Islamization of the Middle East and Russia's Muslim Strategy

The impact of the ongoing processes in the Middle East and North Africa on the regional balance of power may affect Russia’s positions to a much greater extent than those of the United States. Russia is faced with the need to revise its strategy both regarding Arab countries and its own Muslim community.

The second round of the parliamentary elections held in Egypt on December 14-15 has not changed the situation after the first round – the Islamic parties remain in the lead. This confirms the general trend of rising Islamist sentiment that has taken shape following the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. Under the circumstances, Russia is faced with the need to revise its strategy both regarding Arab countries and its own Muslim community.

The Islamization of the Middle East and North Africa is too complicated an issue for unequivocal judgment. First of all, we should look at the situation in these countries prior to the armed uprisings. Under the current Egyptian constitution, Islam has been and remains the country’s official religion, and its president must be a Muslim. Sharia law was the foundation of local legislation before the revolution as well. The same applies to the Tunisian constitution. The changes that took place in this country under Habib Bourguiba, for instance, the ban on wearing the hijab in public offices, were also determined by interpretations of Sharia law. The situation in Libya was pretty much the same – Sharia norms were in force throughout Muammar Qaddafi’s rule.

In addition to the codification of these Islamic norms, Islam has been a major source of self-identification and national unity in all countries of the Middle East and North Africa. It has always been at the heart of the ethnic identities formed in Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Egypt.

There is one interesting issue that nobody has raised yet. The second article of the current Iraqi constitution, adopted in 2005, defines Islam as the official religion and a source of legislation. And this constitution is viewed, for some reason, as a model of democracy for the entire Middle East. Considering the aforesaid, it is necessary to approach the issue of Islamization with extreme caution.

Participants in the current events in the Arab world consider them a new stage of this process, a stage of national revival. The previous authoritarian governments are collapsing, regardless of their ideological bent – socialist or liberal. Now, at the latest stage of revival, the religious dimension that may be called civilizational is coming to the fore. This process is similar to what took place in Europe when it adopted the Christian doctrine. It is engendering a number of negative consequences for the non-Muslim communities in these countries. One of them is the continued outflow of the Christian population from Egypt. Given its role in forming national identity, Islam is supporting small and medium-size companies. As a result, Muslims are ousting their Christian compatriots from the positions they previously occupied in the economic life of Egypt.

To sum up, Islam continues to be a major factor of self-identification and forms the backbone of the latest stage of Arab national revival. It is fraught with threats, especially with regard to non-Muslims and should be viewed as a phenomenon that requires deep and serious analysis.

The impact of the ongoing processes in the Middle East and North Africa on the regional balance of power may affect Russia’s positions to a much greater extent than those of the United States. Speaking in Cairo University in 2009, President Barack Obama emphasized the need for the United States to develop relations with the Arab world along new lines. He said wearing a kerchief does not make women less equal and does not matter much. What matters is that the United States has long realized the need for contacts with relevant parties and movements and is now actively engaged in them without viewing these forces as just a threat to its interests in this part of the world.

Russia’s position is entirely different. Until recently the Egyptian Muslim Brothers was blacklisted in Russia. Now The Freedom and Justice Party (Hizbul Hurriyah wal 'Adalah) is taking the lead in Egypt’s public and political life. In these conditions, Russia’s policy will define the development of its relations with Egypt. The impact of rising Islamic sentiment in the Middle East and North Africa on the positions of Russia and the United States will be and is already being determined by the approaches of each of these countries to this region in the past. But it is abundantly clear that the regional events will affect many international agreements.

It is noteworthy that, as compared with Israel, Arab countries were much more willing to make proposals to peacefully settle regional conflicts. Israel was more reluctant in this respect. I think this is due to the authoritarian character of the Arab regimes, making it easier to make decisions and plans without considering the will of their people. In the meantime, Israel had to reach national consensus before signing peace accords with Egypt and Jordan, establishing economic relations with Qatar and Oman or establishing contacts with the Palestine National Authority. Now the new forces, or those that seem new, come to the fore. They encompass much greater diversity of political views, trends and ideas. They do not accept the former authoritarian methods and, being opposed to the former regimes, they may seek to revise past agreements with Israel.

In addition to the rise of Islamists to power in the Middle East and North Africa and the change in the trajectory of international relations in the region, Russia should also be concerned by the emergence of an internal threat from the Salafis. These are local Muslim groups within Russia that believe in the need for tough reforms of the Islamic norms in the country. Whether they depend on or are influenced by immigrants from Central Asia is an open question. I think such trends are emerging within the Muslim communities in the North Caucasus, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan by themselves rather than under the influence of these immigrants. In this regard, Russia must elaborate a strategy that would allow it not only to counteract these trends but also to open a dialogue with their ideologists, no matter how difficult that might be.

As for Central Asia proper, such attitudes have been spreading there since the 1978-1979 revolution in Iran. Critically, in discussing Islamization of the Middle East, experts often forget that this process was launched in Iran and not at all in the Arab world.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.