of rights of believers in Russia—conclusions that sometimes reach the level of an open apology for the Islamic State and other radical structures and organizations.”
Given the authors and their subject, it is quite likely that these proposals will be actively considered, especially as they fit with President Vladimir Putin’s current and increasingly Eurasianist approach to foreign and security policies. As the Kremlin leader said himself at the re-opening of the Cathedral Mosque in Moscow, this approach reflects his belief that Russian civilization is rooted in both Christianity and Islam (Kremlin.ru, September 23). This echoes his earlier suggestion from several years ago that Orthodoxy and Islam have more in common than Orthodox Christianity has with Roman Catholicism (Islamnews.ru, December 16, 2010).
Almost certainly, the Kremlin is not going to accept all of these ideas just because they were expressed by Putin loyalists, but three of them may have a serious impact on Moscow’s thinking: First, the notion that the fight with the Islamic State, at least within Russia, is a battle of ideas rather than just a military contest could lead to a revision of how Moscow pursues the fight in the North Caucasus and perhaps more generally. Second, the notion that anti-Islamic propaganda and actions by the authorities are proving counter-productive—offending more people than attracting them—may lead to a diminution of such policies. And third, the book’s attack on the current list of extremist literature may lead to an even more radical revision of that list than the one Putin has proposed by suggesting that the holy books of the traditional religions are beyond the reach of the courts (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, October 18).
If the Kremlin moves in any of these directions, ‘The Islamic State’: Essence and Opposition, which had an initial print run of only 300 copies, could become a bellwether of a major shift in Putin’s actions toward a more ideological approach in this area as well as others.