Which is better - tolerance or friendship among peoples? Should goodness be able to defend itself with its fists? Why should the “Far East” become closer to Russia than the “Middle East”? Is Africa a “continent of hope” or a “hopeless continent”? Is a lion dance dangerous? These and many other questions were answered by the participants of the 16th Valdai Club Annual meeting, which is currently taking place in Sochi.
On the second day of the 16th Annual meeting, four sessions were held. They all proceeded according to Chatham House Rules so that the experts could feel at ease when discussing sensitive issues. Perhaps one of the most striking discussions was about religious extremism and its spread from East to West. Why did the East, the birthplace of the world religions and religious tolerance, turn into a space where the threat of religious radicalism has manifested itself so vividly, and how is it dealt with? The experts discussed these during two Valdai Club sessions, which were devoted to religion-related issues.
The problem of religious extremism and its impact on politics
Usually people discuss Islam when addressing the problem of religious extremism, but radicalism exists within the framework of any religion. As one of the speakers said, everything is relative: those who some consider terrorists are considered freedom fighters by others. In this light, the experience of the Philippines, a double victim of religious extremism, is especially interesting. The facts are well known: the imposition of Christianity by Spain, the killing of Muslims by the Americans in Mindanao. If the Spaniards hadn’t arrived, the expanse of Islam may have reached as far as Taiwan and most Filipinos would have become Muslims. Now Muslims in Mindanao want to create their own state, but they did not want to join ISIS, because, in their opinion, this contradicts the laws of Islam.
Thus, the front lines are not between Islam and non-Islam, but between moderate Islamists and radicals. No matter how contradictory it may sound, Muslims are divided by one religion. Islamic extremism exists in two forms. The first includes groups that have abandoned their extremist views, but within these groups there are elements that remain ambiguous. The second includes ISIS and Al-Qaeda , which actively call for violence. In reality, these two groups share a goal - the creation of an Islamic state. One key peculiarity of Islamic extremism is that it does not separate religion and politics. All movements of political Islam strive to create an Islamic state based on Sharia norms governing all spheres of life.
The growing popularity of political Islam in the Middle East in the second half of the twentieth century is associated with popular disappointment in capitalism, socialism and liberal democracy. As one expert noted, all forms of religious extremism are a reaction to modernism. This is a kind of “conservative revolution”, an attempt to return to the roots. Moreover, for a long time, political Islam was considered as an alternative to democratic systems, which were based on the principles of equality, freedom and sovereignty. However, something went wrong. Now we are witnessing the globalisation of political Islam and terrorism.
Islamic extremism is a transnational phenomenon. And solving this problem, from the point of view of experts representing the Western world at the Valdai session, is primarily the task of states with a Muslim majority. The governments of Islamic countries must solve the problems in their countries - civil and political ones - and carry out all the necessary reforms, taking into account international security requirements. International cooperation is also needed. The countries of Europe and the USA should promote integration policies. A typical European question was asked: is it possible to fight Muslim terrorists with tolerant methods? One cannot blame them for violating human rights while violating their rights at the same time. However, the question did not get an answer. Except for one remark: "That which is good should be able to defend itself with fists."
Continuing the theme of international cooperation in the fight against extremism, one of the Russian experts said that this will not solve the problem. He recalled that in Soviet times, we exaggerated the role of ideology. When the USSR collapsed, many began to think that money means everything. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Ideas exert a powerful force that drives people. Of course, you can block the financial flows of Islamic radicals and defeat them on the battlefield, but at the same time lose in an ideological battle. Islam is diverse and pluralistic, and there are many moderate currents opposing terrorism. It is necessary to interact with them; it is necessary to involve the centres of Islamic political and legal thought in the struggle. The concept of social justice cannot be left to the radicals.
Russia and the Islamic World: A mutual role and mutual influence
If the first discussion on religious topics was, relatively speaking, a “session of questions”, the second one became a “session of answers”. It was about the role of Russia in the Islamic world and the specifics of Russian Islam, one of traditions which remain deeply rooted in the history and culture of the country. Russia appreciates the Islamic component of its history and culture; it has an observer status in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
In the multi-confessional regions of Russia, traditions of tolerance have yielded mutual respect among all nationalities, and religions have developed positively. The Volga region is characterised by the interpenetration of national and religious traditions, often through mixed marriages. One of the speakers of the session said that, in addition to Christmas and Easter, residents of the Republic of Bashkortostan celebrate Kurban Bayram and Uraza Bayram. There is even an Orthodox-Islamic joke: to answer the phrase "Kurban Bayram!" by "Truly Bayram!"
Much is being said about European multiculturalism. But it is better to think of it as "multicultural forcemeat". Islam, as one of the speakers said, remains somewhat alien to Europe, where there are entire Muslim quarters who live by their own laws - they are fenced off from the European world. In Russia, all nationalities coexist under the same proverbial roof; there is no tolerance, but there is a friendship among peoples, which allows them to maintain the peace. In terms of multiculturalism, Russia is clearly ahead of Europe.
In Syria, Russia is demonstrating its ability to negotiate with both civilians and militants who are open to it, as Russia has relevant experience. For example, one part of the Russian Federation is the Republic of Dagestan. After the collapse of the USSR, Islamic extremists poured in, and met the resistance of the entire Muslim population of the region. In this war with the so-called caliphate, 54 traditional Islamic Imams were killed. It was a test, but decades later, this Dagestan experience became useful in the Middle East. The actions of military police from Dagestan stationed in Syria got exemplary reviews.
Here’s another important point. In Soviet times, Russian specialists came to Dagestan to help develop the region. Now specialists, such as doctors and teachers, are needed in Syria. These educated professionals themselves are from Dagestan and other Russian regions. This is how, with the help of others, a multinational and multi-confessional society is formed.
Greater Eurasia as a new form of geo-economic space
The concept of Greater Eurasia is ambitious, as it aims to create a community without hegemony: the leading players are too strong to put up with someone’s hegemony and are well aware that their own hegemonic ambitions will be rejected. Moreover, the implementation of the Greater Eurasia project depends on Russia. If Russia does not believe in Eurasia, there will be no Eurasia, stressed the participants in the Eurasian session.
In Russia, a distinction is drawn between “Far East” and “Middle East”. That is, the Persian Gulf countries are closer to most Russians than their countrymen on the Pacific seaboard. Of course, this is a wordplay. Geographically, for the central part of Russia, Europe is much closer. However, Russia didn’t become a great empire because it built St. Petersburg, but because it conquered Siberia and went to Asia. Let’s not forget about these historical connections. Especially now, that Russia has become a Eurasian country: culturally it remains European, but politically and socially, it’s Asian.
Of course, in order for the Greater Eurasia project to become fully operational, Russia will have to work hard. The economic aspect of this dilemma is important, although it is not the key. Nevertheless, the fact that most Russian investments are in Europe does not contribute to the development of the Eurasian project. This can be fixed by taking advantage of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative. Moreover, Russia and China are being brought together by changes on the world stage.
According to one expert, Beijing is concerned about the prospect of an "undocking" of the economies of China and the United States, but hopes to maintain relations with Europe, since the EU does not politicise economic problems, but solves them through negotiations. This is reminiscent of a dinner where Europe intelligently notices that there is too much food on a Chinese plate, but Donald Trump simply pulls the tablecloth off the table.
China does not want to become a hegemon, it wants multi-polarity, and Russia can play the role of a bridge between Europe and rapidly developing Asia. China maintains a partnership within the framework of Greater Eurasia and is ready to cooperate in the Belt and Road initiative. Since this is new, China is ready to humbly listen to criticism. However, one must understand that this is not a Marshall Plan and not a charity project, but a project involving cooperation, common risks and common benefits.
Among the participants there were also experts from Central Asia. They have their own views on the processes taking place within the framework of Greater Eurasia. In short, they welcome the integration processes in the region and in Eurasia as a whole, but they fear the loss of sovereignty. For example, China is an important partner for Kazakhstan. However, Kazakhstan’s attitude towards Beijing can be compared with one’s attitude to the dance of a lion. The beast is controlled by other , and it is not clear who they are - friends or foes. Kazakhstan also maintains good relations with the US and the EU, and hopes integration within the EAEU won’t lead to a confrontation with them. But the policy of the Western countries seems somewhat inconsistent: a change in the US administration leads to the termination of the agreements that were concluded with the old one.
Russia is undoubtedly the leader of the non-Western world. However, it is a feeling tied with the framework of Eurasianism. As one expert noted, “it is difficult to enter a square in a circle and say that this is our everything.” Russia's policy is much broader. It is necessary to harmonize Eurasian values and develop Greater Eurasia.
Africa: prospects, opportunities, risks, threats
Another special session of the second day was dedicated to Africa. This discussion is especially relevant in the light of the first Russian-African summit, which will be held very soon (October 23-24) in Sochi. Recently there were talks that Russia may be returning to Africa. But, as experts noted, Russia has never left Africa.
After the collapse of the USSR, economic ties between Russia and the African countries sharply decreased. But human connections have been preserved. Africa is grateful to the Soviet Union for the training of thousands of specialists. And Russian officials have always declared a desire to interact with Africa.
Today Africa is also interested in Russia. First, because Russia is a guarantor of the continent’s security. Second, it can teach them to earn.
As one expert said, Russia should increase its presence in Africa now - “tomorrow it will be too late”. Africa is called either the "continent of hope" or the "hopeless continent." But what is indisputable is that it has the richest natural resources, as well as powerful demographic potential. By 2060, Africans will account for 29% of the world's population (most of them under age 35). In recent years, many African countries have shown steady economic growth. All this attracts the attention of many world players. These include not only China and India, but also Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Russian businesses are interested in Africa, but in Russia there are few experts in that region’s politics, its various clans, and the legal system of African states. In Africa there is an even greater deficit of information about Russia - the young generation knows very little about Russia and it is necessary to pursue an information policy toward African countries.
What does Russia need to succeed in the continent? The participants of the Valdai session recommended developing a unified interaction strategy, for example, business development. As part of this strategy, it is worth focusing on young people, on whom the future of bilateral relations depends, developing social projects and, finally, introducing the instrument of soft power — this could take the form of non-profit organisations representing Russian interests and forming an agenda without bureaucratic obstacles.
Cooperation with African countries must be built on a mutually beneficial basis. There’s no need to repeat the mistakes made by Western countries that perceived the continent solely as a source of resources. Africa should never again become a laboratory of the struggle of external players for influence and power.
This year, the Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club will last four days - from September 30th through October 3th. Almost all sessions will traditionally be held according to the Chatham House Rule. But we will prepare analytical notes for you each day. You can watch online broadcasts of the most interesting discussions on our website.
12:30 - 14:00 Session 6. Middle East in the General Context of Russia’s Policy
17:00 - 19:00 Plenary session. The World Order, Seen from the East
The schedule of all discussions and speakers can be found in the Programme.