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Russia Faces Islamic Radicalism

  • Zlatica Hoke
  • Anya Ardayeva

Russian authorities have repeatedly said that the violence in the breakaway region of Chechnya is over. But while military action no longer takes place and the situation in the province is largely under Moscow's control, there are almost daily reports of violence in neighboring regions of Russia.

In recent months, Russian Special Forces have claimed several important victories over the rebel movement in the breakaway region of Chechnya, culminating on July 9th with the killing of Shamil Basayev, the most prominent Chechen warlord who lost his life in the southern Russian republic of Ingushetia.

Basayev's death came three weeks after Russian Special Forces killed Abdul-Khalim Saidullayev, often considered the successor to the former Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, leaving the separatist movement virtually leaderless. But whether this will stop the violence in the troubled region remains unclear.

New Centers of Rebellion

Alexander Verkhovsky, a director of the SOVA research group in Moscow, says that with the separatist movement largely suppressed in Chechnya, radical Islamic groups are now flourishing outside the province and winning more local support.

"If we talk about the Northern Caucasus, it's a colossal problem there, because these armed groups organize full-scale underground activities and shift toward military action. And the geography of this military action is expanding. A few years ago it was only Chechnya and some regions of Dagestan. Now things explode in Dagestan and Ingushetia more often than in Chechnya. Plus, it is also starting to happen in other republics," says Verkhovsky.

Less than a year ago, dozens of armed men staged an organized attack on government buildings and police stations in the town of Nalchik in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria near Chechnya. More than 100 people died. The attack was blamed on the radical group Yarmuk Jamaat, which has called on Muslims to engage in a holy war against what they call the "amoral puppet" authorities, "imposed" by the Russians in the North Caucasus. This echoes the calls of other radical rebel leaders for a holy war that would result in the creation of an Islamic state in the North Caucasus.

In September 2004, a group of armed men seized a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, some 100 kilometers from Nalchik. More than 300 people died, more than half of them children. The gunmen demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.

Origins of Russia's Islamic Extremism

Although Moscow does not include Hamas and Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organizations, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that Islamic extremism is the main source of instability in Chechnya and often pointed out that Chechen rebels are linked to the Al-Qaeda movement.

But analyst Alexander Verkhovsky says that aside from the violence in Chechnya, there are other reasons why radical movements in the region will likely continue to grow.

"There's a serious crisis of traditional Islam, local imams are sometimes absolutely illiterate, they are not able to answer any questions of a curious young man, and this curious young man goes to other authoritative figures who often have radical views," says Verkhovsky.

According to various estimates, there are as many as 20 million Muslims living in Russia. Dozens of believers regularly attend weekday prayer at one of Moscow's Muslim temples, the Historic Mosque.

The imam there, Rufat Akhmet Zhanuf, says it isn't Chechen rebels, but local authorities who create the conditions for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Russian society.

"In Moscow and other large cities, Muslims are treated pretty well. But in other regions, they can face big problems, such as not being allowed to build a mosque and prosecution from local authorities. All of this does happen. Of course, it reflects on the growth of various radical organizations because if a Muslim is insulted and he has got a reason to avenge his dignity and so on, of course, that can help the radical mood to grow," says Rufat Akhmet Zhanuf.

There have been numerous reports of mosques being closed in the North Caucasus and other Muslim areas of Russia. Five mosques were closed in Nalchik last September -- just a month before the attack. Muslims complain that people who look Caucasian or Muslim -- often are humiliated by the authorities.

Rinat Karimov is a believer who attends the Historic Mosque in Moscow. "There are many Muslims who are being prosecuted for their faith. They are being taken to the police and interrogated. If they travel somewhere, their wives are being asked about their trips. They are not doing anything to fight the authorities, nothing at all. They are being prosecuted because of their faith," says Karimov.

Fudamentalism and Russian Politics

Young Muslims in Russia are targets for recruitment by radical groups. Most of the gunmen who participated in the attack on Nalchik were in their 20s. Many analysts say that in order to prevent more of them from joining radical groups, Russia must do more to support Islamic moderates. Oppressing Islam, they say, only makes the fundamentalist message more attractive. Here in Washington, many analysts agree that the Russian government has made a mistake in moving to centralize power in Moscow.

"President Vladimir Putin has been decreasing the ability of Russia's regions, various districts and provinces, to affect the national debate over foreign policy and over domestic policy," says Ilan Berman, Vice President for Policy at the American Foreign Policy Council.

"This is very significant because what it does is it creates ideological outliers, particularly among Russia's Muslim population, which is not very well represented anyway. But it's also the population in Russia that is growing the fastest. Russia is declining demographically," says Berman. "It's losing about a million people a year to death and emigration. The only subset of the Russian population that is not experiencing this trend is the Muslim population, which is actually expanding."

Berman warns that Moscow risks marginalizing and frustrating its fastest growing population group. But he notes that Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and some other Central Asian states have countered radicals by giving support to moderate Islamic leaders.

"I think there is a pretty substantial effort in Central Asia right now for formulating public diplomacy, broadcasting, things like that, along counter-terrorism lines, certainly in order to reinforce the power of the authoritarian state in many cases. But it's also a fairly potent response to the type of ideology that we are grappling with in other places. I think it's worth paying attention to," says Berman.

Many analysts agree that moderate Islamic leaders may be the best help in fighting the spread of terrorism in Russia and Central Asia.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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