As ties with the West suffer, Russia embraces its east

Putin sees Muslim leaders as allies in forging a new multipolar world order no longer dominated by the US and Europe

Russian Muslims pray during Friday noon prayers in the central Kul Sharif mosque in Kazan, on April 15, 2011. The city, Tatarstan’s capital, has become a sort of showcase for Russian efforts to woo the Muslim world.
Dmitry Kostyukov / AFP / Getty Images

KAZAN, Russia — Rustam Batrov, the 37-year-old, baby-faced deputy mufti of Tatarstan, is warm and engaging as he describes the renaissance of his faith in the republic, one of the traditional centers of Russian Islam. More than 1,500 mosques have been built in Tatarstan since the collapse of communism, Muslim holidays are now state holidays, and the government supports Islamic studies.

But when the conversation turns to the conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine, and the sanctions that have slowed Russia’s economy, Batrov’s voice rises. “Yes, we’re suffering. But for a Russian it’s his soul that’s important,” he says, brandishing last year’s model of the iPhone. “Of course I’d like to buy an iPhone 6, and I don’t have the money. But never mind — we’re right, we’re doing something great, we’re not giving up. It’s like what we had in the Soviet Union — that we’re a world power, that we’re saving the world, we’re helping developing countries, internationalism.”

An enthusiastic embrace of Russian, much less Soviet, power may seem unlikely coming from a Muslim cleric. Historically, Muslims have been at best tolerated, and often persecuted, in Russia, where either Orthodox Christianity or socialist atheism has been the state ideology. And today, President Vladimir Putin’s political dominance and Russia’s newly assertive foreign policy have been in large part driven by Russian nationalism as Putin has tried to defend the rights of Russia-identifying people in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

But there is another, countervailing trend that also has been gaining momentum: the government’s embrace of its multinational identity, in particular its Muslim heritage. And many of the country’s Muslim leaders, in turn, have taken the opportunity to position themselves as allies of the regime by defending traditional values against the decadence of the West.

“Just like after the fall of Byzantium, [when] Moscow saw itself as the Third Rome, defending orthodoxy, under Stalin we were the defenders of the proletariat, [and] today Russia is the defender of traditional values on the world stage,” says Batrov.

This traditional values agenda has been a key ideological justification for Russia’s break with Europe and the U.S. and Moscow’s redoubled efforts to strengthen ties with Asia, in particular China. Just as Washington is attempting to execute a pivot to Asia, Russia has an equivalent strategic catchphrase, “razvorot na vostok” — “turn to the East.” And while the realpolitik in this strategy is inescapable, Putin and the Kremlin have attempted to explain it in terms of values: the traditional family and community of the East versus the individualism and libertinism of the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) surrounded by religious leaders, Russian Othodox Patriarch Kirill (4R), Chief Mufti of Russia Talgat Tadzhuddin (2L), and Chairman of the Council of Miftis, Ravil Gainutdin (2R) attend a wreath laying ceremony at the monument of Minin and Pozharsky in Red Square on Nov. 4, 2013, in Moscow, Russia. Putin has been courting Russia's religious leaders as part of an effort to embrace a new, multinational identity in opposition to the West.
Sasha Mordovets / Getty Images

“We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization,” Putin said in a 2013 speech to an international foreign policy conference. “They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”

Meanwhile, Batrov is far from the only Russian Muslim cleric to invoke the spiritual dimensions of foreign policy. The two top-ranking Muslim officials in Russia, Talgat Tadzhuddin and Ravil Gainutdin, frequently appear with Putin in public and regularly criticize NATO, Ukraine’s new government and Western values. In doing so, they have tapped into the obscure, but increasingly popular, intellectual school of Eurasianism, which posits that Russia is not European but rather has more in common with an often hazily defined East.

“Beginning with the Renaissance, Europeans have rejected faith in the Creator, because it was burdensome to them. The pursuit of wealth for personal gain eclipsed everything else, individual desires were placed above common interests, and an anthropocentric type of thinking dominated. These were called universal values, and then these values were spread across the entire world, including by colonialist methods,” Gainutdin said in a December speech to an international Islamic forum in Russia. “The West is a hegemon in the contemporary world, but it doesn’t want to take responsibility for the fruit of its hegemony.”

‘We have you Americans to thank for bringing us all together like this.’

Rustam Batrov

Deputy mufti, Tatarstan

Russian Muslims pray outside the construction site of the central mosque in Moscow on July 17, 2015, during celebrations of Eid al-Fitr marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. There are only a handful of mosques in the city to serve a Muslim population of roughly 1.5 million.
Dmitry Serebryakov / AFP / Getty Images

Many younger, lower-ranking clerics are prolific bloggers and opine on earthly geopolitics as well as more celestial concerns. In September, a new central mosque will open in Moscow, and various leaders from Muslim counties in the Middle East and elsewhere are expected to attend. The event will be “‘zero hour’ in the formation of a Eurasian trend in the Muslim world,” wrote Damir Mukhetdinov, the second-ranking mufti in the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of the Russian Federation, one of the country’s two main Muslim organizations, on his blog. “The informal Russia-Muslim world summit … can be the first brick in the foundation of a completely new system of Eurasian security.”

It’s not clear to what extent this is genuinely believed and how much is political pragmatism. “Gainutdin — first of all, he’s an opportunist,” says Rafael Khamikov, director of the Institute of History at the Tatarstan Academy of Science and a proponent of what he calls “Euro-Islam,” an alternative, Western-oriented vision of Russian Islam. “What the Kremlin tells him … ” Khakimov trails off and laughs. “If he were sitting here with us he’d say something different, and all the more so if he were speaking Tatar instead of Russian.”

In light of the limits on speech in Russia, embracing Eurasianism clearly gives Muslim leaders more room to maneuver. “All spiritual leaders express devotion to Putin’s path, and they do it in a particularly opportunistic form to flatter the Kremlin — calling Russia and Ukraine ‘a common civilization of Slavs and Turks,’” wrote Alexei Malashenko, one of Russia’s leading experts on Islam, in a recent op-ed. “One can understand the Muslim leaders — the current external and internal politics of the state don’t allow for any other, more flexible approaches.”

Indeed, there is a hint of the tactical in Batrov’s embrace of Russian traditional values. “Personally, I have nothing against gay marriage,” he says. “But people see this as Europe losing its way.” And he smiles as he adds, “We have you Americans to thank for bringing us all together like this.”

Tactical or not, as Russia becomes more estranged from Europe, the Kremlin is reciprocating its Muslim leaders’ support. The number of Muslims in Russia is difficult to determine, but Putin tends to use the figure of 20 million, which would make Muslims about 15 percent of the population. (Independent estimates suggest the number may be closer to 15 million.) They are split roughly equally between the Volga region (which includes Tatarstan) and the North Caucasus, and those two groups historically have little connection other than both being subsumed by Russian imperial expansion.

The Kul Sharif mosque in Kazan. Behind it are the domes of an orthodox church, located inside the Kazan Kremlin.
Maxim Marmur / AFP / Getty Images

Traditionally the Volga Tatars have been enthusiastic allies of the Russian empire, while the Caucasus has resisted Russian assimilation. That pattern largely persists; the leaders of the two most prominent national Muslim groups are Tatars, and Kazan, Tatarstan’s capital, has become a sort of showcase for Russian efforts to woo the Muslim world. One of Russia’s most prosperous cities, it is a magnet for domestic tourism. Russians come to photograph themselves in fanciful oriental costumes and tour the Kul Sharif mosque, destroyed in 1552 when Russia conquered the city and reconstructed in 2005 to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the city’s founding.

In June, Tatarstan hosted an economic summit of the leading Muslim international group, the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation. Also this year, the Kremlin formed a new Russia-Islamic World Strategic Vision Group, aimed at boosting ties between Russia and Muslim countries, and named the president of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, its chair.

Most controversially, the Volga Tatar religious and political authorities have served as envoys to the Crimean Tatars during Russia’s annexation of the formerly Ukrainian territory, traveling to Crimea to meet with Tatar leaders there. The Crimean Tatar leadership was among the most outspoken in its opposition to joining Russia, believing its rights would be better protected within Ukraine than in Russia. Volga Tatar leaders say they acknowledged the Crimeans’ objections, but tried to convince them that they would prosper in Russia.

“Of course there was some concern here for the Crimean Tatars,” says the Russian Islamic University’s rector, Rafik Mukhametshin, who was among the Volga Tatar envoys. “We tried to show that in Russia you can adapt … but from the beginning the Crimean Tatars were against joining Russia. How much that’s changed, I don’t know.”

In any case, the issue is not the subject of much public discussion in Tatarstan, says Azat Akhunov, a scholar at the Kazan Federal University’s Institute for International Relations, History and Oriental Studies. “To speak against the unification almost means you’re an enemy of Russia. It’s basically impossible to say that out loud,” he says. “There are people like that, but they stay quiet.”

The other center of Volga Islam is Bashkortostan, whose capital, Ufa, was the site of Russia’s first official Islamic organization, the Muslim Spiritual Assembly, established in 1788 by Empress Catherine the Great. In 2013, during a trip to Ufa to celebrate the 225th anniversary of the assembly, Putin said it had “helped Muslims become true Russian patriots” and praised “traditional Islam as an important spiritual component of Russia’s identity.”

In July, Ufa hosted joint summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS group, two emerging alliances that Putin sees as key building blocks in his attempt to create a new, multipolar world no longer dominated by the United States and Europe. Summit organizers strove to present Ufa as the embodiment of Russia’s unique place between East and West. And despite the relative unimportance of the Muslim world in Russia’s new geopolitical vision — the focus in Ufa was primarily on China and India — Russia’s self-identification with the East was represented by its Islamic heritage. The regional history museum featured an exhibit on the ancient Silk Road, while the city’s art museum hosted an exhibit, The Image of the East in Russian Art, with paintings from Russia’s Muslim regions. Summit visitors were given a book, "Bashkortostan at the Junction of Europe and Asia." Putin held a one-on-one meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at an Ufa mosque.

‘I'm surprised that the same circles who often defend single-sex marriage are now lashing out against Islamic polygamy … Russia has many different peoples with different traditions.’

Vsevolod Chaplin

Spokesman, Russian Orthodox Church

An exhibit, The Image of the East in Russian Art, at the Bashkir Art Museum in Ufa, Bashkortostan, Russia. The exhibit was organized for the summits of the BRICS group and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, for which leaders of several Asian and developing countries gathered in Ufa in July.
Josh Kucera

The North Caucasus, meanwhile, has for the most part hewn to its historic opposition to Russian rule, though today the insurgency that has wracked the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been largely pacified. And in a remarkable break with historical precedent, Chechnya — once the center of that insurgency — is now under the firm control of a president, Ramzan Kadyrov, who enforces a sort of Sharia in the republic even as he maintains warm relations with Putin. Photos of Putin and Kadyrov’s father, the former top mufti of separatist Chechnya, who later changed sides to support Russia, are ubiquitous in Grozny, the capital, which has been completely rebuilt with Kremlin aid after years of civil war. The main street is Putin Boulevard, alcohol is now banned in public, nearly all women cover their hair, and the hijab is required for girls in school.

Kadyrov, like the official Russian muftis, often expresses his support for Russia’s combative stance against Europe, and he tends to do so in blunt terms. “Unfortunately, many Russians admire Europeans, their way of life, though for the most part Europeans have neither culture nor morality,” he once said. Putin’s close relations with Kadyrov have disconcerted both liberals and nationalist conservatives in Russia, especially as the Chechen leader has been outspoken in expressing more radical positions on social issues, and Kremlin officials have sometimes echoed him.

This spring, a national controversy erupted over news that a senior local police official in Chechnya, aged 46, planned to take a 17-year-old girl as a second wife. Kadyrov endorsed the marriage, and so did Kremlin officials, despite the fact that polygamy is illegal in Russia. Vsevolod Chaplin, the official spokesman of the Russian Orthodox Church — which has very close ties to the Kremlin — said, “I'm surprised that the same circles who often defend single-sex marriage are now lashing out against Islamic polygamy … Russia has many different peoples with different traditions.” And after Al-Qaeda-linked attackers killed 12 people at the offices of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, Kadyrov criticized the magazine for its cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. “We have often forgiven even those guilty of the deaths of loved ones. But we will not allow anyone to insult the prophet, even if it will cost us our lives,” the Chechen leader wrote on Instagram.

The Kremlin’s rhetorical embraces of Islam are not always accompanied by concrete support. Gainutdin wrote a public letter to Putin last year urging his backing in a Supreme Court case involving a ban on girls wearing headscarves to school in the Republic of Mordovia; in February the court upheld the ban. For years, authorities had refused to allow the construction of more mosques in Moscow, and even after the new mosque opens in September, there will be only four buildings to serve an estimated Muslim population of 1.5 million. And Muslims remain underrepresented among the country’s political elite. In the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s most recent power ranking of the 100 leading political figures in the country, just five were of Muslim backgrounds.

Further, the Kremlin’s rapprochement with Islam extends only to forms that the regime deems traditional, which it contrasts with newer, nontraditional versions, particularly Salafism. Russia’s official Muslim leaders have been vocal in attempting to discredit Salafism and the groups that espouse it, such as the Caucasus Emirate and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. (Occasionally those two lines of rhetoric intersect; Kadyrov has repeatedly claimed that ISIL is an American plot.)

And popular Islamophobia still persists, fueled by violent attacks from radicals from the North Caucasus and large-scale labor migration from Muslim countries of Central Asia. But that, too, may be changing. Part of this is the result of the geopolitical climate, says Kazan Federal University’s Akhunov. He monitors social media and the Internet for popular attitudes about Islam, and he says there was a substantial change after news emerged that many Chechens were fighting on the side of pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine.

“From then, Russian attitudes toward Muslims completely changed. Especially people from the Caucasus — ‘They’re not bad. They’re fighting on our side, for the interests of Russia,’” Akhunov says. “The first target of abuse used to be Muslims, especially from the Caucasus and migrants from Central Asia. But that rhetoric has changed sharply. Everyone has noticed this. Now there is a new target: Ukrainians.”

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