Radical Russia: Examining the Rise of Islamic Extremism in Eastern Europe and Beyond

Natalie Sherman
Staff Writer

During the summer, I participated in a language program at St. Petersburg Peter the Great Polytechnic University. I arrived in Russia with a knowledge of its culture and political landscape, but while there, I learned much about how Russia’s political and social rhetoric is changing.

In Russia, I was confronted with difficult topics like antimigrant and nationalist politics that have grown steadily over the past few decades and are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Reconciling these sentiments with the abundance of immigrants, foreign workers, and foreign students who reside in St. Petersburg is difficult.

I have never travelled to a country that did not have its own internal issues with race and ethnicity, but in Russia the issue is evolving rapidly. These sentiments have some historical basis, but many Russians are currently embracing their own brand of a “Russia First” mentality.

Russia has a difficult history. Many Russians are united by the events they have witnessed within their lifetimes. These shared experiences coupled with the complexity of Russia’s language, geography, and legal system make it a very difficult place for outsiders to assimilate. It is even more difficult for those who come to Russia with their own cultural baggage and grievances.

Under the Soviet system, all the former states had a common trajectory, but now they are heading in different directions and must reckon with their own complex pasts. As the former Soviet States attempt to rediscover their cultural identities, it is only natural that they fall prey to the fervor and extremity of reborn nationalism and rediscovered religion. Such extremity will continue to stir violence both within and beyond Russia’s borders.

According to the Clash of Civilizations theory of ethnopolitical conflict, violence is more likely to occur in parts of the world where different civilizations brush shoulders. From the lens of this worldview, one could identify Russia as a hotspot for conflict because of its sprawling borders.

Russia borders East Asia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe; all different civilizations with differing worldviews. These borders are porous and have created a mixed society both ethnically and mentally. Many people who live within Russia struggle to identify with the descriptor “Russian.” Even more struggle to recognize their own culture within the culture of their home country.

The breakup of the Soviet Union further contributed to these divisions. Central Asia is saddled with major economic problems and minimal social freedoms. It is comprised of illiberal democracies that suppress dissent and fail to conform to international judicial norms.

Caucasia also suffered through multiple ethnic conflicts in the 1990s and early 2000s. Although the Russian government has invested large amounts of money into regions such as Chechnya and South-Ossetia, they are still recovering from such violent wars.

Radio Free Europe notes that these regions are also still dealing with the consequences of landmine proliferation that restricts citizens’ movement and makes agriculture dangerous, thereby leading to further economic stagnation.

Unsurprisingly, the youth of these regions feels disenchanted with the state of their homelands and resentment towards Russia and the west at large. It is this disenchantment that has attracted many people from these regions to extremist Islam.

Extremist Islam is a large threat to Russia for many reasons. During the Soviet Union, religion was discouraged, so there was a large lapse in religious education among Muslims in the former Soviet States. This has led many young people to radicalize via the internet or by Wahabi and Salafi preachers.

As detailed in Peter Pomerantsev’s book, “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible,” these preachers would collect followers and convince them to become suicide bombers and travel to Northern Russian cities. This led to many tragedies in Russia such as the Nord-Ost theater massacre and similar bombings. Such events only deepened the divide between ethnic Russians and Muslims living within Russia and increased disenfranchisement among Russia’s migrant population.

The Eurasia Foundation states that “there are an estimated 14 million labor migrants in Russia each year, with 80 percent coming from the nine former Soviet states with open visa regulations.” They fill a niche within the country’s service industry and stimulate the economies of their home countries by sending money to their families. This seems like a win-win scenario, but many of these workers, typically young men, struggle to assimilate and end up living insular, antisocial lives.

This factor, coupled with the daily discrimination that many live with in Russia, often drives immigrants to develop more extreme religious views than those they previously held. These disgruntled workers are easy targets of online radicals.

Many such young men have also not gained a proper religious education, so upon their rediscovery, they become easy targets for radical branches, particularly those that paint themselves as adversaries of the west.

Social disenfranchisement makes it difficult to integrate and assimilate, especially for those of foreign races. Many come to major Russian cities to make money that they can return to their families, but find life in Russia to be more difficult and lonelier than they had anticipated. This, along with dangerous and often illegal working and living conditions, drives many migrants within Russia to live secretive and isolated lives.

The internet is often their only means of socializing and predatory extremist groups await. Central Asian and Caucasian migrant workers were preyed upon when ISIL attempted to create a caliphate in Syria. It wasn’t difficult for extremists to convince men who already disliked Russia to fight against the Russian-backed al-Assad regime.

In the paper Vulnerability and Resilience of Young People in Kyrgyzstan to Radicalization, Violence and Extremism, the authors tell the story of a young Kyrgyz man they refer to as KK. Prior to radicalization, KK worked in kitchens throughout Russia. While living in Moscow with his father, KK converted to Islam and became active on social media. He saw videos from Syria on social media and decided he wanted to go. Some friends gave him information about secret ISIL message boards and soon after he bought a plane ticket to Istanbul.

In the paper, KK is quoted saying, “after watching those videos, they told me that Muslims are suffering, Muslims need help. They are suffering. How can you identify yourself as a Muslim? Why are you not helping them?”

It was reported by the Henry Jackson Society that a significant portion of ISIL fighters, as well as many Islamic terrorists who committed terrorist attacks abroad, originally hailed from Central Asia or the Caucus region. Nearly four thousand fighters came from Russia and another five thousand came from Central Asia. Different studies blame these numbers on everything from a supposed “culture of violence” to discrimination the fighters experienced within their home countries.

These ideas hold some truth, but the exact reason each individual decided to go to Syria had more to do with their own personal experiences. The fighters joining ISIL’s caliphate originated from across the world, spoke many different languages, and came from every socio-economic background.

Now that the height of the conflict has passed, there are many women and children who wish to return to their home countries. As detailed by The Foreign Policy Research Institute, the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, agreed to allow many female Russian nationals and the children they had conceived while married to ISIL fighters, to return to the Caucus region.

One such woman was interviewed by The Guardian. She claims that she chose to return, knowing she would eventually face jail time, because she preferred jail to death of her children. The article also details some of her past, including a previous marriage before she moved to Syria. Her first husband was a Dagestani separatist, the Russian state she first returned to before moving to Chechnya because of constant surveillance from the Dagestani police.

This experience illustrates the risks of dormant conflicts and how individuals can travel amongst them. This idea arises within the concept of the “culture of violence” that many ISIL fighters originated from. Many held a criminal record before becoming extremists. They moved from small-scale local violence, or in this woman’s case, insurgency, to a global conflict.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the current leader of Chechnya and former political separatist, was appointed likely as an attempt at bridging the gap between Chechens and Russians in the aftermath of the Chechen Wars.

Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power during the unpopular first Chechen War, which many Russians view negatively. This conflict is largely seen as a final nail in the coffin for the tumultuous political career of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

During these wars, Russia fell victim to many acts of terror by Islamic radicals. Apartment complexes were bombed, theaters-goers held as hostages, and children murdered on their first day of school. This era was a dark period for Russia and current anti-Muslim sentiments in the country still draw back to this time.

The trouble is that these anti-Muslim sentiments contributed to the culture of discrimination and violence that pushed many militants to Syria. The Institute for National Security Studies illustrates how nations such as the United States do not give Central Asian countries training on how to combat extremism because when they do, this information is used instead to suppress protests and punish journalists.

The situation is a true catch-22 where the west would like to inhibit the process of radicalization, but would have to support the illiberal actions of these states in order to do so. In other words, a chief cause of extremism in the region is growing more severe, and there are few formal security measures in place to prevent the populace from radicalizing.

Islamic terrorism will continue to threaten Russia for the foreseeable future. Russia has many Muslim majority regions and borders even more. Historical wars fought against Russia coupled with recent economic stagnation places local populations at risk for radicalization.

Islamic extremism is often directed at great powers such as Russia, the United States, and China because their far-reaching cultures are perceived as suppressive. Russia is particularly at risk because it occupies a region where western pressure collides with influence from the Middle East.

Russia has the difficult tasks of attempting to retain sovereignty over people who do not view themselves as Russians, and reckoning with the cultural angst that has arisen from the economic failures and territorial disputes that resulted from the dissolution of the USSR.

Ethnic tensions within the region date as far back as the Russian Empire in which many ethnically distinct people were forced to adopt both the Russian language and Russia’s cultural customs. Ethnic tensions rose during the Soviet Era primarily due to food shortages such as the Holodomor famine, and the perception that the Soviet Union took care of the Russian SSR and ethnic Russians before all other Soviets.

The breakup of the Soviet Union and the confusion that resulted for ethnic Russians living within other Soviet states, regions that wanted independence but failed to attain it such as Chechnya and Dagestan, and regions that found themselves belonging to one country while they identified as another such as the Tajiks within Uzbekistan, have further complicated this landscape of tension and conflict.

The trauma and disappointment of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s rough transition into both capitalism and democracy has created a Russian state bent on protecting its own interests before all others. Fareed Zakaria described how Russia has reemerged as global player by using sharp power and regional influence to keep its seat at the table to Foreign Affairs.

The inability of many Russian citizens to separate Islam from Islamic extremism is prevalent both in private life and political life. Movement of non-citizens, especially from Caucasia, Central Asia, and the Middle East, is extremely limited and it is common place to be asked for documentation. It’s just as common for them to be stopped for an extra security check in the metro or even refused entrance into an establishment.

Russia must mitigate the risk of its dormant conflicts and the vulnerability of many people within and immediately outside its borders to radicalization for its own security. Russia must also recognize that discrimination and marginalization play a key role in an individual’s radicalization process. Ensuring proper integration and protecting the infringed rights of migrant workers in Russia has the potential to reduce extremism and terrorism throughout the country as a whole.

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