Pressure on Russian Muslims as Putin seeks suitable heir

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Because president Vladimir Putin cannot be elected for a third term unless the Russian constitution is amended, he and Kremlin officials are preoccupied with the parliamentary elections in 2007 and with ensuring the election of an approved successor as president in 2008. His main strategy for achieving the desired result is to pose as the man best able to suppress the Chechen people’s struggle for an independent state and the growing campaign by Muslims in the Russian Federation to develop the practice of their faith and enhance their social and economic status. This explains his portrayal as a tough man of war in endless propaganda broadcasts on state-controlled television and radio; his failure to fight, or even to resist, the rampant ethnic and anti-Islamic attacks and prejudice in the Russian Federation, and his refusal to use Russia’s growing wealth to create jobs and other economic opportunities for the impoverished Muslim population.

His love of the martial arts –” be it judo, in which he is a black belt, or sambo, a Russian form of wrestling –” is advertised almost daily to advance his strongman image and convince the Russians that he is the right leader to deal with “separatist rebels in Chechnya”. That he is anxious to inculcate this strongman image is indicated by his crackdown even on anti-Islamic pro-Russian politicians and parties that publicly criticise him. It is not odd for a former KGB official to see nothing wrong not only with spying on the leaders of political parties critical of him but also with jailing them and banning their parties. One such party is the National Bolshevik Party, which was banned, although the Russian Supreme Court has lifted the ban since. The NBP is totally racist, pro-Russian and anti-Islamic but it wants to defeat the ruling party at the elections in 2007, and calls for Putin’s immediate resignation.

If Putin can act against such parties, then his all-out war on Muslims is not that surprising; nor is his assumption that Russian voters will respond favourably to his well-advertised hostility towards them. But fortunately the Chechen activists and other Muslims in the Russian Federation are eager to revive their Islamic traditions after decades of suppression; they are not intimidated and display their resolve and courage constantly. In Chechnya, for instance, the regular brutal attacks by Russian forces on activists and their actual or suspected civilian supporters are always answered. In one day in mid-August alone a Russian regional commander and four other officers were killed in an ambush by Chechen fighters in Roshnichu.

Russian forces have been fighting Chechen freedom-fighters, who are resisting Russian occupation, for more than a decade; the bloodshed is now spreading to neighbouring republics and motivating and galvanising many young Muslims there. Even Moscow, the Russian capital, has become a usual target for attacks by Chechen fighters in the past two years. However, the latest sign that even Putin himself has little confidence in his ability to quell the Chechen uprising, or to convince the Russian public of it by his tough-man image, is his recent decision to seek assistance from China, which is also engaged in the suppression of its Muslims’ struggle for self-determination. In a clear sign that the two wish to cooperate and develop a common military system of suppression, they agreed to hold joint war games on August 18. The idea was to simulate a joint invasion by their two armies of the Shandong peninsula in the Yellow Sea, south-east of Beijing, with warships and submarines being joined by bombers.

Some analysts at first suggested that the exercises were directed at the US as a warning that it was not the only superpower in the world, but Russia and China immediately discounted this, insisting that the war games and other preparations are aimed at fighting Islamic and international terrorism and rescuing friendly leaders and states that are threatened by it. According to Russian sources quoted in the Western press on August 19, “the exercise simulates an intervention in a state at risk from instability or terrorist insurgency. It creates a cooperation under which the two [Russia and China] might come to the aid of a friendly leader at risk from Islamic terror, or another colour revolution.” General Liang Guanglie, chief of staff of the Chinese army, was explicit. “The exercise will be carried out in the framework of the fight against international terrorism and extremism,” he said. The Chinese state newsagency Xinhua was even more forthright. “The joint exercises will help strengthen the capability of the two armed forces in jointly striking international terrorism,” it said.

But it is not only Putin and his officials who are alarmed at “the rise of Russian Muslims,” as one newspaper report put it. Russian Orthodox Church leaders and ultranationalists are alarmed about the increasing numbers of Muslims in the Russian Federation, the conversion to Islam by non-Muslims, and the huge increase in the number of mosques since 1991. In the entire Soviet Union there were only 500 mosques, but now there are 5,000 in Russia alone. Moreover, Ravil Gaynudin, chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, recently put the number of Russian Muslims at 23 million, claiming that these are all indigenous and “growing fast” numerically. Christian leaders and Russian officials have always underestimated the number of Muslims in Russia. According to the last census, three years ago, about 14.5 million of Russia’s 144 million population are “ethnic” Muslims; the number of converts is not known with any certainty.

Church groups and ultranationalists are using the growth in the Muslim population to exaggerate it, and warning that Russia will soon be dominated by a Muslim majority. This is clearly leading to growing hatred of Muslims, physical attacks on them and their properties, and denial of jobs and other economic opportunities to them. Aleksei Malashenko, an expert on Islam in Russia, summed up the situation thus: “Islamophobia and xenophobia are on the rise. We can already see the effects with several nationalist groups. Despite all the conflicts, [Russia] is quite stable, but I don’t think it will stay the same.” He was quoted in a newspaper report on August 5; the situation has already deteriorated since then and will certainly get worse, as he predicts. Muslims elsewhere must not continue to ignore the plight of their fellow believers in Russia; ways must be found to help, and thus strengthen the Ummah despite the national borders that divide it.

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