Radical Islamic Attacks in a Moderate Region Unnerve the Kremlin


KAZAN, Russia — A string of violent attacks by Islamic militants has shattered this city’s reputation as a citadel of religious tolerance and unnerved federal officials in Moscow, who have worked for decades to prevent the spread of radical Islam out of the southern borderlands and into places like this city 500 miles east of Moscow.

Officials have long sought to contain Islamic fervor in the Caucasus to the south while insisting that places like the republic of Tatarstan, where Kazan is the capital, were different, representing a moderate “Russian Islam,” said Aleksei Malashenko, the co-chairman of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s religion, society and security program.

But that comfortable assumption began to crumble just before the start of Ramadan in late July, when a senior cleric in charge of education was shot outside his apartment building on Zarya Street. Roughly an hour later, the city’s chief mufti survived a bomb attack that demolished his Toyota Land Cruiser. A previously unheard-of group, the mujahedeen of Tatarstan, claimed responsibility.

On Sunday, a car carrying three men, an automatic rifle and Islamic pamphlets blew up in Zelenodolsk, about a half-hour west of Kazan, in what the authorities described as the inadvertent detonation of a homemade explosive. “That radical direction exists in Tatarstan,” Mr. Malashenko said. “And it’s dangerous.”

The apparent rise of Islamic militancy could have far-ranging effects on foreign and domestic policy, as the Kremlin increasingly looks for ways to promote moderate Islam and quash radical movements at home and abroad.

Uncertainty over how to address the danger has left the authorities wavering, with some favoring a crackdown, including arrests in Kazan of dozens of Muslim men suspected of extremist ties and pressure on local imams thought to shelter such views in their mosques. Others call for more subtle techniques, like the state-supported creation of Russia’s first Muslim television channel, which began broadcasting last week on the country’s largest cable network.

Russian Islamic leaders, long viewed as beholden to the government, are under mounting pressure to demonstrate political and religious independence, and tend to the needs of a community reshaped by immigration from Central Asia, increasing religiosity among younger generations and closer ties to the rest of the Muslim world made possible by travel and the Internet.

“All over the world, we can watch bloodshed, civil wars, changing of power, changes of political systems, confrontations of various religious groups, confrontations of various political systems and interests,” said Sheik Ravil Gainutdin, the chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia. “The Muslims of Russia are watching very attentively.”

In a country with 20 million Muslims, two million in Moscow alone, that sort of attention has had divergent effects on Russian foreign policy. It has reinforced Moscow’s support of Palestinian statehood, which dates to cold war jockeying between the Soviet Union and the United States. Kremlin news releases typically refer to “Palestine,” and Russia supports United Nations membership for the Palestinian government. On Friday, Sheik Gainutdin led a national day of prayer in support of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, which has become an annual tradition.

Russia’s leaders have also adopted a nuanced view of Hamas, regarding it as a social service organization and a legitimate political player in the region and dismissing allegations of hypocrisy from Israel, which has equated Hamas with the Chechen militants whom Mr. Putin routinely denounces as terrorists.

While these positions are in concert with the views of the Muslim community back home, the Russian government has also strongly favored state sovereignty, even if exercised by dictators, over self-determination in Libya, Egypt and most pointedly in Syria, where it has described the anti-Assad rebels as lawbreakers. It is a stance that could alienate young, more fervent Muslims already suspicious of Moscow’s efforts to limit their religiosity, but it also leaves no doubt how the Kremlin will react to any hint of rebellion within its own borders.

In an interview, Sheik Gainutdin said that Mr. Putin and other leaders had been largely supportive of the Muslim community, but he said that Moscow city officials were risking a conflagration by not doing more to address an acute shortage of mosques. He has often noted that Beijing has 70 mosques for 250,000 Muslims while Moscow has just 4 for two million.

Privately, many Muslim officials blame the Russian Orthodox Church, which is increasingly close to the Kremlin, for blocking efforts to acquire property for new mosques in the capital.

Courtesy: The New York Times


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