Friday, June 14, 2024

Islamic Russia

The Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque in Grozny – Chechnya, Russia (Source: iStock, Leonid Andronov)


The anti-Jewish riots in Dagestan are just a symptom of something larger. Muslims are playing an increasingly important role in Russia. The more Moscow turns away from Europe and toward Asia, the greater their importance.


Maciej Pieczyński


At the airport in Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala, an enraged mob shouting “Allahu akbar!” was bent on lynching the Jews who had just landed in a flight from Tel Aviv. Outside a hotel in Khasavyurt, several hundred people demanded that one of the guests – a refugee from Israel – be thrown out into the street. In the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, Nalchik, unknown perpetrators set fire to a Jewish cultural center. Anti-Semitic rallies were held in Makhachkala and Cherkessk (the capital of Karachay-Cherkessia). The demonstrators demanded the expulsion of Jews from the region. Followers of Allah make up the majority of residents in Russia’s Caucasus republics. They are 94 percent of the population in Dagestan and 96 percent in Chechnya. Putin has always enjoyed overwhelming support in both of these republics, but while protests are essentially impossible in Chechnya, which is ruled with a firm hand by Ramzan Kadyrov, Dagestan is becoming a hotbed of civil unrest for the second time following the invasion of Ukraine. After the mobilization was announced, women protested, refusing to let their husbands and sons go to the front. Now these husbands and sons have thrown themselves into bloody revenge for Palestine. The Russian security forces’ response came late, but did happen. They identified 150 of those who had taken part in the storming of the airport and detained 60 of them.

Moscow has disassociated itself from these anti-Semitic riots and accuses the West of causing them. “In Ukraine, which is led by Western patrons, they are trying to incite pogroms in Russia. I’m not sure if the U.S. is even aware of this – it would do them well to have a closer look at what the special services are doing in Ukraine. They are scum, there is no other way to put it,” Putin said. The fact is, the signal for the attack on the Makhachkala airport was given by the “Utro Dagestan” (“Morning Dagestan”) profile on Telegram, with which Ilya Ponomarev, a Russian opposition figure with a shady reputation who is currently active in Ukraine, was once associated. Ponomarev has claimed to be working with an anti-Putin partisan group that is allegedly responsible for the assassination of Darya Dugina, Alexander Dugin’s daughter. There is no doubt that the unrest in Russia is in the interest of both Kyiv and the Russian opposition, and stirring up the unrest was not a difficult thing. Nearly two years of war in Ukraine, which involves many conscripts from the Caucasus; the rise of anti-Israel sentiment among Muslims around the world, triggered by the Middle East conflict and Israel’s crimes; and finally, the hot Caucasian blood – all this combined to create a powder keg that only needed a spark to go off.

In Russia, the state comes first, not the nation

It is doubtful that this unrest was inspired by the Kremlin. The dominant ideology in Russia is not nationalism, but imperialism. Its chief values are the state and its apparatus, not the nation. Traditionally, a great source of pride that is emphasized in Russian (and formerly Soviet) propaganda is the peaceful coexistence of different cultures and religions under the rule of a strong power in Moscow, which in turn guarantees the inviolability and security of this arrangement.

Russia’s special historical operation

The relationship between Putin and Kadyrov is typical of this. Chechnya is actually an Islamic state within the Russian state, but the Kadyrovites, instead of waging a full-scale jihad against the giaours within the empire’s borders, generally focus on murdering infidel shaytans on the front lines of the war with Ukraine.

Any inter-ethnic feud causes the police state to lose face and harms this myth of diversity. That being said, Dagestan’s rebelliousness is also, in a sense, a side effect of the leniency with which Putin treats the Muslim provinces, and above all their administrators. In the case of Chechnya, it was the price to be paid for pacifying the region. The Chechen Republic was first razed to the ground, then millions of rubles were pumped into its reconstruction and expansion, and it was given such extensive internal autonomy – primarily cultural, as it is related to the de facto superiority of sharia law over federal law – that it was no longer worthwhile for deeply religious Chechen Muslims to fight for independence. The Kadyrovites feel impunity not only in their enclave, however, but also throughout the country. Even Moscow police officers at one time complained to human rights activists about the Chechen satrap’s personal guard.

The Kadyrovites are growing in strength

The Kadyrov clan’s impunity is ostentatious. In late September, the head of the Chechen Republic posted a video of his 15-year-old son brutally beating a local resident who had been accused of burning a Qur’an in a jail in Volgograd. Ramzan Kadyrov did not hide his pride in his child. As we all know, Volgograd is not a Chechen city. It is not under Kadyrov’s jurisdiction in any way. Moreover, even under Russian law beating a person who is under arrest is a crime. But there is no indication that Adam Kadyrov, who happens to be an already successful mixed martial arts fighter despite his young age, will suffer any consequences. When asked about the issue, a Kremlin spokesman declined to comment. After the incident, Adam Kadyrov was awarded the Hero of Chechnya medal by his father. Officially, this was given for his sporting achievements. No wonder, however, that some Internet users commented with bitter irony that now in the Russian “superpower,” medals are given for beating Russians.

Adam Kadyrov was also rewarded by the authorities of two other republics with predominantly Muslim populations. The President of Tatarstan awarded him the Order of Duslyk (friendship) for his “significant contributions to strengthening peace and harmony between peoples and religions.” In turn, Kadyrov Junior was awarded the Karachay-Cherkessia Order for defending “traditional Islamic values.” Russian opposition journalist Sergei Medvedev assesses that this 15-year-old’s triumphant tour of regional capitals is more than just another public relations stunt by his father, who likes to flaunt himself on the Internet (often in an unintentionally comical way; it is no coincidence that the Kadyrovites have been dubbed the “TikTok army”).

By having his son’s breast covered with medals, the Chechen dictator is collecting symbolic tribute from the leaders of the Muslim regions. After all, the real reason Adam Kadyrov is collecting these laurels is because he beat a giaour in revenge for sacrilege. Thus, his father strengthens his position as the most important defender of Muslims in Russia as well as beyond Russia’s borders. Following the outbreak of war in the Middle East, Kadyrov denounced “Israeli fascism” and repeatedly expressed his willingness to send his “peacekeepers” to Palestine, to aid Hamas. His men have most likely taken over some of the Wagner Group’s military equipment.

The Kadyrovites are growing in strength. This does not mean that they are a threat to Putin’s authority, however. On the contrary, Kadyrov is a faithful servant of his Kremlin master. The unpunished Caucasian warlord has gotten under the skin of many influential people in Russia. Thus a reshuffle in the Kremlin could weaken his position, although he would probably remain where he is. For regardless of who succeeds Putin in the future, it is doubtful that he will dare to depose Kadyrov, whose authority and strength guarantee Russia’s peace in the Caucasus.

Anatomy of the “Russian mir”

25 million Muslims

According to various figures, there are between 20 and 25 million Muslims living in Russia out of an overall population of about 147 million. There are between three and four million Muslims in Moscow alone. Note that the statistics are not so much about citizens’ declared religion as they are about their origins. The representatives of traditionally Muslim ethnic groups are simply considered Muslims. Islam is the second-largest religion in Russia after Orthodox Christianity, and the number of its followers is on the rise. As in the West, the reason for this is demographics. The ethnically Russian part of society is aging – an evolution fostered by high divorce rates and liberal abortion laws – and is slowly giving way to the large, traditionalist families of the Muslim communities.

Russian followers of Allah are mostly radically conservative. Islamic clerics and politicians stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Orthodox hierarchs in condemning abortion and homosexuality, as well as in criticizing the “rotten West” and supporting Russian imperialism. Given that they are Muslims, in doing so they are more extreme than Christians. Kadyrov does not limit himself to outlawing homosexuality, either. In Chechnya, gays are kidnapped, tortured, and killed without trial. The invasion of Ukraine is openly called a “jihad” by the Chechen dictator. In this “holy war,” the Kadyrovites’ enemies are “satanists, fascists,” and “satanic democracy,” which, according to Kadyrov, persecutes religious people.

Europe’s largest mosque was built in Grozny with money from Moscow. Contrary to appearances, it is not France or Germany but precisely Russia that has the largest Muslim population across the entire Old Continent. So why haven’t these millions of followers of Islam become a natural base of support for the left-liberal camp, as they have in the West? The answer is simple. The Left provides migrants and refugees mainly with services – as well as cover via propaganda. The immigrant population, given that it has been uprooted and transplanted to a new place, becomes the object of (real or imagined) resentment from the majority. This role is played in Russia by economic migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, who are often working there illegally. They are, in fact, often referred to contemptuously by Russian nationalists as “blacks.” Even an opposition figure such as Alexei Navalny, who is so much praised in the West, once publicly advocated deporting migrants as “pests.”

But most Russian Muslims are indigenous peoples who have lived on their territories for hundreds of years. The Russians did not conquer the North Caucasus until the 19th century. Despite their crushing numerical and technological superiority, it took them five decades to break the resistance of the fierce Highlanders. The Caucasus has also left a distinct mark on Russian culture. The conquest of this region was described in the works of great writers such as Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Leo Tolstoy; each in fact wrote a work entitled “The Caucasian Captive.” The Cossacks who took part in this conquest despised the conquered people, yet they not only began to dress like the Cherkess or Chechen highlanders but also imitated their traditional acrobatic dance, the lezginka, which is still danced today on the Ukrainian front by both Kadyrovites and ethnic Russians. This is how popular the tradition of the conquered has become in the culture of the victors.

Besides the North Caucasus republics (Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachay-Cherkessia), Muslims are also in the majority in the southeastern European part of Russia, in the Volga region of Tatarstan and Bashkiria, where they make up 54 percent of the population. Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, has hosted the International Economic Summit “Russia – Islamic World” since 2009. This year, one of the highlights of the event was the “Russia Halal Expo” during which representatives from 11 countries, including Turkey, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates, promoted their business and cultural activities. Overall, according to the organizers, more than 16,000 people from 86 Islamic countries and 84 regions of the Russian Federation attended this year’s summit. Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minnikhanov chairs the Russia–Islamic World group, which is officially responsible for relations with Muslim countries. He recently had an official meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilcham Aliyev.

As in the Caucasus, Islam has a longer tradition in the Volga region than does Russian rule. In the early Middle Ages, it was home to Volga–Kama Bulgaria (not to be confused with modern South Slavic Bulgaria). The legend of the “choice of faith” by Prince Vladimir of Kiev is associated with this state. Before he decided to embrace Orthodox Christianity and baptized Rus’, Prince Vladimir also hosted representatives of various faiths. The Volga–Kama Bulgarians offered him conversion to Islam. But he was discouraged by Islam’s ban on alcohol, because, as he expressed it, “Drinking is the joy of Rus’, we cannot live without it.” In the 13th century, the Mongols conquered Bulgaria and annexed it to their new state, the Golden Horde. Rus’ was more fortunate. The Tatars razed it to the ground, but did not erase it from the map. They only subjugated it politically for more than two centuries. Under their rule Moscow’s importance grew, which then broke out from under the Tatar boot and began to conquer the remaining Rus’ lands. At that time, the Golden Horde embraced Islam. The Tatars were weakening and Muscovite Rus’ (later Russia) was growing in strength. As a result of the Golden Horde’s disintegration, the Kazan Khanate was established on the territory of former Bulgaria (and today’s Tatarstan and Bashkiria), and was later conquered and suppressed by Tsar Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century.

From then on Russia began its expansion into Asia, absorbing more non-Orthodox lands. It was from the Tatars that the Russians learned how to build a powerful, despotic empire. Until recently, the term “Mongol-Tatar yoke” was often used by academics. Today, Russian historians tend to speak of “dependence on the khans” or the “Horde’s rule.” The Kremlin’s historical policy as it has been riding a wave of growing hostility toward the West increasingly justifies and even praises Asian aspects of Russia’s identity and past. And it is also a matter of political correctness. After all, it is the former invaders’ descendants who make up the majority of the population of these two republics today.


This article was first published in Polish in the Do Rzeczy weekly in November 2023.