The Increasing Assertiveness of Russia’s Muslims

The Increasing Assertiveness of Russia’s Muslims

The Increasing Assertiveness of Russia’s Muslims


4 min read

Chechen Muslims pray in the Aymani Kadyrova Mosque in the city of Argun, Chechnya, about 18 km from Grozny

Russia is seeing increased assertiveness in its Muslim community. On the ground, this trend is manifested in Muslims’ political mobility and unity in the face of perceived dangers to their community, or ummah, both locally and worldwide. One recent example was a series of protests caused by the Chechen leader’s reaction to atrocities in Myanmar. This episode risked sparking confrontation along confessional lines.

Internationally, the incident placed Russia in a delicate position vis-à-vis its major regional partner, China. Beijing strongly supports Myanmar’s Buddhist authorities because of frictions with its own Muslim Uyghur population, which is a regular thorn in the side of the Beijing government. Domestically, the Chechen leader’s intervention was an important occasion for Moscow to stress who controls foreign policy in Russia.

On 4 September, Muscovites found themselves wondering what had sparked a massive street protest in front of the Embassy of Myanmar. The gathering bore a distinctly religious character, with mostly Chechen protesters shouting slogans in support of Myanmar’s Muslim minority of Bangladeshi descent. The Chechen capital, Grozny, hosted a similar rally almost simultaneously.

The public outburst was triggered by a YouTube post by the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in which he condemned persecutions that the Myanmar authorities had conducted against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. Kadyrov’s comments were full of threatening remarks targeting the Myanmar ruling regime. He regretted the fact that complex geography had “prevented him from sending his forces to defend the Myanmar Muslims.” Kadyrov added that if Russia’s position on Myanmar differed from his own, then he disagreed with that position.

The Moscow and Grozny protests show how closely intertwined the central and federal capitals have grown of late. “Chechnya’s integration – as the events of the last 15 years demonstrate – means not only Moscow’s arrival into Grozny but also Grozny’s penetration into Moscow,” according to Sergey Markedonov of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Moscow’s protest had not been authorised by the city authorities, and pundits tried to gauge what the reaction of Russia’s law enforcement bodies would be. The response was almost indifferent, the gathering uneventful. The non-interference by law enforcement officials demonstrated the Kremlin’s careful attitude to all things Chechen.

Kadyrov, who is deeply religious and quick to respond to anti-Muslim attacks anywhere in the world, seems to harbour an aspiration to assume the role of the ummah’s de facto leader, says Radio Free Europe journalist Lyoma Chabayev. Friendly with the Gulf monarchs, Kadyrov frequently rubs shoulders with regional leaders.

This is not the first time that the Chechen leader has made controversial statements, but this recent declaration put him in opposition to Kremlin foreign policy. Kadyrov’s diatribe would have been perceived as business as usual were it not for the fact that Russia officially supports the regime in Myanmar and maintains a high level of military cooperation with the country. For many analysts in Russia, Kadyrov’s attitude was tantamount to a subject of the federation dictating foreign policy to Moscow. This case demonstrates the close linkages between religion and geopolitics.

Russian President Vladimir Putin downplayed Kadyrov’s statements with Orwellian astuteness. “Every Russian citizen has a right to a personal opinion, whatever their public status, and that applies equally well to the heads of regions. Thus, one shouldn’t read the Chechen leader’s words as some kind of dissent,” Putin explained. Yet Kadyrov’s comments about sending in troops were not an empty threat. Contrary to heads of other Russian regions, the leader of Chechnya has his own battle-worthy army. In 2016, he publicly announced that some members of that army were fighting in Syria on the side of President Bashar al-Assad and had even infiltrated ISIS.

Some experts believe that Kadyrov’s anti-Myanmar outburst indirectly threatened reprisals against Russia’s Buddhist population. Their number stands at 700,000, with 500,000 living in the federal subjects of Buryatia, Kalmykia, and Tuva, all of which are home to significant numbers of Buddhists. Although Kadyrov never mentioned Russian Buddhists in his remarks, except in passing and as sympathisers of the Rohingya Muslims, Russian political commentator Stanislav Belkovskiy thinks that Russia’s Buddhist communities may find themselves exposed as a result of the Chechen leader’s speech. Belkovskiy even suggested sending Russia’s National Guard to protect both the population and a sacred Buddhist relic.

Russian liberal analyst Julia Latynina believes that the current spate of threatening religious dynamics represents “the government’s gradual loss of the monopoly on violence.” The Russian authorities, for their part, seem genuine in their constant search for ways to consolidate society: rebuilding the nation’s greatness, encouraging national patriotism, and ensuring Russia’s place in world politics. Yet these processes inevitably build on societal mobilisation that, at times of increased tension, exacerbates religious divisions and risks confrontation.

Following the recent protests in Moscow and Grozny, there are risks of similar démarches in other Russian regions. Peaceful religious co-existence in multiethnic states like Russia is fragile and must be nurtured to prevent isolated incidents from exacerbating inter-religious tensions across the world.

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