Last week, a Russian law banning foreigners from retail stalls and markets, announced by the cabinet last November, finally took effect. While facially neutral, the law essentially targets immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries. Meanwhile, a Russian city court in Pyatigorsk convicted Anton Stepanenko of promoting Wahhabism, inciting ethnic and religious hatred, and encouraging vigilantism. Yet Stepanenko’s case had become a cause célèbre for many Russian Muslims, and after public appeals to President Vladimir Putin on behalf of the imam (an “exemplary, heroic figure for all the nation’s Muslims,” according to some), the charges were reduced and Stepanenko went free.
In the grand scheme, these are two fairly minor pieces of news, but still indicative of Russia’s present relationship with Islam. The first story suggests a revival of nationalism, an increasing wariness of pluralism, and, along with other recent moves by Russian national and provincial authorities to promote Orthodox Christianity and create incentives for having larger families, speaks to a growing awareness of the challenges posed by Russia’s demographic situation (discussed by Mark Steyn elsewhere and Fjordman on this space). The second story shows that the Kremlin is nonetheless eager to mollify the growing Russian Muslim population and is crossing its fingers that Russian “Euro-Islam” remains what the Economist has dubbed a “benign growth” (a term presumably referring to moderate Islam generally and not to what has taken root in Chechnya, Daghestan, and North Ossetia).
Russia’s history vis-à-vis Islam is of course a long one. On the one hand, the Soviet scholar D.S. Likhachev, in his Poetika drevnerusskoi literatury (1979), described “Old Russia’s special capacity to resist Asia” in the cultural sphere, which also meant that Russia’s foreign policy with respect to its southern border (roughly coinciding with the Islamic crescent that stretches from the Black Sea to Xinjiang) would differ substantially from its western policy. “In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves, but in Asia we are masters. In Europe we were Tatars, but in Asia we too are Europeans,” Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in 1881. This dichotomy was particularly evident during the collapse of the Soviet Union. While Gorbachev worked to reduce barriers between Russia and Western Europe, he simultaneously put down an Azeri independence movement in brutal fashion. Indeed, 1990’s “Black January” in Azerbaijan was the bloodiest use of Soviet state power during the Gorbachev era.) Two years later, the Russian Federation again eradicated a populist movement, this time in Tajikstan. Naturally, Russia’s current stance towards the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Islam in general reflects this history.
On the other hand, Russia’s policy towards the Eurasian Islamic crescent, and particularly towards the Muslim population of its Middle Volga and North Caucasus territories, has been informed by certain realities. In 1871, for instance, an elderly Chechen could tell Nikolai Dubrovin in all honesty that “I don’t remember the crosses, but I heard that we once professed some other faith, but as to what it’s called I don’t know.” Taking this demographic shift into account, and all the while searching for security and order, Russian and then Soviet authorities vacillated between terrible mass deportations and paternalistic socio-political accommodation. As early as the time of Catherine the Great, Russian authorities engaged in Islamic confessional politics, employing a strategy of, in the words of Robert Crews (author of last year’s overlooked but valuable For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia), “co-optation, patronage, and policing.” In this way the Russia government, then the Soviet government, attempted to convince its largest minority group over the course of three centuries that the empire was indeed a colorable dar al-Islam. Yet, as governments across the world have come to realize, Islam as a political force is not so easily corralled. The interminable conflict in Chechnya, which has pitted Russians against Chechens as well as being an internecine conflict, was an inevitable outgrowth of this policy.
As an increasingly nationalistic Russia seeks to grapple with the challenges posed by its own demographic doldrums and its complex relationship with the Eurasian Islamic crescent, it is necessary to examine how effective the longstanding Russian policy of co-opting Islamic moderates has been. As contemporary European nations likewise vie for the affection of Islamic moderates, it is worth noting that this instrumentalization of Islam poses its own challenges, and will mean that, to again quote Robert Crews, “religion and policing will become more closely intertwined,” something not ordinarily the goal of a liberal society. In the end, Russia’s age old balancing approach should certainly be of interest to European policymakers, but it still may be only postponing an increasingly likely confrontation.