Uzair Ali describes the minority Muslims inhabiting Russian Muslims
History on the surface looks serene but it is an ever-present roller coaster waiting in the wings to bulldoze the pristine and indulgent world humans try to create around them conveniently ignoring the harsh lingering realities of their past. The Russian regime is in quite the doldrums as deeply mired in conflict with Ukraine it is equally worried about its soft Muslim belly.
Russia is inhabited by 193 ethnic groups though ethnic Russians dominate it with 81 percent of the population of its 145 million population. Though Islam is the minority religion in Russia Muslims constitute the largest population in Europe forming 6.5 percent of the Russian population.
Russian Muslims have kept themselves aloof from the Russian mainstream and stay concentrated in the confines of the Caucuses where the Russian forces keep them in a state of perpetual encirclement though rather muted in intention.
Russia’s current involvement in the Middle Eastern region is portrayed as a belated initiative to catapult Russia back into the international political arena and it actually emanates from the latent fear of growing Islamic extremism in Russia. But rather than arresting the spread of Islamic extremism.
It looks like a dangerous gamble because the Russian soft belly consisting of 15 million Sunni Muslims has started to sympathize with their Sunni Muslim co-religionists killed in Syria by their very countrymen. It is widely feared that any miscalculation about the issue may severely undermine Kremlin’s internal power base.
The circuitous slide continues with Russia not being content with attacking Sunni rebels in Syria but raising the ante by cobbling up an alliance with Shia elements in Iran, Syria, and Iraq much to the chagrin of the US that is championing the Sunni cause in the region through close cooperation of its long time ally Saudi Arabia.
Russian Muslims Faced Challenges
Although the startled US desperately maintains that it has no intention of entering a proxy war with Russia it is precisely that is fast emerging. The turbulence in the region promises to increase with visible and definite battle lines forming between Russian supported Shia alliance and American supported the Sunni coalition.
The lesson history bears are that Russia may be exposed to an existential challenge if the sensitivities of its Muslim population are trifled with. Russian Muslims inhabiting the northern Caucasus have a record of creating anti-Russian upheavals dating back to the 19th century when internationally famous Russian authors such as Leo Tolstoy chronicled the exploits of a valiant Slavic trooper engaged in combat with Muslim renegade to save Christian civilization from the onslaught of barbaric people with alien religion and outlandish customs.
In the past century, Russia struggled with its Muslim population many times. During the Second World War Kremlin forcibly relocated Crimean Muslims to Siberia seriously doubting their loyalty in the epic struggle with Nazi Germany.
Earlier in the 1920s warrior-like Muslim tribe Basmachi in Central Asia established its own caliphate and rose against the Soviet state and as a consequence, it was mercilessly brought to heel after a ferocious decade-long struggle. As late as at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The age-old Russian prejudices against its Muslim co-habitants were given air by President Boris Yeltsin when he exhorted Ukraine not to leave Russian Union because ‘We cannot have a situation where Russia and Byelorussia would have two votes as Slavic states against five of the Islamic states of the Union’.
More recently Chechnya saw two bloody wars between Slavs and Muslims resulting in the massive uprooting of populations on both sides of the divide.
Central Asia Activities Against Russia
In the neighborhood, Daghestan is simmering with dissent and is home to a jihadist-based caliphate movement spreading over the Caucasus. The clerics in Muslim parts of Russia deliver sermons declaring the establishment of an Islamic caliphate as their eventual goal and reports are that more than 3,000 Muslims have been recruited by them to fight for this cause.
The relentless call of Muslim Mullahs has stirred a wave of unrest particularly as hundreds of thousands of unemployed and restive Muslim youth of former Soviet republics of Central Asia are heeding their call. Russia appears haunted by the emerging threat of Islamic revivalism and its leadership earnestly wishes to nip it in the bud.
The widespread Russian perception is that it may have to act once again as a bulwark against what is generally spelled out as the ‘fourth threat to European civilization after the Mongols, Napoleon, Hitler, and now the Islamic State.
The Russian authorities have openly expressed anxiety about the reports that as many as 7000 Muslim fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia are engaged in combat activities against Russia. Consequently, Russia has deployed 100,000 troops in Central Asia who continuously perform military maneuvers to be kept in readiness.
The stepped-up Russian media coverage unashamedly exhibiting Russian triumphalism supporting an anti-Sunni campaign with the assistance of a pro-Shia alliance is a sure recipe for alienating the Sunni Muslims of Russia who is baffled and frightened by what they see as an impending doom.
Russia has opened up a risky front that will exacerbate its Muslim population and instead of quelling and precluding the violence may help further incite and spread it. In the stultified atmosphere of the current conflict, the Russian leadership may not have the luxury to have more than one bite of the cherry. The Weekender