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If Russians were holding their breath in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, it was with good reason. A Black Sea spa town long favored by Kremlin apparatchiks, Sochi occupies a perilous position on Russia’s southern frontier, just 50 miles west of the North Caucasus Federal District, a cauldron of ethnic strife, nationalist separatism, and state repression since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the last two years alone, violence in this vast mountainous region, including car bombings, assassinations, and clashes between Muslim fighters and Russian security forces, has killed or injured more than 1,500 people.
Islamist militants in the North Caucasus have been making more frequent appeals to Russia’s other Muslims to rise up and join their cause. Last summer, Doku Umarov, an underground commander who claims control over a phantom Caucasus emirate, called on mujahideen in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan -- two faraway autonomous republics about 400 miles and 700 miles east of Moscow, respectively -- to “spoil” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to stage the Olympics in Sochi atop “the bones of our ancestors.”
But Umarov’s attempts to provoke a Muslim uprising across Russia against Putin’s government have accomplished little. The Caucasus remains an outlier among Russia’s Muslim-majority territories, which, rather than radical redoubts, are stable, well-integrated, and relatively prosperous regions. Most Muslims in the bulk of the Russian Federation hardly ever express sympathy for their brethren in the restive North Caucasus, and historically, they have shown more interest in accommodating the state than resisting it.
The key question today, however, is how the Kremlin will continue to manage its varied Muslim population and whether it can maintain the allegiances of such a diverse group. The Putin government has worked especially hard to co-opt Muslims for its own political goals, both foreign and domestic. Finding an end to the war in the North Caucasus is one piece of the puzzle. In other regions, stability will depend more on whether Moscow keeps trying to control how Russia’s Muslim citizens interpret Islamic tradition by mandating which religious authorities and practices are sufficiently patriotic and compatible with the state.
Muslims in Russia have increasingly embraced different and competing religious orientations. Government interference in the debates among disparate Muslim communities runs the risk of alienating those who opt for ways of being Muslim that, although perfectly peaceful, conflict with official understandings of Islam. Putting a straitjacket on Islamic interpretation, even if done with the support of one camp of Muslim authorities over another, will not resolve the many policy challenges related to Islam that Russia faces. Instead, the Kremlin will have to accommodate greater pluralism in an ever-changing Islamic landscape.
Russia’s Muslims defy easy categorization. Even their demographic profile is the subject of intense dispute. Today, the government, journalists, and civil rights organizations estimate the total population to be some 20 million, or 14 percent of Russia’s overall population of 143 million. That figure would make Russian Muslims not just the second-largest religious group in the country but also the largest Muslim population in all of Europe. Yet the most recent census, in 2010, which asked only for “nationality,” not religious affiliation, suggested that the country has closer to 13 million Muslims, or roughly nine percent of the population.
This smaller figure is the product of only counting members of ethnic groups that have historically identified with Islam, such as the Azeris, the Bashkirs, the Chechens, the Kazakhs, and the Tatars, and listing them all as Muslims. Many Muslim leaders claim that the lower count represents an effort to undermine their political clout, since it fails to reflect Russians’ actual religious affiliations. Despite the official census numbers, even Russian politicians close to Putin, and others from the ethnic republics, regularly invoke the higher figure of 20 million. They do so to make Russia’s claim on membership in the Islamic world look more credible and to pander to their bases in order to secure Muslim electoral support.
Russia’s federal system, inherited from the Soviets, compounds the uncertainty by giving local ethnicities an incentive to overcount their numbers. Take Tatarstan. In the early Soviet period, Lenin and Stalin (an ethnic Georgian) created it and other similar republics as a concession to ethnic nationalism and to rebuff ethnic Russian domination. Today, elites there and elsewhere cling to power by claiming to represent the interests of their self-described nations. But in Tatarstan and other republics, it has always been hard to maintain indigenous majorities, given the large Russian populations and constant emigration; Tatars today officially make up only 53 percent of a population of 3.8 million. Muslim activists and local elites have been accused of pressuring pollsters to manipulate the census and increase the count of Muslim groups.
A similar tussle takes place in Moscow, which is officially home to 300,000 Muslims of varied ethnicities, out of a total population of between 12 million and 17 million people. Yet the census tells only part of the story. Another two million Muslims live there without registration papers, and some observers claim that two million more Muslim migrants work in the city. Most of these Muslims have come to Moscow to escape woeful economic conditions in their home countries, such as Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. But their temporary and often undocumented status makes them vulnerable to police harassment, exploitation, and racist violence -- all factors that undermine the government’s attempts to project tolerance.
The distorted census figures, police intimidation, and bigotry lump all of Russia’s Muslims together into a single group, even though they are in fact a varied lot spread across the country. In places such as Tatarstan, Muslims make up the elites, but in Moscow, most occupy the lowest ranks of the labor force. Although the Russian federal system gives Russian Muslims considerable political influence, government policies, including well-documented cases of police harassment and raids of homes and businesses, marginalize Muslim immigrants, who remain invisible to census takers yet appear highly visible to Muscovites anxious about Muslim immigration.
This anxiety is fed by Moscow’s long confrontation with Chechen separatists, a conflict that, as it has spread throughout the North Caucasus as a wider Islamist-led insurgency, has fused radicalism and Islam in the minds of the Russian public. As the Volgograd bombings last December showed, militants from the North Caucasus have taken their fight against the government to Russian territory beyond their home region. Yet the government has also capitalized on this fear.
Russia’s security agencies fabricate militants where none exist and accuse local Muslims of extremist ties on the basis of evidence that often hardly goes beyond one’s style of beard or dress. Frequently aided by Muslim clerics close to the state, officials like to blame violence on “Wahhabis,” Muslims who have ostensibly adopted Saudi Arabia’s controversial version of Islam. But the government, the media, and the courts tend to apply the label liberally. They call nonconformists Wahhabis to reinforce the authority of state-backed Muslim clerics, who oppose religious styles that the government deems alien to Russian Islam. Such stigmatized groups include Tablighi Jamaat, the world’s largest Muslim proselytizing organization, which has an underground presence in various Russian cities today, and Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic organization that seeks to create a transnational caliphate.
At times, the security agencies have contributed to the extremist threat in more direct ways. Both Putin during his first term as president and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, used the wars that began in Chechnya in the late 1990s to boost their popularity and to justify an array of authoritarian security measures. As a result of their manipulations, many Russians suspect, with good reason, that the Federal Security Service had a hand in a number of major terrorist attacks that rocked Russia a decade ago, including a series of apartment bombings across the country in 1999 and the Dubrovka Theater crisis in 2002 (in which 40 Chechen militants and some 130 hostages were killed).
Moscow likes to portray violence in the North Caucasus as linked to Islamic insurgencies outside Russia. After the Kremlin launched the second war in Chechnya, in 1999, some Muslim fighters did start to wage a campaign to create a pan-Islamic emirate on Russian soil. But such utopian schemers were responsible for only some of the region’s overall instability. For the most part, armed groups in the Caucasus were engaging in highly localized struggles for power, in which religion was only one of several motivating forces. Often, so-called extremist fighters have been more interested in criminal profit or revenge against government brutality than in Islamist causes.
The truth is, despite the government’s hype and provocations, most Russian Muslims remain firmly attached to their country and its institutions. Elements of transnational Islam may be growing in appeal -- Russian Muslims can now shop for the latest international Islamic fashions at specialized stores and attend the annual Moscow Halal Expo -- but that does not betray a fundamental shift in loyalty or outlook.
And most Russian Muslims remain indifferent to the blandishments of foreign missionaries. Like other communities in Russia, Muslims have used the freedoms they have won since the demise of communism and atheism to rediscover their religion. But they have mostly rejected offers made by Turkish missionaries, the Saudi government, or other foreigners to replace the Communist Party of the Soviet era with new religious tutors from abroad (notwithstanding Russian Salafists, a deeply conservative cohort that has intellectual ties to Saudi Arabia and that advocates living lives strictly modeled on those of the early companions of the Prophet Muhammad). Outside the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, which has the closest ties to Arab educational institutions, Russian Muslims have focused on establishing their own religious schools. And in this effort, at least, Muslims have enjoyed the firm support of the state, which has accorded Islam the privileged status of a “traditional” Russian faith. Although formally a secular state, Russia favors the Orthodox Church, but officials also pledge to protect Islam, Buddhism, and even Judaism from foreign influence. In practice, this means lending support to those religious authorities who are willing to work closely with the state to promote patriotism among the faithful.
The state’s backing of a version of Islam it finds palatable was on display last October, when Russian officials and Islamic scholars in Ufa, the capital of the republic of Bashkortostan, celebrated the 225th anniversary of the Central Ecclesiastical Administration of the Muslims of Russia, an institution created under Catherine the Great to bring Islam under the direction of the state. During Catherine’s rule (1762–96), Russian Muslims gained official recognition for their clerics and mosques. Her government even endorsed Islamic laws in relation to marriage, the family, and public morality. Mullahs and mosque community members frequently turned to the tsarist police to denounce neighbors who committed adultery or failed to attend prayers. Islam became a pillar of a conservative imperial order.
In exchange, Islamic authorities were expected to teach their followers that being a good Muslim meant being loyal to the state -- then as now, official tolerance came with strings attached. As in the past, today many Muslim clerics also preach against social ills, although now they include alcohol and narcotics. A number of them also focus on foreign policy, echoing the Kremlin’s vision of an alliance among Muslim countries and of Russia as a counterweight to a hegemonic United States.
At the ceremony in Ufa, Putin declared Islam to be “a striking element of the Russian cultural code, an inalienable, organic part of Russian history” and praised the institution for having helped make Muslims “true patriots of our country.” But he warned that “certain political forces” were seeking “to use Islam or, more precisely, its radical currents” to weaken the state. Russian Muslims, Putin added, “have always been united in serving society and their state, defending it from external enemies as well as from any manifestations of extremism.” He called on the assembled clerics to be “louder” in forging unity and harmony within Russia and in the Muslim world at large, to help integrate migrant laborers, and to strengthen Islamic institutions with a distinctively Russian Muslim theology so as to marginalize “informal leaders” whose spurious teachings threaten the country.
Putin’s remarks underscored how Muslims and Russian officialdom have always been engaged in a dialogue about how to police Islam, albeit one in which the state has ultimately had the final say. And sure enough, Talgat Tadzhuddin, the 65-year-old leader of the Central Ecclesiastical Administration, responded enthusiastically to Putin’s instructions. Reiterating Putin’s reference to Muslims’ historic service in defense of the state, the senior mufti noted that his institution was doing everything possible to preserve “traditional Islam” by blocking “the propaganda of totalitarian sects and radical currents in our communities.”
Although such exchanges represent an attempt by Putin to maintain the state’s tradition of control, they also highlight a dilemma for him, since Russian Muslims do not speak with one voice. Tadzhuddin may have stressed cooperation, but he has a rival: Ravil Gainutdin, the 54-year-old head of the Council of Muftis of Russia, a body of clerics that has competed with the Central Ecclesiastical Administration to act as Russia’s authoritative representative of Islam. Gainutdin did not relish Tadzhuddin’s time in the spotlight with Putin and only made a fleeting appearance at the ceremonies in Ufa. The two Muslim leaders have been battling for years over control of Russia’s Muslim institutions, including numerous regional clerical bodies and schools, in a struggle for prestige, financial resources, and access to state patronage.
Tadzhuddin interpreted the anniversary celebration as an endorsement of his call to unite some 80 regional Islamic organizations in the country under his authority. Gainutdin, for his part, faults Tadzhuddin for supporting a local court’s decision to ban a new translation of the Koran, a ruling that has outraged many Muslim campaigners for civil rights. The danger for Putin is that tapping Tadzhuddin as the official voice of Russian Islam may not only compromise Tadzhuddin’s standing in the eyes of his followers. It could also endanger the Kremlin’s friendly relationship with Gainutdin’s organization and lend weight to those Muslim critics who see persecution as being on the rise. In Tadzhuddin, Putin may be betting on a lame horse.
Such power struggles are playing out throughout Russia today, with mosque leaders challenging one another for supremacy, hurling charges of extremism and heresy, and appealing to state censors and the police to intervene. In a recent case, Seidzhagfar Lutfullin, an imam from Tatarstan who organized a boycott of an Elton John concert in the republic’s capital city late last year, raised the alarm that two of his opponents were disseminating “extremist” views associated with Hizb ut-Tahrir. They were promptly convicted and sentenced to jail.
Such polemic labels mask more subtle and profound debates about what it means to be a Muslim in Russia today. For the past two decades, the quest for an authentic Islam in a post-Soviet world has yielded multiple answers -- and deep disagreements. Many Tatars, for example, have embraced the view that they practice an Islam that is a kind of ethnic inheritance, complete with religious leaders whose authority should be reinforced by the government. They see this interpretation as inseparable from their distinctive Tatar identity. But this school of thought quickly brands those who question its precepts as Wahhabis or extremists.
More secular Tatar intellectuals look west to argue that Islam calls for reform along the lines of what is practiced in Europe. Islam, they say, should be compatible with contemporary notions of progress and women’s rights. In their view, Muslims should have broad leeway in deciding which Islamic legal norms have outlived their time.
But both the Tatars’ ethnic and government-sanctioned conceptions of Islam and their more secular, cosmopolitan beliefs are anathema to Russia’s Salafists, who renounce such mainstream interpretations. Largely apolitical and distributed in small pockets throughout the country, the Salafists stand out the most among Russia’s Muslims, not only with their distinctive beards and dress but also because they pose such a bold intellectual challenge to the status quo.
Despite the recent rise of the Salafists, who have drawn inspiration from Saudi Arabian and other sources, it would be misguided to see them as the future of Russian Islam. In Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and elsewhere across Russia, all kinds of Sunni and Shiite groups are mixing in new ways, often through immigration from former Soviet republics to the south. For example, even though Salafists reject Sufis (who hold a more mystical interpretation of Islam) and their veneration of saints and shrines, the two groups still meet on the job at construction sites and markets and in Moscow’s overflowing mosques. And both groups pray alongside the sycophants of the state-backed Islamic hierarchies and alongside those who call for civil society, not the state, to organize Muslim affairs.
For all the emerging pluralism, dissent, and rediscovery of Islam in Russia, it would be a mistake to either exaggerate the scale of this religious revival or equate it with militancy. A 2010 poll by the respected Russian Public Opinion Research Center found Muslims to be generally less enthusiastic about religious holidays, literature, and rites than Orthodox Christians are. In Tatarstan, a 2012 survey revealed that only six percent of Muslims there identified themselves as “deeply religious,” with another 17 percent admitting to being “doubtful,” if still Muslim at all. Although Muslim women in Tatarstan have practiced various kinds of veiling since the early 1990s, only seven percent of them wear the hijab.
If militancy is bred in war zones such as the Caucasus, Tatarstan has little reason to worry. With its lucrative oil industry, solid agricultural base, and strong manufacturing sector, Tatarstan ranked fourth among Russian regions for quality of life in a recent poll, after Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the greater Moscow area. Respondents who expressed the most fervent religious devotion were not the angry young men that Russian and Western journalists tend to caricature: they were instead female pensioners in the countryside. A starker contrast could not be drawn with the war-scarred republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia, where, in addition to there being ubiquitous violence, at least one-third of the population is unemployed and despair and anxiety reign.
With its mix of cultivating religious allies, repressing others, and perpetuating an image of vast Islamic unrest emanating from the Caucasus, the Kremlin’s approach to Islam is contradictory. The government works hard to highlight its distinctive mode of toleration, but by colluding with its handpicked intermediaries, it risks making new enemies. It proclaims Islam to be a traditional Russian religion, defended by the state, but stokes fear among non-Muslims of certain interpretations of Islam and brands entire regions with the label of Islamic militancy.
Moscow deals with all religious groups in Russia, including Orthodox Christians, in a similar way: by attempting to co-opt them. It takes only one state-backed voice to make an alleged deviation from religious orthodoxy a crime, whether that authority is from the Orthodox priesthood or a Muslim cleric loyal to and cultivated by the Kremlin. The state’s support of one interpretation of a religion may prompt the persecution of those who adhere to another interpretation.
But the government’s selective promotion of Islam corresponds with Putin’s foreign policy goals. Putin’s affirmation of Islam’s historical ties to Russia, together with then President Dmitry Medvedev’s 2009 declaration in Cairo (which Putin repeated in Ufa) that Russia was an “organic part” of the Muslim world, has framed Moscow’s quest to restore its great-power status in Asia and the Middle East. Such pronouncements also represent an answer, however muted, to the growing domestic chorus of xenophobic and racist invective that populist politicians and right-wing organizations direct against Russia’s immigrants.
Uncomfortable with the pluralism and variety of Islamic practice in Russia, the Putin government has gambled that it has picked the right interpreters of Islam. But in doing so, it has lost those Muslims who find collusion between Muslim authorities and the government distasteful. Ultimately, Russian Muslims themselves will decide who has the authority to speak in their names, no matter Putin’s attempts to arbitrate religious relations with the state.