Reading the words of al-Qaradawi, who is arguably one of the most influential Muslim clerics on the planet whose TV show is followed by 60 million Muslims, one might wonder how anybody could ever think of Islam as an ally of Russia. But then, reading the rest of the article which quoted him, we see that he also “called on pilgrims to pray for topple (sic) of Bashar al Assad, elimination of Syrian army, Iran, Hezbollah, China and Russia“. If we think of the logic of his own words, the list of enemies he names, and if we consider that he believes that Russia is the worst of them, does that not indicate that Russia must therefore be the main force behind of the others, behind Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and China? If so, then unless we assume that the Russians are irrational, we can probably conclude that Russia sees Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and China as allies which, of course, it does. And since Syria, Iran and Hezbollah are most definitely Muslim, this clearly shows two fundamental things: there are many different brands of “Islam” out there (Hassan Nasrallah would definitely not agree with al-Qaradawi’s point of view) and some of these brands of Islam are already objective allies of Russia. So, once again, we need to set aside the vast category of “Islam” and look a little deeper into what has been going on inside the Muslim world.
The following is a self-evident truism:
The Muslim world is not a united, coherent, entity with a common goal, ideology or ethos. While some Muslims want to entertain that fiction, and while all Islamophobes are more than happy to support and propagate such claims, they are patently false. While all Muslims share certain common beliefs, this list is extremely short. In fact, all that is required to convert to Islam is a single heartfelt recitation of the Sahhadah: “there is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God”. Everything else is left to the interpretation of the various of various sects and schools of jurisprudence. This is why all the usual generalizations about Islam are so misleading – they ignore the immense diversity of Islam, from Morocco to Indonesia, from Saudi Wahabism to Kazakh Sufism.
And yet, some generalizations can be made, even if accompanied by various disclaimers and caveats.
The first is that the richest segment of the Muslim world is definitely the one of the type of Sunni Islam found around the Persian Gulf, in particular the one represented by the Saudi type of Wahabism. This Saudi brand of Islam combines three separate elements into one explosive mix: a primitive but extremely aggressive ideology, immense disposable income and a militant dedication to proselytism and expansion.
Second, Sunni Muslims are all potential targets of Saudi/Wahabi indoctrination and recruitment efforts. This does not mean that all Sunnis will turn into al-Qaeda types, but that Saudi/Wahabi recruitment efforts have already been successful in pretty much all Sunni groups, regardless of geography or tradition. Conversely, this also means that for traditional Sunni Islam the brand of Wahabism the Saudis are spreading is a most dangerous foe.
Third, The United States have to be credited with the following: they took a local, largely irrelevant, sect and, with the complicity of the House of Saud, they literally federated all the Wahabi crazies worldwide into if not one organization, then at least one movement. While the USA initially wanted to organize the resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, they have since always commanded, if not always controlled, these movements worldwide, and they still are doing so today. From the US and Turkish “black flights” in Bosnia, to the arming of the KLA in Kosovo, to 9/11, to the uprisings in Libya and Syria, the United States have always directed the Wahabi crazies towards the enemies of the US global Empire.
Fourth, in contrast to the rest of the Islamic world, the Shia have always been a determined opponent of Wahabi Islam and the US Empire. Conversely, this also means that for the US Empire and the Wahabi crazies, the Shia are at the top of their enemy list and that they will spare no efforts into weakening, subverting or destroying any Shia movement or country. Remarkably, so far they have failed and that in itself is a testimony to the formidable intelligence, courage and resilience of the Shia people.
What does that mean for Russia?
While there are some circles which fully subscribe to the “clash of civilization” theory and who consider Islam as a threat (see in my previous installment the “Islam through the prism of the “clash of civilizations” section), there are also several influential groups who very much see Islam as a natural ally:
a) Orthodox patriots: best represented by the views of the well-known journalist Maksim Shevchenko, these are Russians nationals who as patriots, but not Russian nationalists, believe that Russia has a vocation to be an multi-ethnic country and civilization and who, as Orthodox Christians, believe that traditional Islam shares most, if not all, of the key values of Orthodox Christianity. Shevchenko, who is a long-time Orthodox activist, is also a specialist of the Caucasus region who has extensive contacts in the various Muslim communities in Russia. Unlike the “Orthodox Ecumenists”, Shevchenko has no interest at all in finding some theological common ground with Islam, for him the value of Islam is in what it stands for culturally and politically. The fundamental belief of Shevchenko and those who support his ideas is that traditional Islam is the natural ally of Orthodox Christianity and the Russian civilization in its struggle against both Western imperialism and Wahabi extremism. Needless to say, Russian Islamophobes absolutely despise Shevchenko and they regularly spread rumors about his (totally fictional) conversion to Islam.
b) The security services: Russian security services have enough analysts and experts to fully realize the potential of an Orthodox-Muslim alliance against their common enemies. It is not a coincidence that a former KGB officer like Putin put so much efforts in supporting the Kadyrov clan in Chechnia. There is an old tradition in the Russian security services to seek alliances with some Muslim movements against common enemies. From the long-standing alliance of the Soviet GRU with Ahmad Shah Massoud, to the SVR’s support for Assad, to the FSB’s support for Akhmad and Ramzan Kadyrov – the Russian security services have always sought allies in the Muslim world. They have always done that due to a mix of pragmatic considerations and real admiration for their counterparts (I can personally attest to the real and sincere admiration in which Massoud was held by commanders of the Kaskad/Vympel Spetsnaz force). Putin has personally stated many time that the traditional Muslim communities can count on the absolute support of the Russian state and that this support for traditional Russian Islam is a key strategic objective of the Russian state.
|Christian or Muslim?
c) Orthodox traditionalists: take a look at this photo, it shows some of the dresses which would be considered traditional Orthodox dresses in modern Russia. Though not exactly identical, they are very similar to what many Muslim women would wear, are they not? Now compare that with the kind of civilization model the various Pussy Riots, Gay Pride parades and other LGBT movements present. The fact is that traditional Islamic and traditional Christian Orthodox ethics are very similar, and that they stand for the same values: traditional families, moderate patriotism, social responsibility, modesty, sobriety, charity, honor and respect for traditions including for other traditions. At a time when most Russian TV stations are spewing a constant stream of immorality, materialism and outright filth, Orthodox Christians look with understanding and admiration at those Muslim families who raise their children with respect for the elders and the traditions they represent.
Recently, there have been a few high visibility scandals around the issue of whether Muslim girls should be wearing a scarf over their heads in public schools. Just like in France, some Russians felt threatened by such religious displays, in particular in the southern regions of Russia were immigration is a big problem, but interestingly the traditionalist Orthodox commentators sided with the Muslim girls saying that they are actually giving a good example to Russian Orthodox girls too. It is a fact that before the Bolshevik Revolution almost all rural Russian women wore a headscarf which is very much a traditional Russian way of dressing (those doubting this are welcome to check any Russian matrioshka doll).
d) The Russian foreign policy establishment, while not necessarily as pro-Islamic as the Russian security services, is also largely convinced of the importance of supporting countries such as Syria and, in particular, Iran, which most Russian diplomats see as a key Russian ally in the Middle-East. There also is, however, a strong pro-Western minority in the Russian foreign service which does believe that Iran has to submit to the orders of the UNSC even in cases where the UNSC takes decisions which are highly unfavorible to Russia. This is also the group which prevailed at the time when Russia betrayed Gaddafi and did not veto a resolution which was clearly designed to allow a US/NATO agression on Libya (Russia also betrayed Iran on several occasions at the UNSC). Still, the prevailing thought, in particular since Putin’s return to power, is that Iran is an important ally that Russia must support.
The Russian state, as a whole, is not a unitary actor. In fact, there is a lot of very intense infighting taking place right now, and there is strong evidence that at least two clans, one associated with Medvedev and one associated with Putin, are now in the midst of a covert war against each other. This topic, and what that means for Islam, will be the subject of the next installment of this series.