Russia’s Islamic Threat

Gordon M. Hahn

Editor’s Note: The first portion of this article appeared in the previous issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report 16 (Fall 2008): 7-10.

Constraints on the mobilization of an Islamic revolutionary movement consist of diverse cleavages which divide Russia’s Muslim community. Geographically, most of Russia’s Muslims are divided between the North Caucasus republics; Tatars tan and Bashkortostan in the Middle Volga and southern Urals areas; the Tatar communities spread across the Volga, Urals, and Siberian Russia; and several large ethnic Muslim communities in Moscow (perhaps two million) ands. Petersburg (a half-million). This geographical dispersion presents coordination problems for the formation of a broad-based Islamic movement and has contributed to socio-economic, religious, and political differences among the populations.

 One constraint on the mobilization of Tatar and titular republics as compared to the destitute North Caucasian republics, which are plagued by difficult mountainous terrain and limited natural resources. Geography also shaped the nature of Islam in the Middle Volga and North Caucasus. It is generally accepted that in areas such as the North Caucasus that were originally Islamic zed by Arab conquest, Islam assumed a more rigid, conservative tone, whereas in the Middle Volga, the southern Urals, western Siberia, and former Soviet Central Asia, which were Islamic zed through penetration by Arab merchants and diplomatic missions by the Ottoman Empire, Islam took on slightly more flexible forms.1

 Geography shapes the two mega-regions ‘somewhat different geopolitical dispositions today as well. In the middle Volga area, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan lack external borders and are therefore less able readily to secede and less susceptible to illegal infiltration by radical Islamists and terrorists. The North Caucasus, on the other hand, has porous, mountainous external borders adjacent to countries harboring pro-terrorist sentiment in the Persian Gulf, southwest Asia, and the Middle East. It is twice the distance from the Persian Gulf to Kazan as it is from the gulf to Grozny.

 Ethnic Constraints

Ethnically, Russia’s Muslims are divided into some 40 traditionally Muslim groups. An example of the ethnic diversity within Russia’s Muslim communities is Dagestan. Its population includes some 20 major Muslim nationalities. Its society and polity are so diverse that post-Soviet Dagestan instituted a consensus-based political system which included a joint rotating presidency and other institutional innovations to ensure the representation of the republic’s 14 largest ethnic groups. Still, there public has been marred by numerous antagonistic relationships among various Muslim nationalities.

 Equally important, ethnic Russians as well as perhaps members of other traditionally non-Muslim ethnic groups are converting to Islam in high numbers relative to the past, compounding the ethnic diversity of Russia’s Muslim community.

Theological Constraints

Clan rivalries also compound ethnic cleavages among Russia’s Muslims, especially in the Northeastern Caucasus republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetiya.2 Theologically, Russia’s Muslims are broken up into Shiites, various schools of Sunni Islam, and Sufis, as well as the competing faddist and Islamic revivals. The pattern of divisions is such that Islam in the North Caucasus is very different from Islamic Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and other ethnic Muslim communities outside the Caucasus. Sunnis predominate in Russia.3 Shiites are a small minority to be found almost exclusively in the Caucasus, among Azeri Turks and the Azeri diaspora and apportion of Dagestan’s small Muslim ethnic group, the Lezgins.4 The small number of Shiites limits the importance of the Sunni-Shia rift in Russia, compared to its significance in most of the Muslim world. Russia’s Muslims adhere to only two of the four main Sunni schools of jurisprudence, the Hanafi and Shafi maskhabs, eschewing the more strict and intolerant Hobnail and Maliki schools. The Hanafi school, founded by Abu Hanafi in Iraq in the eighth century, encompasses the majority of Russia’s Muslims. Predominant among the influential Tatars, it is regarded as the most theologically flexible and

the most tolerant with regard to other religions and local, including pagan, customs, as well as on issues such as emigration of Muslims to the non-Muslimworld.5 The Hanafi school may also have had a moderating influence among Muslims in the Middle Volga, Urals, and West Siberian areas, and among several North Caucasus tribes that adopted it.

Rifts Within Islam

Organizationally, after the destruction of most of the country’s mosques and religious clerics in the 1920s and 1930s, Soviet authorities established party-appointed, regionally based spiritual boards or administrations of Muslims (Dukhovnyie Upravlenii Musulman or DUMS) to control Russia’s Muslims.  Although underground Sufi brotherhoods and “apartment” mosques, dubbed “parallel” Islam, continued to function, Muslims in Russia saw all open autonomous forms of Islam disappear in favor of state-controlled “official Islam” subsumed under party-appointed DUMS. Today the rift between official and parallel Islam is compounded by openly autonomous Islamic structures and mosques which refuse to register with the authorities. Moreover, the leading official Islamic organizations are often mutually antagonistic. These include the Central Spiritual Administration of Muslims (Tsentralnoe Dukhovnoe Upravlenie Musulman or TsDUM) of Russia and other European republics of the former Soviet Union, headed by mufti Sheik up-Islam Talgat Tadzhuddin, and the Councilor Muftis of Russia (Soviet Muftiev Rossiior SMR), headed by mufti Ravil Gainutdin, and the Coordination Center of the Muslims of the North Caucasus (Koordinatsionnoi Tsentr Musulman Severnogo Kavkaza or KTsMSK) led by Chairman of the DUM of the Karachaevo-Balkariya and Stavropol mufti Ismail Berdiyev. Although the SMR is ostensibly subordinated to the TsDUM, it competes with it in many regions, especially in Tatarstan and the Volga and Southern Urals, where Tatars are prevalent.6Ideologically, the most obvious divide among Russia’s Muslims is that between the pro-Russian DUMS and the revolutionary jihadists. Various ideological trends and political parties have contended to represent Muslims, and they have split both along the lines of competing political clans and of institutionalized political parties. The first Islamic political parties emerged during perestroika and adopted fairly radical agendas. These included the Islamic Rebirth Party, strongly represented in Dagestan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, and later, under Yeltsin, “Nur” (Light) and the Party of the Muslims of Russia, which were dominated by

Tatars. In 2003 Putin’s amendments to Russia’s electoral laws disallowed the registration of parties based on religion, ethnicity, and gender. In the December 2003 Duma elections, members of unregistered Muslim parties participated under the umbrella of the Party of True Patriots, which disguised its Muslim base and included prominent Muslim “Eurasianists.” In general, however, official political parties play a limited role in Russia’s Muslim politics, as indeed is the case overall in Russian politics. Many among Russia’s official Muslim clergy ally themselves with Russian nationalists and increasing numbers of state officials and bureaucrats in the Eurasian movement led by Aleksandra Dugin and Aleksandr Panarin, who propose a “holy alliance “between the Christian Orthodox and Islamic (as well as, for some, the Senese) civilizations against the globalizing, secular American and Westerner “Atlantis” juggernaut.7

 Their Eurasian Party includes Russian Orthodox, ethnic Russian Muslim, and traditional “ethnic Muslim” members. The symbiotic relationship between state authorities and official Islam’s top clerics has reinforced the latter’s conservatism in relation to the West. Leading Muslim clergy, such as the KTsMSK executive director mufti Shafig-Khadzhi Pshikhachen, and Muslim thinkers, such as Guider Dzhamal and the ethnic Russian convert to Islam and chairman of the Union of Muslim Journalists (SMZh) Dr. Vyacheslav Polosin, frequently espouse Eurasianism’s anti- Western and often anti-Zionist ideas on the DagestanDUM’s website,


Russia’s Muslim challenge has grown since the Soviet collapse. The lack of economic development combined with a demographic explosion in its Muslim-populated regions is likely to create greater demands on the Russian state to heed the interests of its Muslim community, especially in terms of investment in the North Caucasus economy. If state-Muslim relations remain as they are, the Muslim demographic could transform the current slow narrow stream of young Muslims joining the North Caucasus jihad into a torrential river of jihadist volunteers by mid-century.

 At the same time, like the former USSR, Russia has other problems that challenge its stability, and that could push it into the category of a failed state over time: a vast and diverse northern territory requiring enormous expenditures on defense, communications, and transport; a large and corrupt bureaucracy opposed to market mechanisms that might help provide the wealth to meet that expenditure; a reliance on oil and gas revenues in place of structural reforms; the potential nationalist and secessionist aspirations of non-Muslim minorities in, for instance, Karelia, the Volga area, Siberia, and Kaliningrad; and an influx of hundreds of thousands of illegal Chinese immigrants threatening Moscow’s hold on Russia’s Far East.

 At the same time, Putin’s counter-revolutionist giving rise to more radical political demands. Increased politicization among Russia’s ethnic Muslims plays into the hands of domestic and foreign jihadists, who are already feeding on the Chechen quagmire, itself an increasing drain on Russian financial, human, and political resources. On the other hand, divisions among Russia’s Muslims – geographical, ethnic, clan, theological, organizational, and political-ideological – may confound the rise of any mass Muslim or pan-Islamic movement. But constraints on the formation of amass Islamic revolutionary movement may in part explain the emergence of what is to date a small, though growing and effective, underground jihadist terrorist network. F


1 Alexander Bennigsen and S. Enders Wimbush, Muslims of the Soviet Empire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 5.

2 Robert Bruce Ware, Enver Kisriev, Werner J.Patzelt, and Ute Roericht, “Stability in the Caucasus: The Perspective from Dagestan,” Problems of Post-Communism 50 (March-April 2003), 15-17; and IgorZhukov, “The Structure of Teyps and Clans,” Yuzhnyy Reporter (Rostov-on-Don), 28 November 2005, in Ralph Davis’s Chechnya Yahoo Group, 27 December2005, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

3 Sunnis believe that the leader of the Islamic world must be one who is a successor of the Prophet Mohammed, but that he should not be considered as a messenger of Allah. Shiites believe that only one of God’s special messengers (an imam) can assume the leadership of the Islamic Uma.

4 Kobishchanov, “Musulmane Rossii, korennyierossiiskie musulmane i russkie musulmane,” 62.

5 Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 51-53, and Peter Antes, “Islam v sovremennom mire,” in Iordan, Kuzeev, and Chervonnaya, eds., Islam v Yevrazii, 45-46.

6 Shireen Hunter, Islam in Russia: The Politics of Identity and Security (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe,2002), 54-55 and 58-62.

7 See Aleksandra Dugan, Snowy geopolitics (Moscow, 1997) and A. S. Planarian, Rehash historic (Moscow:

Logos, 1998).

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Gordon M. Hahn, Russia’s Islamic Threat (Newhaven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).

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