Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 11

By Nabi Abdullaev

With his clean-shaven chin and classic blue jeans, 40-year-old Akhmed Magomedov hardly fits the stereotypical image of an Islamic radical–bearded, brandishing a machine gun and calling for the blood of infidels. But Magomedov, a Dagestan native who lives in Moscow and preaches the Saudi Arabian brand of Islamic fundamentalism called Wahhabism, is part of the growing radical wing of Russia’s Muslims. “Like the Bolsheviks in Switzerland a century ago, Wahhabis find a haven in Moscow today,” Magomedov joked bitterly.

Small in number–and not politically constrained–radical Islamic groups can speak much more freely than the mainstream Russian Muslim leaders, who largely agree with Kremlin’s support for the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition. What is more, the radicals appear at the moment to speak for the majority of Russia’s Muslims, who do not support the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. At the same time, the chances that the Russian establishment will co-opt the Islamic extremists and bring them into a political dialogue are next to none, especially after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Instead, experts say that the Islamic radical movement is likely to become ever more marginalized while its potential for violence will continue to grow, especially in Russian overwhelmingly Muslim regions such as Dagestan and Chechnya.

“In the coming years, Russia will struggle with them fiercely,” said Aleksandr Iskandaryan, head of the Moscow-based Center for Caucasian Studies. “But even if the state totally eliminates [existing] Islamic extremists, the problem will not be solved because the conditions for their proliferation will remain.”

Fundamentalist communities are a heterogeneous bunch, but experts agree about their origins. Fundamentalism surfaced in Russia in the early 1990s, when the doors to Muslim communities, whose religion had been suppressed during the Soviet period, were thrown open to proselytizers from all walks of Islam. The most radical of them met with the greatest success in the south, where poverty and clan conflicts were the norm.

“When Communism ends, when people are ignorant of democracy and are oppressed by local corrupt elites, they turn to the Islamic alternative,” said Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center, referring to the model of a Muslim state based on principles set forward by the Prophet Mohammed and his early followers. “Many young proselytes turned into headstrong purists then,” recalled Magomedov, who himself became disillusioned with moderate Islam in the mid-1990s.

The extremist groups have different names: Wahhabis, Salafis, fundamentalists and even Islamic modernists. They live in the North Caucasus, in Tatarstan and in major Russian cities with Muslim diasporas. About 20 million of the world’s 1 billion Muslims live in Russia–with 1 million in Moscow alone–and, according to experts and insiders, the number of radical groups is rising steadily. “We don’t have any statistics, but the growth trend is absolutely clear,” said Dmitry Makarov, a Wahhabi expert at the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies. “Their most talented, educated representatives live in big Russian cities, such as Moscow or St. Petersburg, and disseminate fundamentalist views within Muslim diasporas.”

“When I talk to young congregation members at Moscow mosques, I see that most of them are fundamentalists,” Magomedov said. “They want to live in a new state based on Islamic principles.”

Experts usually cite two reasons behind the increasing radicalization of Islam in Russia–foreign financial aid and Russian officialdom’s inept handling of Muslim communities. “Both traditionalists and fundamentalists received millions of dollars from international Muslim organizations over the past decade,” Makarov said. “Of course, they influence communities in Russia and make them more radical.”

Malashenko, however, believes aid from abroad was not of primary importance, and only aggravated Islamic extremism in Russia. A greater impact, he argues, was made by the two military campaigns in Chechnya. “All [Chechnya’s first separatist President Djohar] Dudaev wanted was to create an independent secular state,” he said at a recent press conference. “But, by using force, Russia has pushed Chechnya into Islamic extremism.”

Magomedov, who frequently traveled to Chechnya during the first military campaign and knew some of the rebel leaders, said dubious media coverage of the conflict also played a role in transforming a secular confrontation into a religious war. “Shamil Basaev learned that he was leading a jihad (a holy war against infidels) from NTV television,” he said. “Only after being informed of this did he start reading religious books and making some progress in Islam.”

After Chechnya emerged from the conflict with de facto independence in 1996, hundreds of enthusiastic young men from the country’s Muslim communities went there to learn more about Islam and jihad in militarized camps set up by warlords of Arab origin. Magomedov visited some of these camps, where newcomers spent two months studying Islam and another two on martial arts and military disciplines. “The students were real mujahedin, the warriors of Islam,” he said. “In the camps they got what they missed in secular life: a common goal, a sense of community and the spirit of masculine camaraderie.”

In September 1999, frightened by the rising tide of radicalism, legislators in neighboring Dagestan banned Wahhabism and religious extremism in the republic. Those, like Magomedov, who refused to acknowledge the authority of the state–backed Dagestani Spiritual Board were either prosecuted or left the republic, but became hardened in their beliefs. “The bill made us face a choice,” Magomedov said. “And many moderate fundamentalists turned into radicals.”

There is no unanimity about the future of Islam in Russia. Mainstream Muslim leaders downplay the tensions between Islam and the society at large. “For Muslims brought up in the Russian cultural and informational environment, Russians are not infidels,” said Farid Asadullin, head of the Science and Public Relations Department at the Council of Muftis. “Moreover, Islam and Christianity have the same ethical base.”

But Iskandaryan of the Center for Caucasian Studies outlined two possible scenarios for Russia’s relationship with radical Islam. The first, which exists today, is a “conflict of rifles,” he said. To neutralize the threat of further radicalization, it must be transformed into a “conflict of politicians.” Although Iskandaryan said there have been precedents for such transformations–a prominent one being Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat–he was skeptical that the metamorphosis could happen in Russia, especially since the start of the current campaigns in Chechnya and Afghanistan. “Islamic groups, as a protest movement, are not ready for [initiating] cooperation themselves,” he said. “But there has been no order from the state for anyone to approach them with such an offer.”

Unlike mainstream Russian Muslim clerics striving for integration into establishment, radicals seek support on the ground. “The network of jamma’ats [neighborhood Islamic communities] is a real political Islam that has future in Russia,” said Geidar Jemal, the head of Islamic Committee, the only registered radical Muslim organization in Russia. “People’s self-government based on the rules of Islam is most natural way of life for Russian Muslims.”

In 1998, three villages in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan with a combined population of 2,000 proclaimed themselves independent Islamic territory and introduced self-government, based on locally interpreted Islam. The villages’ well-guarded independence lasted for fourteen months, until September 1999, when they were leveled by Russian artillery and air strikes.

Nabi Abdullaev is a journalist based in Makhachkala, Dagestan.