Moscow (AsiaNews) – Russia’s Muslim community has not reacted to the Metrojet Flight 9268 crash in the Sinai, nor to the Paris attacks on 13 November with one voice, as official propaganda and pro-Kremlin religious leaders would have it, this according to Alexey Malashenko, chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Programme.
In a recent publication on the center’s website, he noted that Russian Muslims have not been polled on the tragic events, and “it is hard to know what they think on the matter”.
"The Russian Ummah includes 16.5 million people, who are Russian citizens, plus about 4 million migrants from Central Asia and Azerbaijan, for a total of about 20 million people,” Malashenko said.
Attitudes differ whether the issue is the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), Russia’s actions in Syria, and the recent terror attacks.
Russian authorities, and Islamic religious and political leaders, like Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, see Islamic radicalism through the same lens, as something generated by the West, with the aim of destabilising the Middle East and eliminating Russian influence and presence.
For the head of the Association of Muslim communities, Muhamed Saliakhetdinov, the principals for the Paris attacks are not to be found among Muslims because “ISIS is foreign controlled”.
Chechnya’s strongman Kadyrov agrees. In his view, ISIS is a creation of Western intelligence service. For him, the Paris attacks are designed to “incite anti-Muslim sentiment."
Rushan Abbiasov, the first deputy chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, also insists that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam.
According to Malashenko, such statements are meant to "de-Islamise" ISIS, and more generally religious radicalism, by presenting it as an anti-Islamic tool used to discredit Islam.
Terrorism becomes a "disease, even a malignant tumour, which can be removed only with massive strong and surgical intervention," the Carnegie Center article says.
However, the researcher warns that such attitude "deliberately ignores the fact that political Islam is widespread throughout the Muslim world, based on the idea of a state and a society built on Islamic traditions."
Most Muslims share this view according to Malashenko. ISIS is only “a more radical expression of this tendency.”
Islamist extremists (often referenced as Salafis or Wahhabis in Russia) are active in the Russian Federation, even outside their traditional stronghold in the North Caucasus.
"They are in Siberia and the Russian Far East," Malashenko noted, "trying to take over local mosques, where more than two-thirds of the imams are over 70, unable to motivate their flock."
Many young, foreign-trained (mostly in Arab countries), ambitious imams with radical views are breathing down their neck, the expert noted. In Russia, there are also thousands of Salafi circles, brought here from Central Asia by the Hizb ut-Tahrir party, he added.
Meanwhile, recruiting young people continues, including many women, to join the ranks of the Islamic state. According to Malashenko, anywhere between 2,000 and 7,000 Russian Muslims have joined up with ISIS. And the number of sympathisers could be as high as half a million.
However, even among "potential ISIS militants," most are against using terrorist methods. What draws them is "the idea of establishing an Islamic state based on social justice, equality, a sort of 'Islamic democracy'. This is particularly interesting in the context of Russia’s current economic crisis, rampant corruption and growing inequality."
Many Muslims see the war against ISIS, as well as Russian military operations in Syria, as a war against Islam for which the enemy must be punished.
Like 9/11, the Metrojet crash and the Paris attacks did not generate solidarity with the victimised nations, seen as enemies against whom revenge is legitimate.
Viewing ISIS as something “foreign” to Russia will not help however. As in France, immigrants are easily prey to jihadi recruitment.
After the Paris attacks, immigrant communities could be subject to zero tolerance, like in the United States, so that any violation of the law could mean immediate expulsion.
At present, Russian Muslims seem to live amid fear, anti-Western sentiment (Russia included) and a need to be loyal to the authorities.
Recently, Russian Muslim clothing designer Zuhra Abushaeva presented a type of hijab (head cover) sporting Vladimir Putin’s picture.
“This is way no one will look down on us or suspiciously,” she explained. At the same time, “we can show our love for Russia and our president”.