THE RHETORIC OF ISLAMOPHOBIA

Muriel ATKIN


Muriel Atkin, Professor of History Department and Director of post-graduate course on the subject "Russian and East European Studies" at the George Washington University (U.S.A.).


In a recent plea for tolerance and mutual understanding among the Russian Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims in Russia, the author of the plea wrote positively (if over optimistically) of the long tradition of good will among adherents of those faiths who lived in Moscow and urged the creation of a nurturing environment for all three. Yet, for all this apparent benevolence, the author unwittingly revealed the intensity of his own prejudices by treating Islam as a threat, which he did not do in the case of the two other religions. He warned that, in the ideological vacuum created by the passing of the Soviet Union, Islamic “fundamentalist infections” had penetrated Russia and all sorts of shady figures, backed by Turkey, had come to Russia to teach Islam to Russias Muslims.1 (That he saw Turkey as the sinister force behind this, rather than Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or other states more frequently identified as the culprits in Russian public discussions, is a reminder that exaggerated fears of pan-Turkism have been inherited from the Soviet era, which in turn inherited them from the tsarist era.)

Public discussions of Islam in Russia frequently use emotive language, designed to create an instantly negative impression that does not need to be explained or substantiated. The core of that message is that Muslims hold extreme views and pose a violent threat to all who do not share those views. As with the rhetoric of prejudice everywhere, this works on the underlying assumption that “everybody knows” about the iniquities of the scorned group.

What is at issue in this essay is not to claim that no Muslim has ever done something reprehensible nor is it to deny that there are serious political conflicts sometimes leading to violence in Russia and other Soviet successor states. The issue is that the use of polemics which conjure up fears of an international, radical Islamic menace obscures the real nature of the political problems and encourages antagonism toward a large and diverse group of people.

The Soviet era had its own vocabulary of Islamophobia. For many years, the Islamic bogeyman was evoked by such labels as “Sufi” and “ fanatic.” Sufism, with its organizations of devotees, conjured up fears of underground political conspiracies. “Fanaticism,” by definition, implies extreme, blind devotion to something; given the tenor of Soviet atheist propaganda, a religion would be an unworthy object of such devotion even in moderation, let alone to an extreme degree. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Soviet analysts categorized Muslims in the USSR according to their degree of belief, ranging from the very pious to those who considered themselves Muslims in a general sense but were only casually observant; that system of classification ranked “fanatics” as a subcategory of the very pious.2 In the late-Soviet and post-Soviet eras, those terms largely, though not entirely, faded from use, especially since the alleged political conspiracy operating through Sufi networks became conspicuous by its absence and “fanatic” sounded too reminiscent of crude anti-religious propaganda from the “era of stagnation.”

Still, the old rhetoric could be heard occasionally, as when, in 1990, Igor Beliaev, a journalist who wrote numerous alarmist articles about Islamic politics, raised concerns about Sufis allegedly preaching a holy war in Uzbekistan to support oppressed Azerbaijanis. Of course, in retrospect, it is clear that no Uzbek Sufi jihad in aid of the Azerbaijanis ever happened. Ironically, by the late 1990s, with “Wahhabism” having become a widely used term to conjure up the Islamic menace, Sufism has come to be seen more favorably, as a moderate form of Islam opposed to the radicalism of the purported Wahhabis.3

New ways of expressing the old biases came to the fore in the changing climate of perestroika and the post-Soviet era. “Wahhabi” became a new shorthand for the general concept of Islamic menace. Simultaneously, the increased opening to the West led to the importation of one of its widely abused epithets, “fundamentalism,” in discussions of Islam. These terms are heard not only from the fringe of Russias most extreme nationalists or least adaptive members of the Communist old guard, from whom one would not expect tolerance, but also in mainstream discussions in the mass media, often reflecting government views.

The terms “Wahhabi” and “fundamentalist” are often used as synonyms in Soviet and post-Soviet rhetoric.4 That is not surprising, given how cavalierly both terms are applied. What is unusual is that “fundamentalism” was borrowed from Western rhetoric about Islamic movements primarily outside the Soviet Union. In one sense the new term sounded like an improvement over others with overtly pejorative connotations, like “fanaticism.” The new usage also reflected the increased interest in things Western in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Precisely because this is a Western borrowing, it offers a political advantage: given the Wests own exaggerated fears of an Islamic fundamentalism, Westerners might be less likely to object to repression directed against those deemed Islamic fundamentalists in the Soviet Union or its successor states. The fact that the West has such fears can also be used by advocates of the “Eurasianist” school of Russian foreign policy to argue that Islamophobia is more a Western than a Russian problem and that Russia should not be drawn into the Wests adversarial relations with the Muslim world. However, others look at the same phenomenon and argue the opposite, that both Russia and the West face an Islamic threat and should cooperate to protect themselves from it.

Given that this Western term acquired so much baggage before it came to the former Soviet Union, a brief discussion of the controversy surrounding its usage in the West is warranted. The extension of a term which originally described a movement which took shape among certain forms of American Protestantism in the early twentieth century to trends in Islam in the late twentieth century strikes some Western experts as misguided. For example, Islamic scholar John Esposito of Georgetown University rejects the term entirely, on the grounds that it “is often equated with political activism, extremism, fanaticism, terrorism, and anti-Americanism” when used in conjunction with Islam.5 (If one substitutes “anti-Russianism” for “anti-Americanism,” the comment would apply equally to the terms usage in the Commonwealth of Independent States.)

His colleague at Georgetown, John Voll, does not reject the term absolutely, provided it is carefully defined. He includes among the attributes of Islamic fundamentalism “the effort ‘to call Muslims back to the path of Islam,’ ‘an assertive surge of Islamic feeling’ ... and the reliance on Islamic fundamental principles to meet the needs and challenges of contemporary times.” Voll acknowledges that Islamic fundamentalists share with other kinds of Muslims a belief that the Koran contains divine revelation and that a Muslim ought to live according to Islamic teachings, but, he says, fundamentalists go further by following “an exclusivist and literalist interpretation of the fundamentals of Islam and by a rigorist pursuit of sociomoral reconstruction. Islamic fundamentalism is, in other words, a distinctive mode of response to major social and cultural change ... perceived as threatening to dilute or dissolve the clear lines of Islamic identity, or to overwhelm that identity in a synthesis of many different elements.”

A salient characteristic of this approach to Islamic revival is that the fundamentalists concept of purified Islam rejects the host of local traditions that different groups of Muslims around the world have incorporated into the way they practice their faith. The particular and the distinctive is objectionable to fundamentalists because this divides what ought to be a single community of all believers.6

Even when defined as carefully as Voll does, Islamic “fundamentalism” encompasses a diverse assortment of approaches to Islam. Some are reformist or radical on social and economic issues, such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Syria, and Sudan, Muammar Qaddafis regime in Libya, or certain factions in the Islamic Republic of Iran, while others are more conservative in such matters, such as other factions in Iran or the Saudi government, with its Wahhabi links.

Many fundamentalist movements are highly political, but one of the largest of them, the Tablighi Jamaat, which began on the Indian subcontinent and has spread to many countries, is deliberately apolitical, regarding politics as morally corrupting, when practiced by radical Islamicizers, likely to result in repression directed against them, and, as in the case of Irans Islamic Revolution, divisive of the Muslim community.7 Some Islamic fundamentalists use violence in pursuit of their objectives, often in spectacular and shocking ways which receive international coverage. However, others, including some of the Egyptian fundamentalists, reject violence and work within the existing political system. As regards the fundamentalists rejection of the local varieties of popular Islamic practice, it should be noted that many Muslims of the former Soviet Union who have participated in the Islamic revival want to revive precisely that, their own forms of Islam, the practices of their ancestors, which the Soviet regime had tried so hard to suppress.

Moreover, Islamic revival is not the sole province of fundamentalists. Islamic modernism is another kind of response to the challenges Muslims have faced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This has taken various forms in the Muslim world in general; the best-known example within the Russian Empire was the jadidist movement among the Tatars and Central Asians. Some of the people associated with the Islamic revival in the Soviet Union and its successor states in the 1980s and 1990s have more in common with modernists than fundamentalists, though their opponents label them the latter. For example, Akbar Turajonzoda, who was qadi (chief Islamic functionary) of Tajikistan from 1988 to 1993, and who is routinely described as a fundamentalist or a Wahhabi by his adversaries, espouses views which are associated with modernism, such as the establishment of a political system which combines democratic institutions with Islamic teachings (which, he acknowledged, many of his fellow countrymen did not know well after decades of Soviet anti-religious measures). Since he became active in politics in the early 1990s, he has continued to cooperate with secular advocates of reform and has preached ethnic and religious tolerance.8

In the 1980s, even before “Islamic fundamentalism” came to be applied to Muslims within the Soviet Union or the successor states, Soviet sources associated it with worrisome developments abroad, in Iran, Lebanon, and elsewhere. It had a particularly painful association with the Soviet war in Afghanistan, during which it was used for anyone who fought the Soviets there.9

That Moscow intended Soviet citizens to regard trends in Islam in the Middle East as ominous is illustrated, literally, by the pictures in a book about Islam published in a large press run (100,000 copies). It begins with a section of photographs which include a Saudi beheading, accompanied by a sarcastic caption about Saudis priding themselves on their fidelity to Islam, several pictures of different groups of glowering armed men, with captions referring to the spread of Islamic revolution, an airplane hijacking, hostages in Lebanon, and some children sitting behind sandbags, with the caption that hundreds of thousands of children in various Muslim countries have known only war.10

According to the Soviet line, one of the most important attributes of Islamic fundamentalism abroad was the fact that many of its practitioners were extremists who resorted to terrorism and were hostile to both the Soviet Union and communism; that was the view presented in a Soviet handbook for political activists.11 Thus, the negative attributes of Islamic fundamentalism posed a threat to the Soviet Union, not just to foreign countries, even before the term came to be applied to Muslims within the Soviet Union and its successor states. According to Igor Beliaev, writing in that context, Islamic fundamentalism, “is a source of many dangers” for “all mankind,” an even greater threat than nuclear weapons.12

A prominent Islamic political figure pointed out the double standard in likening any Islamic politics within the Soviet Union to the violence associated with Islamic fundamentalism abroad. Vali Ahmad Sadur, a religious scholar and member of the leadership of the then-Soviet Islamic Rebirth Party (founded in 1990), was pressed by an interviewer about the linkage between Islamic politics and violence, including the assassination of Anwar Sadat and hostage taking in Lebanon. Sadur, who had already declared the incompatibility of “violence and extremism” with Islamic teachings, asked his interviewer why he assumed that only Muslims, not adherents of other religions, committed political violence when there were human rights violations in places like Northern Ireland, Colombia, or Burma which were as bad as those in Lebanon.13 However, such objections have not deterred those who want to link Islamic politics with terrorism and strife.

Even though the Soviet Union no longer exists, some old habits of mind persist. Warnings of an Islamic fundamentalist menace continue. As one Russian observer commented at the end of the 1990s, “We long ago learned to equate ‘fundamentalism’ with ‘Islamic terrorism.’”14 The Russian mass media continue to cover Islam in the CIS and further afield and to present it in lopsidedly negative terms as “fundamentalism” associated with brutal violence, as in Algeria, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Chechnia, and Daghestan.

At the end of the Soviet era and since, with the emergence of new political groups and other organizations not controlled by the old political order, applying the label “fundamentalism” has become a convenient way to stigmatize all those who have some sort of connection with Islam and who challenge the status quo. Officials in predominantly Muslim areas as well as in Moscow see this as a useful response to changing conditions in which their power has become less secure. One clear example of this is the sweeping way Uzbekistans president, Islam Karimov, defined “fundamentalism.” He said, it begins when religion starts interfering in politics. To this way of thinking, it is the mere fact of involvement politics, not any particular religious belief, that defines what fundamentalism is. In keeping with the way the term is manipulated to serve political interests, Karimov presents himself as the shield which protects Uzbekistan from great danger, as when he declared that Islamic fundamentalism threatens Uzbekistan, but that he will prevent it from gaining the upper hand. So pervasive is this equation of the term with any political opposition that this usage can even be found among serious observers of the Muslim world who strive to present a more balanced account, like Aleksei Malashenko. He, too, defines Islamic fundamentalism in terms of “opposition to the government” and makes the leap from opposition per se to “Islamic radicalism.”15 The continuing use of this term has also been linked to Moscows evolving relations with the now-independent states of Central Asia, especially Tajikistan, and its concerns about the situation in Afghanistan during the 1990s. The painful associations of Afghanistan for many Russians and other citizens of the former Soviet Union has played a significant role in the rhetoric of Islamophobia in general. The combination of the civil war in Tajikistan and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan have stimulated repeated alarms, often based on unsubstantiated or falsified information, of an Islamic fundamentalist drive northward, first into Tajikistan, then into other Central Asian states. The mass exodus of Russians from the region, which, according to this argument, would surely ensue, would burden Russia. Afghanistani radicals aggression might reach Russia itself.

Then-Russian Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev, Aleksandr Lebed, former National Security Advisor to Boris Yeltsin and, like Grachev, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and then-Foreign Minister Evgenii Primakov were among the numerous proponents of this view. A prominent military journalist raised the specter of the various bands of Afghan fighters banding together with Afghanistans regular army in league with Tajikistans Opposition, to form a battle hardened, heavily armed force of 100,000 to wage a jihad against Russia; Russias limited forces guarding the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border would be unable, he said, to stop the onslaught.16 He saw the rise of the Taliban in a similarly ominous light.17

Even developments in distant lands can be used to argue that there is an Islamic threat via Afghanistan to the CIS. Thus, the shock of the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 could be linked to the presence of the accused mastermind, Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan, which in turn could be linked to the assertion that the Taliban provide a haven for many groups of Islamic terrorists, not just bin Laden, and that the Talibans military gains in northern Afghanistan mean that the CIS will be at risk from those terrorists.18

To some observers, the discontents of Muslims of Russia and the other successor states in the difficult conditions of the post-Soviet transition predispose them to seek solutions in Islamic radicalism (although their non-Muslim fellow citizens, experiencing the same hardships, are not seen as similarly predisposed to religious extremism); according to this line of argument, the Talibans ideas will provide the radical ideology the Muslims of the CIS now supposedly seek.

Perceptions of a threat from Afghanistan contributed to the making of a pact among Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in 1998 to prevent Islam from destabilizing the region. President Karimovs comments on this made explicit that the danger came in part from radical Islam in Afghanistan. He described “the threat which is coming to us from the south” aimed at Russia as well as Uzbekistan. It is, he said, “a threat of aggressive fundamentalism, aggressive extremism, and above all Wahhabism. This is what we have currently in Afghanistan and in troubled Tajikistan.”19

Alarmist propaganda even saw the hand of Afghanistani enemies in the far-distant Caucasus when Russia launched a campaign to reassert its authority over Chechnia. Yet veteran human rights activist Sergei Kovalev, who visited Groznyi, the capital of Chechnia, early in the war, scathingly dismissed official Russian accounts of the conduct of the fighting in general as a “monstrous lie.”20 He was equally dismissive of the claims that 300 Afghan mojahedin, in league with gangs of locals, fought fiercely against the Russian troops in Groznyi. He made a point of going to see all the places in Groznyi where the Russian government claimed there were Afghan mojahedin, but never found any. He discovered that one person, whom official Russian accounts claimed was an Afghanistani mojahed, turned out to be a Chechen who had once worked as a caretaker at the Soviet embassy in Kabul and who subsequently returned to Chechnia. While in Afghanistan, his drivers license had been confiscated. That was the source of the photograph which supposedly proved he was from Afghanistan.21

The way “Wahhabism” found use as a polemical term in the Soviet Union and CIS has little to do with Wahhabism in the wider Islamic world. From its inception in mid-eighteenth-century Arabia, it has sought a purification of Islam along lines typical of movements which could legitimately be called fundamentalist. It has been linked to the varying political fortunes and battles of the house of Saud, rulers of one of the Arabian states, who eventually established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. The most important connection between what is called “Wahhabism” in Soviet and post-Soviet political rhetoric and the religious movement from Arabia is that, when the term came into use in the late Soviet era, both the Saudi state and Wahhabi Islam were deemed reactionary by Moscow and, therefore, pernicious. The negative connotations of Wahhabism have endured in Soviet and post-Soviet rhetoric, despite the gradual improvement in Moscows relations with the Saudi regime. These associations were intertwined with negative memories of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, where the dominant elements of the mojahedin were alleged to be Wahhabis backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia. “Wahhabis” who had fought the Soviet army in Afghanistan allegedly went to the Soviet successor states, where, with Saudi backing, they spread Wahhabi ideas. Having gained a foothold there, Wahhabism has continued to spread, “like gangrene” into Russia. The use of “ Wahhabi” for people within the former Soviet Union increased as the old order crumbled but people who had achieved a privileged position under it wanted to preserve their advantages. Among the early popularizers of the term were men who had comprised the “official clergy” of Islam (that is, the small proportion of religious functionaries who were allowed to operate legally under the control of administrative bodies subject to the Soviet regime) and who largely remained in office in the post-Soviet era. They found “Wahhabi” a convenient label to denigrate anyone who criticized them. The process began even before the demise of the Soviet Union. For example, a late-Soviet-era official, U.A. Rustamov, who oversaw Uzbekistan for the Council on Religious Affairs of the USSRs Council of Ministers applied the term to people who faulted the “official clergy” for caring too little about the meaning of religious ceremonies to Muslims.

In political, as well as religious matters, any Muslim who challenges the status quo is at risk of being labeled a Wahhabi. This is how the KGB and its post-Soviet successors have used the term. In fact, the KGB may have played a large role in promoting its use.22

The political conflict in Tajikistan for much of the 1990s also stimulated increased use of “Wahhabi,” as the defenders of the old order tried to justify their stance and stigmatize the diverse coalition which advocated change by calling the religious elements of that coalition Wahhabis. The term gained particular currency as applied to critics of Haidar Sharifov, the chief functionary of the mosque in the city of Kulob (in southern Tajikistan), a man devoted more to the Soviet regime than Islam. Sharifov, who became a staunch member of the anti-reformist camp in Tajikistans civil war, applied “Wahhabi” to the supporters of his arch-enemy, Qadi Turajonzoda.23 Given Russias political and military involvement in Tajikistan, this notion of a Wahhabi threat is not a remote one in Moscows eyes, despite Tajikistans distance from Russias borders. Of course it also has nothing to do with the Tajik Oppositions views. To claim, for example, that Turajonzoda expressed Wahhabi-like views because he criticized lavish traditional weddings and funerals (on the grounds that most Tajiks were too poor to afford such outlays) is to gloss over the fact that the same criticism was a staple of Soviet anti-Islamic propaganda, not something only a Wahhabi would say. Furthermore, Turajonzoda and other leading figures of the Islamic components of the Opposition have Sufi connections, which would be unacceptable to real Wahhabis, since Wahhabism considers Sufism, especially its veneration of saints, a deviation from the true faith. The Russian mass media have echoed the polemical usage that arose from the turmoil in Tajikistan.24

Reflecting the continuing pejorative sense of “Wahhabism” in post-Soviet Russia for more situations than just the Tajikistan conflict, articles in Izvestia have described it as a “rigid Muslim tendency professing fundamentalist views”25 and an “ extremist” form of Islam which threatens Russia as well as the successor states in Central Asia.26 Proof of this threat is supposedly found in a secret meeting a group of Wahhabis allegedly held in the town of Namangan, Uzbekistan, at which they plotted to seize power in Central Asia and fight Russia, on the grounds that it is hostile to Islam. Implementation of the plot is said to have already begun, as demonstrated by the civil war in Tajikistan.27 A definition of Wahhabism from Uzbekistan, where the regime has done so much to encourage fear of Islamic extremism throughout the CIS, is revealing in its imprecision. According to Tashkent, Wahhabis are “fanatically devoted to the cannons of Islam.”28 This makes a high degree of piety, rather than the specific content of ones religious beliefs, still less ones political acts, the offense. Given the looseness of this definition, any observant Muslim could be targeted by the authorities as a Wahhabi.

The absence of a Wahhabi war in Central Asia has not quieted the alarms raised about the Wahhabi threat. For example, a meeting of CIS “power ministers” in Tashkent in mid-1998 discussed the danger Wahhabism poses to the member states. In this context, Russias then-Minister of the Interior, Sergei Stepashin, remarked that for Russia Wahhabism was no longer a theoretical problem, and that it was necessary to trace the channels money and weapons follow, the organization of military training camps. The mass media disseminated the ministers warning.

Uzbekistans President Karimov is one of those who have pushed the message of a continuing Wahhabi menace. It is useful to him as a way to discredit those whom he would repress. He has also done his best to ensure that Russias leaders are attuned to the dangers of Wahhabism, as when he used a three-hour meeting with Russias then-Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, to present the argument that Russia and Uzbekistan face a common enemy in the form of Wahhabism, which, allegedly, provided the ideological underpinning of nationalists in the Northern Caucasus and the Opposition in Tajikistan. He has repeated such warnings to the mass media.29

Yet there is good reason to conclude that there is no significant Wahhabi movement in Central Asia (and therefore no conspiracy between what does not exist in Central Asian and various groups in the Northern Caucasus). This is not to argue that there are not various Islamic revival movements in Central Asia or the Caucasus or to overlook the fact that some political opposition groups in those regions use force. However, to label all this “Wahhabism” is both to blur the distinction between apolitical, non-violent interest in religion and political unrest and to use a label intended to inspire fear instead of careful scrutiny. That is how the Karimov regime has used it to justify jailing people who do not conform without proving their involvement in acts of political violence. A similar pattern exists in southern Kyrgyzstan. Sometimes the allegations are so preposterous as to defy credibility. For example, when, in 1997, Kyrgyzstans then-Minister of National Security, Feliks Kulov, long an alarmist about an Islamic (not just Wahhabi) threat in Central Asia, identified Wahhabism as a danger in southern Kyrgyzstan, he claimed that “foreign Wahhabi emissaries, from Iran in particular” had infiltrated the area.30 This makes no sense, given that the kind of Shii Islam championed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the purist Sunnism of the Wahhabis championed by Saudi Arabia are mutually hostile (and have been since the early nineteenth century). In addition to the strictly religious disagreements, relations between Tehran and Riyadh were less than cordial at the time of Kulovs warning, although they had improved somewhat during the 1990s (once diplomatic relations between them were reestablished in 1991) Still, they remained at odds over a number of issues, including OPEC policies, Iranian attempts to stage political demonstrations in connection with the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Irans claims to certain islands in the Persian Gulf, the kinds of support which ought to be rendered to the Muslims of Bosnia, and the implications of Irans military build-up for the states on the southern side of the Gulf. In sum, the notion of Iranian-backed Wahhabi subversion in Central Asia is no more plausible than the old canard of Russian political paranoia about a subversive conspiracy by Jews and Masons.

The woes of Chechnia and simmering tensions in adjoining Daghestan have further stimulated rhetoric about Wahhabism. Here, as in Central Asia, it is used as a blanket description of those who oppose the people in power. There are people in Chechnia whose views seem to resemble those of the groups in the Muslim world, including the Wahhabis, which advocate a revival of an Islamic order modeled on what existed in the first generations of the faith, although most of what has come to light about them so far comes from adversarial, rather than open-minded sources. There are also many Chechens who do not agree with those now called “Wahhabis.” Even many who favor an Islamic revival have in mind the kind of Islam traditional to that region, in the form of Sufism with a substantial element of local traditions, something Wahhabis and other authentic fundamentalists oppose.31

Chechnia provides a striking example of the way “Wahhabi” is a term of political convenience. The republics current president, Aslan Maskhadov, launched a crack down on Wahhabis. At the same time, his foreign minister and others close to him are also purported Wahhabis.32 A former president of post-Soviet Chechnia, Zelimkhan Iandarbiev, was a target of the anti-Wahhabi campaignuntil he declared his support for Maskhadov, at which point allegations that he was a Wahhabi ceased.33 Another clear example of the way “Wahhabism” is part of a larger emotive, polemical rhetoric in Chechnia comes from a speech Maskhadov made to the Congress of the Chechen People in October 1998. The president repudiated Wahhabism as an unwelcome import, being preached in Chechnia by foreigners, and alien to the kind of Islam that is traditional there. He also blamed Wahhabis for committing acts of violence. However, Wahhabis were not the only foreigners he accused of harming Chechnia. He also warned that foreign backing for the continuing violence there might be the doing of Russia or it could be a “Jewish plot against Chechnia as the only Islamic state in the world.”34

At the end of the 1990s, alarm spread about the growth of Wahhabism in neighboring Daghestan. The Russian mass media have circulated scare stories about the Wahhabi threat there, even beyond the violent incidents which actually occurred.35 Yet the situation in Daghestan is far more complicated than the notion of a single threat with Wahhabis as the source would indicate. In addition to the general pattern of applying the label “Wahhabi” to anyone at odds with the government or institutionalized religious leadership, there is the fact that Daghestan is an ethnically divided region. The indigenous population belongs to some thirty ethnic groups and their subdivisions. There has been an Islamic revival there in the 1990s, but it has occurred to varying degrees among these different ethnic groups. It has also taken varying forms. For some, traditional Islam, as in Chechnia combining Sufism and local practices, has the most appeal. Many of these Islamic revival movements are apolitical and divided along ethnic lines.36

Although Islamophobic rhetoric is a commonplace of public discussions of affairs in predominantly Muslim areas of Russia and other successor states, many people have spoken out against this fear mongering. These include Russians and members of other nationalities, Muslims and non-Muslims, political figures, scholars, and journalists. Some of them have already been cited above. Their contribution is too large to do justice to here, but at least some discussion of their efforts to go beyond polemical manipulation is warranted.

Former Russian Minister of Justice Nikolai Fedorov lamented what he said was a pervasive negative attitude toward Islam among people in high places in the Russian government, who, in his opinion, regarded Islam as backward, fanatical, intolerant, and a threat to Russias territorial integrity. This ignored, he said, the importance of Islam to the culture and way of life as well as the religious views of millions of Russian citizens. He rejected the habitual linkage of Islamic fundamentalism to radical politics, arguing that it is not political but rather a focus on the basic teachings of the religion; where political turmoil exists, whether in the Middle East or in formerly Soviet states, the causes have nothing to do with this approach to Islam.37 Similarly, legal scholar Leonid Siukiianen, now a professor at the Institute of State and Law of the Russian Academy of Sciences, pointed to the millions of Muslims who are law abiding citizens of Russia. Their rich religious heritage is part of Russias heritage, too. He warned against “the cultivation of the image of Islam and Muslims as the enemy in Russia” lest this polarize the country along religious lines. The antidote to whatever Islamic extremism exists must not, he argued, be anti-Islamic extremism.38

A secular member of Tajikistans Opposition, the journalist Dodojon Atoullo, lambasted those in the mass media who credulously repeated officials Islamophobic pronouncements without making an effort to verify their accuracy. Although he made this point with regard to the civil war in his homeland, especially tensions along the border with Afghanistan, his point has broader applicability:

Some of my colleagues, sitting in warm Moscow offices, write about “jihad,” “dushmans” [literally: enemies; used by the Soviets for Afghanistani mojahedin], “mojahedin.” Sometimes it seems that they do not fully understand these words[this is] all that they know about a world that is hostile to them. Approaching the ridiculous, they seriously repeat the stories of border troop commanders purporting that some field commander declared “jihad” on all Russians... Everyone talks of impartiality and objectivity, but they write only what they hear from army and border troop commanders. This is the equivalent of asking the wolf how the sheep feel.39

The kind of investigative reporting Atoullo advocates in the coverage of Islamic radicalism, was practiced by a Russian reporter, Petr Brantov, who in mid-1998 went to an enclave in Daghestan (some villages in the Buinaksk area) controlled by purported Wahhabis to assess the situation for himself. All sorts of stories have circulated about these peoplethat they are the same as the Taliban, force women to go veiled, prohibit the watching of television, and coerce those who do not share their views.40 In Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan, Brantov found a high degree of alarm about the “Wahhabi” threat. What he found when he reached the “Wahhabi” enclave bore no resemblance to the stories he had heard. He encountered people from there who watch television, some women who are veiled but others who are not, men who have beards (in alarmists eyes, the hallmark of a Wahhabi)41 and others who are clean shaven. He spoke with the head of the local administration, who described the local “Wahhabis” as ordinary peasants. They had their own views, the official said, but did not cause any trouble. As for the notion that they had repudiated civil authority and created a miniature Islamic state, the official scoffed, saying that there was no problem with acceptance of his authority. A religious leader of the “Wahhabis,” Muhammad Shafi, told Brantov that they had expelled the local police not as an act of political rebellion but because those officers were worse than useless at law enforcement; they stole from people in the market place, refused to deal with problems that occurred at night, and let go some sheep rustlers captured by local inhabitants. In one village, Brantov met with some 15 “Wahhabis.” They objected to being called by that name and thought that the government applied it to them for the purpose of making others afraid of them. Brantovs overall assessment of the people he met in this area was that they are ordinary rural folk who live peacefully there and show no signs of being bullied by Wahhabis.42

Another intrepid reporter, Sanobar Shermatova, who for years has looked deeper than the official accounts of turmoil in predominantly Muslim areas of the former Soviet Union, made a similar journey at about the same time. The men guarding the enclave seemed far more ordinary to her than the ferocious, confrontational militants of the media accounts. Muhammad Shafi spoke to her about how heavy-handed intimidation directed against his preaching and his followers since the 1980s had alienated him from the state. In addition to seeking an Islamic revival in general, his goal is the adoption of Islamic law, the Sharia, as an antidote to corruption and crime.43 Such views can be found among many different kinds of Muslims; there is nothing automatically Wahhabi about them.

(As of this writing, accounts of fighting which flared in Daghestan in August 1999, have come predominantly from Russian sources and leave many questions unanswered. The focus of the fighting has not been the few villages in the Buinaksk area but another location closer to the border with Chechnia. The people who seized control of that border area are described as Wahhabis from Chechnia rather than Daghestanis).

There are Muslims and non-Muslims who have tried to point out the problems with the political manipulation of “fundamentalist” and “ Wahhabi.” D.B. Malysheva, a philosopher in the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, warned that Central Asian regimes “find it useful ... to depict all opposition, including secular, as Islamic fanatics, and present authoritarianism as the alternative to fundamentalist expansion.” According to Malysheva, “Wahhabi” is one of the convenient terms for stigmatizing opponents of the old guard.44 The Islamic leadership of Kyrgyzstan denounced the Russian-language press in that country and elsewhere for whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment by publishing articles about what it considered a non-existent Wahhabi menace.45 Members of the Russian Academy of Sciences argued that there are no Wahhabis in Central Asia and that even an awareness of Wahhabisms tenets is rare in that region.46 According to Orientalist Aleksei Kudriavtsev, of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the recent wave of concern over supposed Wahhabi radical politics in Daghestan is nothing of the sort, but rather “an ordinary protest against the corruption and incompetence of the authorities.”47 Most of the people being called Wahhabis are tolerant and moderate in their views, he argued. There might be some people in Daghestan of a more radical orientation, but it is evident that so far the extremist wing of Daghestani Wahhabism, if it exists at all, has not prevailed.48

Orientalist scholar Iurii Gankovskii argued that what is now called fundamentalism is not a movement linked to the political turmoil of the past two decades but a centuries-old tradition that to many Muslims is simply normal Islam.49 Even so a prominent political figure as Evgenii Primakov, while he was Russias foreign minister (and a veteran Middle East expert for the Kremlin), tried to distinguish between Islamic fundamentalism, which he considered a reaction among late-twentieth-century Muslims to the rapid pace of change and the way they had been mistreated, but not something Russia need worry about, and Islamic extremism, which entails the use of force for political ends across state borders and therefore is genuinely dangerous; however the apparent moderation of this distinction is tempered by the fact that Primakov, in deeming Afghanistans Taliban as a prime example of such extremisma judgment with which many might agreegreatly exaggerated the prospects of a Taliban invasion of the Soviet successor states of Central Asia and insisted on the need for a Russian military presence on the border of Afghanistan to block that.50

In Russia and other successor states, as in the West, too much of what is said and written about contemporary Islam depicts all Muslims as violent extremists. This mentality extrapolates from the worst acts committed by a minute fraction of the worlds one billion Muslims to denigrate them all in a way non-Muslims would never generalize about the groups with which they themselves identify. Another aspect of this double standard is the readiness to interpret the expression of any dissatisfaction with the status quo by Muslims in the CIS with fanaticism, extremism, intolerance, and violence; the widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo among the non-Muslim inhabitants of the CIS is not automatically interpreted in such dire terms. The use of labels like “fundamentalist” and “Wahhabi” and playing on unpleasant memories of the war in Afghanistan play a major role in encouraging uncritical alarmism about the purported Muslim menace. All this has important practical consequences for Russia and several other successor states. It justifies human rights abuses ranging from police harassment to arbitrary arrests, rigged trials, and disappearances. It restricts the range of groups that can participate fully in the political system, thereby increasing the likelihood that the ones which are excluded will be alienated and radicalized. And it encourages Russia to follow a more confrontational policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia. That costs lives and resources Russia can ill afford to spare on battles it does not need to fight.


1 See V. Markushin, "Da ne sozdai sebe vraga," Krasnaia Zvezda, April 22, 1999, Russian text via Universal Database of Russian Newspapers (http://www.news.eastview.com).

2 See Islam v SSSR, Mysl' Publishers, Moscow, 1983, p. 67.

3 See A. Shikhsaidov, "Islam v Dagestane," Tsentral'naia Aziia i Kavkaz, 1999, No. 4(5), p. 115; V. Akaev, "Religiozno-politicheskii konflikt v Chechenskoi Respublike Ichkeriia," ibid., p. 102.

4 Examples of this are: A.V. Malashenko, "Islam and Politics in the Southern Zone of the Former USSR," in: V.V. Naumkin, ed., Central Asia and Transcaucasia, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994, p. 117; idem, "Islam versus Communism," in: D.F. Eickelman, ed., Russia's Muslim Frontiers, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993, p. 69; D. Mikul'skii, "Islamskii fundamentalizm vchera i segodnia," Zvezda vostoka, 1992, No. 1, pp. 117, 119.

5 J.L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat, Oxford University Press, New York, 1992, pp. 7-8.

6 J.O. Voll, "Fundamentalism in the Sunni Arab World: Egypt and the Sudan," in: M.E. Marty and R.S. Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms Observed, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991, pp. 347, 350.

7 See M. Ahmad, "Islamic Fundamentalism in South Asia: The Jamaat-i-Islami and the Tablighi Jamaat of South Asia," in: Fundamentalisms Observed, pp. 517-518, 523.

8 See S. Gretsky, "Qadi Akbar Turajonzoda," Central Asia Monitor, 1994, No. 1, pp. 20, 21-22; M. Atkin, "Islam as Faith, Politics, and Bogeyman in Tajikistan," in: M. Bourdeaux, ed., The Politics of Religion in Russia and the New States of Eurasia, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York, 1995, pp. 257, 259.

9 See A. Malashenko, "Iz proshlogo v proshloe?," Svobodnaia mysl', 1993, No. 14 (September), p. 69.

10 See I.B. Zhdanov and A.A. Ignatenko, Islam na poroge XXI veka, Izdatel'stvo politicheskoi literatury, Moscow, 1989, pages of photograph section unnumbered.

11 See "Musul'manskii fundamentalizm," and "Musul'manskii ekstremizm," Islam. Slovar' ateista, Izdatel'stvo politicheskoi literatury, Moscow, 1988, pp. 157-158.

12 I. Beliaev, "Islam: religiia i politika," Dialog, 1990, No. 6 (April), p. 96.

13 Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), Daily Report. Soviet Union, January 17, 1991 (from Izvestia, January 9, 1991), pp. 38-39.

14 V. Uleev, "'Chistye i nechistye," Nezavisimaia gazeta, April 4, 1998, Russian text via Universal Database of Russian Newspapers.

15 A. Malashenko, "The Islamic Factor in Relations Between Russia and Central Asia." The quotations come from pp. 5 and 12 of the manuscript.

16 See P. Felgengauer, "Slishkom dalekii rubezh," Segodnia, August 13, 1993, p. 1.

17 See P. Felgenhauer, "Threats From Tajik Border," The Moscow Times, October 10, 1996; Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, Vol. 48, No. 40 (October 30, 1996) (from Segodnia, September 28, 1996), both via Nexis.

18 See A. Shumilin, "Islamskie terroristy sobralis' u granits SNG," Kommersant-Daily, August 20, 1998, Russian text via Universal Database of Russian Newspapers.

19 FBIS, Daily Report. Central Eurasia, May 12, 1998 (from Uzbekistan television, May 8, 1998), via World News Connection.

20 V. Iakov, "Sergei Kovalev: Ofitsial'nye svodkieto lozh', chudovishchnaia lozh'," Izvestia, January 6, 1995, p. 1.

21 Ibid., p. 2; Official Kremlin International News Broadcast, January 5, 1995 (Sergei Kovalev's press conference in Moscow), via Nexis.

22 See S. Shermatova, "Koran ne streliaet," Moskovskie novosti, April 4, 1993, p. 7B.

23 See N.N. Yodgori, "Kulob: ruzi jum'a," Tojikistoni soveti, October 13, 1989, p. 2; I. Rotar', "Leninabadtsy priglasili prezidenta v prezidenty," Nezavisimaia gazeta, June 10, 1992, p. 1; T. Klychev, "Khudonazarov v role Nabieva," Moskovskie novosti, July 7, 1992, p. 9; S. Gretsky, op. cit., p. 18.

24 See Kh. Usmanov, "Komusoiuznik, komuzhandarm," Moskovskie novosti, No. 4 (January 24, 1993), as photocopied in Russia & CIS Today, January 20, 1993, p. 50; V. Belykh and N. Burbyga, "Patrony vmesto khleba," Izvestia, September 15, 1992, p. 1; FBIS, Daily Report. Central Eurasia, October 26, 1992 (from Maiak Radio [Moscow], October 24, 1992), p. 72.

25 V. Belykh and N. Burbyga, op. cit.

26 V. Makartsev, "Afghanskii sindrom, uvy, stanovitsia real'nost'iu," Izvestia, February 24, 1993, p. 5.

27 Ibid.

28 I. Rotar', "Vakhkhabizm v respublikakh byvshego SSSR," Nezavisimaia gazeta, August 11, 1998.

29 See S. Shermatova, "The Two Faces of Islam Karimov," Moscow News, January 28, 1993; FBIS, Daily Report. Central Eurasia, June 1, 1998 (from Moskovskie novosti, May 10-17, 1998), via World News Connection.

30 FBIS, Daily Report. Central Eurasia, December 22, 1997 (from ITAR-TASS, December 22, 1997), via World News Connection.

31 See V. Akaev, op. cit., pp. 102-103, 107.

32 See I. Rotar', "Vakhkhabizm v respublikakh byvshego SSSR"; S. Shermatova, "I Feel Secure When I Have Ammunition at Hand," Moscow News, April 16, 1998, via Nexis.

33 I. Rotar', "Vakhkhabizm v respublikakh byvshego SSSR."

34 FBIS, Daily Report. Central Eurasia, October 14, 1998 (from Interfax, October 8, 1998), via World News Connection.

35 BBC Worldwide Monitoring, February 20, 1998 (from Russian TV, February 19, 1998), via Nexis; P. Brantov, "Vakhkhabizm s chelovecheskim litsom," Izvestia, August 29, 1998, Russian text via Universal Database of Russian Newspapers.

36 See A. Shikhsaidov, op. cit.

37 See N. Fedorov, "Islamtozhe nasha sud'ba," Nezavisimaia gazeta, March 30, 1993, p. 5.

38 S. Shermatova, "Koran ne streliaet"; L. Siukiianen, "Zakony shariata i nasha zhizn'," Megapolis-Ekspress, No. 16 (April 28, 1993), as photocopied in Russia & CIS Today, April 27 [sic!] 1993, pp. 42, 44, 45.

39 See D. Atovullo [sic!], "Za chto gibnut russkie soldaty v Tadzhikistane," Izvestia, April 13, 1995, p. 5.

40 See Iu. Snegirev, "Dzhikhad podoshol k granitsam Dagestana," Izvestia, February 10, 1998; P. Brantov, op. cit.

41 See Iu. Snegirev, op. cit.

42 See P. Brantov, op. cit.

43 See S. Shermatova, "Is Dagestan Taking the Path of Chechnya," Moscow News, August 27, 1998, via Nexis.

44 D.B. Malysheva, "Tsentral'naia Aziiamusul'manskii vyzov Rossii?," Mirovaia ekonomika i mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia, 1993, No. 12, p. 12.

45 FBIS, Daily Report. Central Eurasia, May 11, 1998 (from Interfax, May 8, 1998), via World News Connection.

46 See S. Shermatova, "Koran ne streliaet."

47 Appendix to P. Brantov's article, "Vakhkhabizm s chelovecheskim litsom."

48 Ibid.

49 See S. Shermatova, "Koran ne streliaet."

50 Russian Press Digest, September 18, 1996 (from Nezavisimaia gazeta), via Nexis; FBIS, Daily Report. Central Eurasia, March 13, 1997 (from Interfax, March 7, 1997), via World News Connection.


SCImago Journal & Country Rank
build_links(); ?>
 - Advertorial UP - E-MAIL