In a turn to the more controversial and distinctly not Mongolian, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the Russian Federation’s issues with Islamic militarism and a general growth in domestic support for Sharia Law and Wahhibism. In 2011, I spent 8 weeks in Kazan, Tatarstan as a student in Arizona State University’s Intensive Advanced Russian program. Recent news out of Tatarstan, as reported on BBC and Radio Free Europe, suggests a rise in a more conservative, perhaps even radical form of Islam in a republic generally cited as Russia’s success story in terms of the peaceful coexistence of Orthodox Christian Russians and Muslim Tatars. I will never forget a news-broadcast that criticized the US for not seeking Russia’s advice for dealing with sectarian issues in Iraq and Afghanistan. Laughing, I immediately turned to my friends after class and cited Russia’s suppression of all religion under the Soviet regime as well as the continuing troubles in Chechnya as good reasons to not listen to any advice Russia might have. Not only does Russia not have a foot to stand on, but it also has, in my opinion, missed the ball completely when analyzing its own domestic troubles as related to Islamic insurgencies. It’s not about Islam- It’s about reacting to centuries of cultural oppression.
The Russian Federal Government and many Russians in general seem to have missed the ball completely on understanding movements for autonomy, Islamic statehood, or general anti-Russian attitudes in the 12 republics of the Federation. Yes, Islamic fundamentalism is certainly something that needs to be worried about, as a particularly repressive form of religion that results in such countries as Saudi Arabia and Iran. That said, I just don’t buy that the problem in Tatarstan, Chechnya, or any other traditionally Islamic part of the Russian Federation is solely about Islam. Rather, it looks to me like a part of cultural revival and the potential of Islamic revival, in particular, to protest against Moscow and Russia’s continuing death grip on its indigenous peoples. It doesn’t look like those attracted to radical Islam are converts, but mostly youth from one of the federation’s titular groups that have been traditionally tied to the Islamic faith. In other words, ethnic Russians don’t seem to be joining these groups in any real numbers and Tuvans (traditionally Buddhists) are certainly not contending with any Islamic pressures in their republic. In a country where Russians clearly rein supreme, where Russian is the language par excellence, where almost all political control is centered in the Russian city of Moscow, and where even in the ethnic republics Russian’s often make up the majority and you are more likely to hear Russian rather than a titular language on the streets, I have to propose that the growth in popularity of more fundamental forms of Islam is one step in the protest against business as usual in the Russian Federation. A new way to reclaim one’s cultural heritage that exists in conjunction with re-learning local languages, dress, and music.
It’s all about sovereignty and survival. In the Russian Federation, linguistic, cultural, and political survival are never guaranteed. The Chechen war was never about Islam. Yes, Chechen fighters might be Muslims and find “holy war”, “jihad”, and “martyrdom” to be attractive principles, but lets not forget that the Russian government entered into its prolonged conflict in Chechnya in reaction to the republic’s announcement that it would be seeking independence from the Russian Federation. The Chechen War was Russia’s example to the other republics of the newly formed Federation, that unilateral independence would not be tolerated. Russian control was here to stay.
Let me point out here, that I do not support the murders, attacks on innocent by-standers, suicide bombings, and any other acts that result in any lose of life. Chechen “rebels” have certainly committed acts of atrocity, and the Russian Federation’s forces have committed similar acts in response. The news coming out of Tatarstan at the moment is no less disturbing. Yet, I cannot ignore that acts, such as the school shooting in North Ossetia in 2004 (when I was studying in Sestroretsk, Russia), are not indicative of the larger goals, and it is the goals/root causes that we must address in order to arrive at a potential solution. The word “terrorism” gets thrown around a lot regarding different groups, but a clear definition seems to have evaded even the most seasoned analysts. While some groups clearly have no other objective than to terrorize civilians, we seem to get confused when confronted with independence movements. Russia will have to learn to effectively and fairly respond to demands for real autonomy if it expects to really tackle this problem.
This is an important topic for future thought, since a similar argument can be made for approaching a deeper understanding of China’s Uighur population. In fact, for a great book on the topic of cultural resistance in Xinjiang, please check out Dr. Gardner Bovingdon’s book The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.