On November 17, 2006, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a working meeting on "Islam and Russia's Regions".  Panelists for this meeting included  Igor Semeonov of the Academy of Public Administration of the Volga region, Damir Shagaeviev of the Institute of History, Igor Dobaev of the Southern Scientific Center, Tatiana Kostykova of Tomsk State University, and Ahmed Yarlikapov of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology. Carnegie Senior Associates, Martha Olcott and Aleksei Malashenko, chaired the meeting and also offered their thoughts on the subject.  Some of the themes and findings of the meeting are summarized below. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, religion, in particular Islam, has come to play an important role in Russia’s regions.  To understand fully politics in Russia, it is thus important to understand the current state of Islam and the role that it plays in society. Two different processes characterize religion and society in Russia: on one level, there has been a desecularization of the elite, and on another, there are also many changes occurring within Russian Islam.

Desecularization of the Elite

The first process is the product of the ideological vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union.  It stems from a frustration with non-religious values, culminating in the shedding of one ideology and the adoption of another.  This process is happening at different speeds in different regions, and does not always produce the same results. Islamic development in the Privolga region has followed a completely different path than that in the North Caucasus.  

The desecularization of society brings with it the potential for conflict both within religions and within society as a whole.  The fact that religious identities remained dormant during Soviet times makes the situation even more unstable as religious consciousness bursts onto the scene.  The North Caucasus has obviously seen the results of this volatility, but other places, where religions have in the past peacefully coexisted, show a new potential for violence.  While relations between Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Siberia have traditionally been peaceful, the confluence of the new waves of these two faiths presents a dangerous situation especially if latent tensions are allowed to grow unchecked.

The revival of religion also means a rubbing together and mixing of spheres that were previously subsumed by the Soviet state: religious, social, political, and economic.  Previously secular Nationalist movements, such as the one in Adigeya, are beginning to use Islamic slogans.  Indeed, Islamic protests are becoming common in political activity throughout the North Caucasus.  Moreover, residents of the North Caucasus are turning to religious organization as a provider of social, not just spiritual goods.

With this trend, arises another set of questions: What has caused the frustration with secular movements and values?  How has religion come to be a legitimate provider of social goods? Some of these questions are answered through an examination of the second process mentioned above: the one happening within Islam itself.

Transformation within the Russian Islamic Community
Once again the internal evolution of Islam in Russia is progressing at different rates and in very different directions in Russia’s regions. Nonetheless, it is possible to identify a general trend, and those factors that are creating this change.  The general trend is toward the radicalization of Islam, while the factors that are leading toward this radicalization can be divided into three categories.

The radical trajectory of Russian Islam is most visible in the North Caucasus.  Islamic groups have embraced a role for Islam in the state, and many advocate rule by Shari’at law.   Many youth Jamats accept and encourage violence.  That said, before discussing the radicalization of Islam, it is important to pause and take a moment to think about the definition of radical Islam, distinguishing between radical Islam and extremism.  In much of Central Asia, “radical Islam” is defined by the state, and many scholars and policy makers have shown a tendency to blindly accept these definitions of radical Islam.  However, in order to correctly analyze radical Islam and the threats associated with it, one must first have a clear definition.  It is also important to distinguish between different degrees of radicalization.

However, it is not important to establish this definition before talking about the factors affecting that evolution, which can roughly be divided into three categories: 1) Middle Eastern influences, 2) the influence of globalization on Hanafi Islam, 3) local perceptions and response to outside community. 

The evolution of the Russian Islamic community and the broader Islamic community in the FSU reflects “a return to the Middle East.”  It is tempting to speak of an Arabization of Russian Islam, especially given the influence of Saudi Arabia in the Northern Caucasus, but such a characterization ignores the role that Iran plays.  In Dagestan, for example, this influence plays itself out on two levels as many of the local religious elite received their training in the Middle East and promote policies at home aimed at the Arabization of their region and Russia.

Traditional, Hanafi Islam, however, still plays a role, albeit in a more globalized context.  Local traditions remain dominant in the Privolga region, where Tatar imams are hostile toward outside influences, especially those from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, although Kazakh influence, given the expanding community immigrants, is growing.  Meanwhile, in the North Caucasus, representatives of traditional Islam are becoming more aggressive.  This aggressiveness is felt in the local spiritual administrations.

On a third level, Islam is affected by the local community perception of and orientation to the outside world.  Thus, in the Northern Caucasus, there is a fusion and mixing of ethnicity and Islam.  Many communities manipulate and adapt Islam to fit their needs.  Some also define themselves in the context of Euroislam and Eurasian Islam.

Given the multiple layers of change and factors leading to change in Russia’s Islamic community, it is important to think about the boundaries and continuities between these different levels.  Is it really possible to think of Islam in a regional context?  How can you influence the Islamic community?

Russian Policy toward Islam: Success and Failures

The common perception of the Russian policy community is that the government’s policy towards Islam in the Northern Caucasus and elsewhere has been largely successful.   There seems to be a momentary respite from the all out conflict in the North Caucasus, but in reality, the radicalization of Islam continues and threatening processes have simply gone underground.

The ultimate solution to the problems associated with radical Islam must be global.  This does not mean, however, that countries must blindly follow the example of the United State, although a strengthening of intelligence gathering services is likely to be part of a final solution.  Before waging any such a “war on terrorism,” it is important to realize that not all of “radical Islam” is violent, and ask the question of what turns “radicals” to violence.  Only once these questions have been answered, especially in a Eurasian context, can we begin to craft a sound policy.