Islamism in Russia is Influenced by Global Developments

The development of Islamism in Russia depends on two factors. One is connected with global developments, and the other with the domestic economic and political situation, which is also affected by global developments. In the event of a negative scenario, Russia may see a dramatic growth in radical Islamic movements and also in advocates of the “Russia for Russians” slogan.

The development of Islamism in Russia depends on two factors. One is connected with global developments, and the other with the domestic economic and political situation, which is also affected by global developments. In the event of a negative scenario, Russia may see a dramatic growth in radical Islamic movements and also in advocates of the “Russia for Russians” slogan.

Ideology and football: Common features

The growth of Islamic fundamentalism across the world, including in Russia, is connected with the gameplay in ideologies, which is similar to sports. When your city’s football team keeps winning, fans are very happy to identify themselves with it. A few losses can be tolerated, but if this team starts to lose more than its wins, identifying oneself with it will become a less pleasant experience. Some may even wonder if they should give up football for hockey.

Islamism was the initial ideology in the Muslim world. But around the middle of the 19th century the Muslim elites became aware of losing to the West. By that time, many Muslim countries had become Western colonies or semi-colonies. The Muslim elites saw that Islamism was no longer effective and should be reformed, and so they tried to borrow not only Western engineering technologies, but also social principles.

At that time the West was at the height of its nationalist period. Many Muslim elites joined the game, building secular schools, outlawing the hijab in public places and attracting public attention to the issue of nationality. A relevant example is Turkey’s transformation under the influence of the nationalist ideology of its first president, Kemal Ataturk. Nationalist ideology eventually took root in many Muslim communities, which led to the appearance of secular regimes with a nationalist ideology, such as Egypt under Nasser, Iraq under Hussein, Libya under Gaddafi and Palestine under Arafat.

But then disillusionment set in, partly related to military losses. Arabs lost several wars with Israel and Pakistan was defeated by India. The government of Mohammad Mosaddeq in Iran was overthrown with US assistance. But despite those changes, life in Muslim countries did not improve enough to meet the Western standards of living.

This feeling of disillusionment led to the development of post-nationalist Islam in the second half of the 20th century. The turning point came in 1980, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Afghans’ national resistance to the invasion soon developed into an international Islamic movement. The withdrawal of Soviet troops in February 1989 was seen as the win which Islamists had worked years to achieve in football and which they easily scored as soon as they gave up football for hockey. This is when Islamic ideology started rapidly gaining weight across the world.

Islamism breaks through the iron curtain

What was happening in Russia at that time? Back in the second half of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, the nationalist pan-Turkic movement which aimed to create a single Muslim nation was developing in the Russian Empire. The idea did not appeal to the tsarist government or, later, the Bolsheviks, who refused to tolerate two bears in one den. For this reason, the Bolsheviks split Muslims into several national groups, each with its own language, literature and culture, and tried to bind them with Communist ideology, disregarding their differences in faith.

In the late 1980s, when the Muslim world was converting from nationalist to Islamic ideology, in the post-Soviet space, on the contrary, nationalist ideology was growing stronger in the ethnic republics due to the decline of Communist ideology. Initially, the protest movements in Chechnya or Tatarstan were pro-nationalist rather than pro-Islamic. However, many national/ethnic republics proved to be ineffective and corrupt, which led to general disillusionment.

The global trend eventually reached Russia some time after the rise of the iron curtain. The post-nationalist Islamic fundamentalism started gaining momentum in Russia’s Muslim republics in the mid 1990s, fuelled by funding from the Gulf monarchies’ charity foundations.

The establishment of spiritual boards of Muslims in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan was soon followed by the appearance of an alternative organization – the Russian Mufties Council. Student and teacher exchanges between Russia and Muslim countries became routine and Islamic literature, quite a lot of it Wahabbist, swamped Russia. This led to very serious developments, including the Islamization of the Chechen conflict and a series of terrorist attacks.

Will Islamism win?

The Russian authorities and the public are not as concerned about the Islamic issue now as they were in the second half of the 1990s or the early 2000s. However, we know that modern trends usually reach Russia with some delay, and it is likely that the path they will take will depend on the situation in Islamic countries.

Islamic fundamentalism has clearly replaced nationalism as the leading ideology not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in many other countries over the past decade. The nationalist governments of Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi have been replaced with Islamic regimes, and the change was notably encouraged by the rich and influential Gulf monarchies.

It would seem that Islamic radicals should hail the confident march of Islamic fundamentalism across the world. But the success of this new ideology has been recently put in question, including after the Islamists’ victory during the Arab Spring in Egypt, which began in December 2010, turned into defeat as a result of a military coup.

The scales may be tilted by Syria, where the opposition has been trying to overthrow the Assad government. The United States has not risked bombing Syria, and so the outcome of the conflict is unclear. If the Islamists’ failure in Egypt is followed by their defeat in Syria, this could turn back the advance of Islamic fundamentalism across the world, including in Russia.

The economic crisis may upset plans

For the moment, Islamic fundamentalism is growing stronger in Russia, with Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria being top risk zones. The Russian authorities are at a loss over what to do, because they don’t always control the Islamist forces. There are several reasons behind this. The first is that there are foreign sponsors of the Islamist movements. Secondly, some groups of the Muslim elites are not averse to capitalizing on radical sentiments. And lastly, modern Russian capitalism may be effective in the Volga-Urals region, but not in the Caucasus, where the birth rate remains high (especially in the eastern regions) despite the economic downturn, and society is based on tribal and clan rules that are stronger than official institutions, such as the police and courts.

Economic hardships, which may potentially be provoked by a global financial crisis, could boost the development of Islamic fundamentalism.

In this case, problems will also develop in the Muslim republics of the Volga-Urals region, because the state institutions there are weak. The developments may follow the pattern of the late 1980s, when economic collapse severely undermined the government. This would engender a protest movement based on the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism rather than nationalist sentiments. Some people in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan abandoned nationalist ideology after Vladimir Putin started clipping the economic and political privileges which local nationalists had secured for their republics under the previous government.

The “Russia for Russians” formula is not constructive

More and more people are ready to take up the “Russia for Russians” idea, as evidenced by the recent riots in Biryulyovo after a migrant from the Caucasus stabbed an ethnic Russian.

Although overtly nationalist, this slogan also has religious undertones, which will be reinforced if Islamism starts growing in Russia. It is not people from Karelia or Mordovia who are seen as non-Russians, but primarily Muslims from the Caucasus and migrants from Central Asia.

Unlike the general public, the Russian elites remain essentially cosmopolitical and are not ready to play nationalist or religious games. But if there is demand, there is sure to be supply. If Islamic movements grow stronger, some counter-elites may make use of the “Russia for Russians” slogan for their own purposes. And this would be very dangerous for the country’s integrity.

This article was originally published in Russian on

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