Russia’s Islamic Threat

Gordon M. Hahn

High Muslim Unemployment

Russia’s poorest regions are most often those heavily populated by Muslims, the eight so-called titular Muslim republics, especially those in the North Caucasus.

 * The unemployment rate was calculated using figures from the working-age population from the October 2002 census ( Therefore, the unemployment rates could be slightly higher, especially in the North Caucasus with its decades-long higher reproduction rates. The high unemployment rates reflected in Table 1 are of particular concern. When one considers that the real level of unemployment is much higher than official statistics show, the situation appears explosive. This is especially true since youth unemployment is even higher than overall unemployment. Such levels of joblessness among youth – especially in the North Caucasus where they reach nearly 50 percent and in some villages reportedly 90 percent – are creating an army of young males with no outlet for their energies.

Russia’s ethnic Muslims are a sizable minority and continue to have higher birth rates (Table 2) than ethnic Russians. Ethnic Muslims probably number 15 million and comprise more than half of Russia’s non-Russian population than ethnic Russians. Ethnic Muslims probably number 15 million and comprise more than half of Russia’s non-Russian population

 *Includes Siberian and Crimean Tatars as well as Volga Tatars and excludes so-called “Krysheny” or Baptized Tatars. It should be noted that there is some reason to believe that forces in Moscow and Bashkiriya may have deliberately deflated the 2002 census numbers for Tatars in executing or counting the results.

** There may have been some inflation of the Chechen population figures in the 2002 census by Moscow in order to cover up deaths brought on by two post-Soviet Chechen wars.

 The number of ethnic Muslims grew by 20 percent between the 1989 Soviet census and the 2002 Russian census. Meanwhile, the country’s overall population declined by just over one percent, and the ethnic Russian population fell by 3.45 percent. Nine of the Muslim ethnicities’ population growth reached astonishing levels of over 40 percent. Of Russia’s 23 Muslim nationalities included in published census data, only four declined in size in the inter-census years, a phenomenon explained by an exodus of these groups’ members back to their ethnic homelands in Central Asia after the Soviet collapse. This was also the reason for the small Kazakh growth. The doubling of the ethnic Azeri population in Russia is a product of group members’ fear of residing in a potential war zone, given the ongoing Armenian-Azeri tensions over the Armenian enclave and unrecognized state of Nagorno-Karabakh embedded in Azerbaijan. The ethnic Muslim groups’ higher population growth rates mean that the ranks of idle young males, especially in the North Caucasus republics, will be growing.

A key reason for ethnic Muslims’ higher population growth rates is their more traditional lifestyle, informed in part by rural custom and Islam. The latter frown upon birth control and women working outside the home. North Caucasus traditions of machismo put a premium on high numbers of children. Also, customary individual houses in rural areas (versus small apartments more common elsewhere in the former Soviet Union) better accommodate large families. This traditional way of life is being preserved by the lower level of urbanization in the North Caucasian Muslim republics, leaving inhabitants less integrated into secular Russian life.

By late in the 21st century, the decline in the ethnic Russian population and the rapid growth among the country’s ethnic Muslims together will threaten the ethnic Russians’ majority. One estimate has it that by mid-century the ethnic Russian population will have declined to as little as 60 million, as the mortality rate increases with the passing of the much more numerous older generation.1 The second half of the century, all else remaining equal, should see a further decline of at least 10-15 million. If the ethnic Muslim groups’ population continues to grow at the rate it did between the 1989 and 2002 censuses, their numbers will increase to approximately 45 million by the century’s end. By that time, therefore, ethnic Muslims will form a plurality and perhaps a majority of Russia’s population, and Islam will likely begin to challenge Russian Orthodox Christianity as the country’s most widespread religion.

Muslim Demographics

An important brake on the mobilization of an Islamic revolution would seem to be the divide among Russia’s ethnic Muslims between believers and non-believers. It has been estimated that only 3.7 to 4 million (some 20 percent) of Russia’s ethnic Muslims are practicing believers.2 However, since the ideological liberation begun during perestroika, re-Islamization has proceeded apace. By October 2005, according to Ravil Gainutdin, Chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR), the number of mosques in Russia had grown from a mere 150 as of the Soviet collapse in 1991 to some 6,000.3 Even in urbanized, secularized, and relatively russified Tatarstan, the number of mosques has increased from a handful to over a thousand, perhaps 1,200, growing at a rate of 50-60 per year.4

The number of ethnic Muslims who identify themselves as believers has grown precipitously, even among more secular and assimilated populations, such as the Tatars of Tatarstan. For example, in the early 1980s, 59 percent of Tatars expressed indifference, and only 15.7 percent declared themselves believers. By 1994 an astonishing 66.6 percent of urban Tatars and 86 percent of rural Tatars declared themselves believers. However, further survey data show that while identification and general belief have risen immensely, the practice of Islamic rituals remains extremely low. In 1990 only 13.9 percent of Muslim believers prayed at home and 8.3 percent of Muslim believers prayed in a mosque, meaning that 77.8 percent of Muslims never prayed at all.5

Against the background of a growing revolutionary Islamic insurgency throughout much of the North Caucasus, already capable of bringing terror to Moscow on land, underground, and in the air, the remaining potential for radical recruitment in society and within the state represents a grave threat to Russia. As Russians are reduced to ever-smaller minorities in Muslim republics dominated by ethnic and, for the most part, believing Muslims, they will feel unwelcome, even fearful. This will only exacerbate the already considerable and rising tensions between indigenous Muslims and the Muslim republics on the one hand, and the Russian state and ethnic group on the other hand.

The Chechen Quagmire and Foreign Islamic Revolutionaries

Many of the immediate causes of Russia’s burgeoning Islamic movement come from Putin’s policies. First and foremost is the often brutal prosecution of the festering low-intensity war in Chechnya. This has led to the Chechens’ radicalization under the influence of foreign, jihadist terrorist ideologies and movements funded, inspired, and perhaps still coordinated by al Qaeda. (Editor’s note: A jihadist is a Muslim who wages a spiritual struggle or holy war against non-Muslims.) Having lost on the traditional battlefield, Chechen insurgents have turned increasingly to terrorist methods and to a strategy of expanding the war throughout the North Caucasus and as far beyond as possible. Thus, the Chechen-led terrorist network is facilitating the sustained and growing infiltration of radical Islam into other regions of Russia. This spread is the result of Russia’s geographical proximity to parts of the larger Muslim world, that world’s present pre-revolutionary crisis, and the post-Soviet restoration of historical ties between Russia’s Muslims and the rest of the umma (Muslim community).

Russian Authoritarianism at Muslim Expense

Another leading cause of expanding Islamist terrorism in Russia is Putin’s re-authoritarianizing counter-revolution. As the Chechen war dragged on and terrorism began to mount, the Putin administration responded by transforming Russia from a hybrid regime that was a limited, illiberal “managed democracy” to something altogether more authoritarian.6

Although Russia’s Muslim republics, including Kabardino-Balkariya, tend to be its most authoritarian regions7 and Putin’s counter-revolution has encouraged these regimes to become more firmly authoritarian, they have still not reached a level of authoritarianism firm enough to stamp out terrorist or other forms of opposition. However, by more aggressively and non-surgically cracking down on Muslims across the board and increasingly violating their political, civil, and human rights in many regions, Moscow and the republics’ regimes have made many indigenous young Muslims more open to calls for secession.

Russian Intervention in Ingushetiya

Moscow’s attempt to control political developments in the regions has sparked not only ethno-confessional backlash, but also secular political instability in the ethnic Muslim republics. In particular, Moscow’s recentralization drive has introduced an additional complicating factor into the inter-clan politics of the Muslim republics, especially those in the North Caucasus. For example, Ingushetiya – the first republic that saw Moscow intervene directly in its politics, a republic populated largely by the Chechens’ fellow Vainakh Muslim people, the Ingush, and bordering Chechnya – and Bashkortostan were on the brink of democratic “orange revolutions” in 2005. Soon thereafter Ingushetiya saw an increase in the number of what, for the most part, were largely Islamist terrorist acts.

Under Moscow’s recentralization drive, a KGB official, Murat Zyazikov, was forced on Ingushetiya as president by the Kremlin in 2003, replacing the popular and independent Ruslan Aushev, who had been a persistent critic of the war in Chechnya. Under Zyazikov kidnappings spread throughout the republic. His opponents and others blamed them on the new president, his brother, and his allies in the security organs. Zyazikov blamed them on Chechen militants. Zyazikov’s growing authoritarianism, encouraged by Moscow’s soft-authoritarian and recentralizing policies, pushed the opposition to action. Led by Ingushetiya parliamentary deputy Musa Ozdoev, it organized several demonstrations but was prevented from holding one on May Day 2005, which it had explicitly stated would be parlayed into an orange-style revolution. Ozdoev was arrested, and the revolution was aborted. This secular instability emerging in Ingushetiya could provide an opening to radical nationalists or Muslim jihadists.

Although the picture painted here may suggest that an Islamic revolution in Russia is inevitable, contingency is an inherent aspect of all great historical events.8 There are also constraints that may shape, dampen, or mitigate the factors driving growing Russian-Muslim tensions. F

Editor’s note: The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.


1 Yu. M. Kobishchanov, “Musulmane Rossii, korennyie rossiiskie musulmane i russkie musulmane,” in Kobishchanov, Musulmane izmenyayushcheisya Rossii (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo ROSSPEN, 2002), 107; and Yu. M. Kobishchanov, “Musulmansaya Moskva XXI v.:Musulmane Rossii nakanune XXI veka,” Materialy Mezhdunarodnoi Konferentsii, Moskva, 6 September 1997 (Moscow, 1998), 23.

2 A 2001 estimate places the number of practicing Muslim believers at five percent of the general number of religious believers, who composed 55 percent of Russia’s then estimated population of 147 million. This would mean approximately 3.7 million Muslim believers. M. Tulskii, “Vakhkhabity v Rossii pobezhdayut umerennykh musulman,” Nezavisimaya gazeta, 19 June 2001. A 1997 estimate made by the Moscow Sociology Institute put the number of Muslim believers at 6.2 percent of the overall number of religious believers, and six percent of Russia’s population. This would put the number of Muslim believers at slightly over four million. See Malashenko, “Islam i politika v sovremennoi Rossii,” 7, citing A. B. Zubov, “Granitsy razlomov i urovni edinstva v segodnyashnei Rossii: Uroki sotsiologicheskogo issledovaniya,” Dukhovnyie osnovy mirovogo soobshestva i mezhdunarodnykh otnoshenii (Moscow: MGIMO, 2000), 270.

3 Neil Buckley, “Russia’s Islamic Rebirth Adds Tension,” Financial Times, 28 October 2005.

4 “V Nabernykh Chelnakh otkrylas 11 mechet,”, 14 October 2005, 2005-10-24/#9740, and Georgii N. Engelhardt, “Militant Islam in Russia – Potential for Conflict,” Moscow Defense Brief, 4 April 2005,

5 Rosalinda Musina, “Musul’manskaya identichnost’ kak forma ‘religioznogo natsionalizma’ Tatar v kontekste etnosotsial’nykh protsessov i etnopoliticheskoi situatsii v Tatarstane,” in M. V. Iordan, R. G. Kuzeev, and S. M. Chervonnaya, eds., Islam v Yevrazii: sovremennyie etnicheskie i esteticheskie kontseptsii sunnitskogo islama, ikh transformatsiya v massovom soznanii i vyrazhenie v iskusstve musulmanskikh narodov Rossii (Moscow: Progress-Traditsiya, 2001) 297-301.

6 On limited illiberal democracy under Yeltsin, see Gordon M. Hahn, Russia’s Revolution from Above, 1985-2000: Reform, Transition, and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002), Ch. 11. On aspects of Putin’s soft-authoritarian counter-revolution, see Gordon M. Hahn, “Putin’s ‘Stealth Authoritarianism’ and Russia’s Second Revolutionary Wave,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Regional Analysis, 21 April 2004, AD7F5F1EAE. ASP, and Harley Balzer, “Managed Pluralism: Vladimir Putin’s Emerging Regime,” Post-Soviet Affairs 19 (July-September 2003), 189-227.

7 See the results of the 2004 Russian presidential elections in Muslim republics as compared to those in other republics in Hahn, “Putin’s ‘Stealth Authoritarianism’.”

8 On contingency in regime transformations, see Hahn, Russia’s Revolutionary from Above, Chs. 1, 8, and 9.

Excerpted from Russia’s Muslim Threat by Gordon M. Hahn. Copyright 2007 by Yale University. Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press ( All rights reserved.

Editor’s Note: The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Gordon M. Hahn is a senior researcher at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, California.