Academy Fellow (2013)

Islam in Russia is changing and increasingly includes transnational Islam.Islamic groups with transnational connections are part of wider Islamic networks, and they should be approached as such rather than as isolated organizations.

Photo by: Mikhail Voskresensky / Reuters / Corbis.Photo by: Mikhail Voskresensky / Reuters / Corbis.
  • Islam in Russia is changing. Its presence is no longer confined to traditional forms and established centres of Muslim power; it also increasingly includes transnational Islam. Islamic groups with transnational connections are part of wider Islamic networks, and they should be approached as such rather than as isolated organizations.
  • While some transnational Islamic groups may share a similar goal of dominance and Islamization, they may differ in their methods and discourses that facilitate recruitment and the spread of their ideology. Some groups (e.g. Salafi jihadists) opt for insurgency and terrorist tactics. Others (Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Muslim Brotherhood or the Fethullah Gülen movement) prefer gradualist approaches. They tend to avoid violent means and instead may focus on social work, education and dialogue initiatives.
  • The Russian government has consistently used repressive measures against both insurgent and gradualist transnational Islamic groups. This has been controversial and at times counterproductive. However, the processes of growth, fragmentation and radicalization in Russia’s Muslim community are not straightforward, and radicalization may occur regardless of repression or tolerance.
  • The local and transnational dimensions interplay in the development of a new kind of Islam and also a new kind of Muslim in Russia. One consequence is the growing number of Muslims who describe themselves as ‘observant’. They seek to follow the ‘true’ Islam, as expounded by the Islamic organization to which they belong, and this defines their identity. This combination of ideology and identity is extremely powerful. It is possible to tap into this pool of committed believers and use them for political purposes.
  • In Crimea transnational Islamic groups used to operate freely under Ukrainian legislation. Since Crimea was annexed by Russia, they have been considered a security threat and became a target for the law-enforcement agencies. This may potentially lead to radicalization among some Muslims in Crimea.
  • Foreign fighters from Russia and Crimea have become an integral part of the insurgency in the Middle East. The escalation of the crisis in Syria and Iraq may lead to further recruitment among Muslims in Russia, Ukraine, Caucasus and Central Asia. It also increases the terror threat for Russia and Crimea from militants returning with significant combat experience and an entrenched radical ideology.
  • Repressive government policies towards Islam in its local and transnational forms, growing ethno-social tensions in Russian society, and deepening sectarian divisions in Islam itself can influence the socio-political situation in Russia. Russia’s clamp-down on Muslims in Crimea in particular may destabilize the situation.