After St. Petersburg bombing, a notable absence: Russian anti-Islam backlash – CSMonitor.com
2017/04/08 Leave a comment
Russia has been at war with Islamic enemies for over 500 years. Over the centuries, it fought long battles to subdue Tatars and other Muslim tribes who are now part of Russia. It also waged wars against the Persian and Turkish empires, incorporating many of their former territories into Imperial Russia.
Today, some of Russia’s most “troublesome” minorities are traditionally Muslim people with long histories of conflict with Russia, such as Chechens and Crimean Tatars. But so are some of its most successful and prosperous regions, especially Tatarstan, which has found its own formula for quelling internal Islamist extremism and co-existing, sometimes uneasily, with Moscow.That’s one reason why most Russians don’t see Muslims as a faceless “other,” but are able to differentiate between different groups of them, says Alexey Malashenko, an Islam specialist with the Moscow Carnegie Center.
“We’ve been living among and, yes, sometimes fighting these people for hundreds of years. We know them,” he says. “The average Russian can tell the difference between a Chechen, a Tatar, an Uzbek, and a Tajik and, believe me, there are big differences. There is a great deal of xenophobia under the surface in Russia, and sometimes it comes out,” as it has in occasional urban race riots between Russians and migrant laborers – who are especially numerous in big cities like Moscow.
“But overt anti-Muslim political appeals, such as you do see in some Western countries, are absolutely impossible in Russia. Our authorities do not need or want the instability that could result from playing that card,” he says.Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders have been very careful to separate Islam from terrorism, and to make that a frequent public message.
Two years ago Mr. Putin presided, alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, at the inauguration of the $170 million new Moscow Cathedral Mosque, a huge downtown temple that can accommodate 10,000 worshipers. With an eye both to Russia’s millions of Muslims and Russia’s growing role in the Middle East, he used the occasion to condemn Islamist extremism.
“We see what’s happening in the Middle East where terrorists of the so-called Islamic State discredit a great world religion, discredit Islam by sowing hate, killing people, and destroying the world’s cultural heritage in a barbaric way. Their ideology is built on lies, on open perversion of Islam. They are trying to recruit followers in our country as well,” he said.The powerful Orthodox Church has also walked a cautious line. When Russia intervened in Syria almost two years ago, church officials hailed it in potentially inflammatory terms as a “holy war.” But the church, too, has been at pains to stress that it is a fight against “terrorism,” not Islam, and has repeatedly called for an alliance between moderate Christians and Muslims to combat extremism.
Still, a more familiar Islamophobia bubbles not far beneath the surface. While Russia’s authoritarian political culture keeps it mostly bottled up for now, any survey of the country’s freewheeling social media will turn up plenty of small but clearly active groups who express the kind of militant anti-immigration, anti-foreigner, and anti-Muslim views that are familiar in the West.
“Potentially, any foreign citizen coming here is a threat,” says Valentina Bobrova, a leader of the National Conservative Movement, a small group in the central Russian city of Podolsk. “Islam … is an aggressive religion. We feel that it is attacking, trying to seize territories, minds, and souls in Russia, just as it is in Europe.”And the story of Ilyas Nikitin, a Russian Muslim whose photograph was mistakenly circulated as a suspect in the St. Petersburg bombing, is a cautionary signal of how quickly grassroots suspicion and ill-will can erupt. Despite being cleared by police, he was subsequently forced off an airplane when terrified passengers complained, and arrived at his home in the west Siberian city of Nizhnevartovsk to find he’d been fired from his job.
“You can’t say there is Islamophobia in Russia,” says Rais Suleymanov, an expert with the security services-linked Institute of National Strategy. “But when some act of terrorism is committed by radical Islamists, average people are quick to project all of their underlying fears onto that [Islamic] doctrine.”