Jihadis under the bed multiply in authoritarian’s federation of fragility
Russia’s Islamic Threat By Gordon M. Hahn Yale University Press, 349pp, $ 70
GORDON M. Hahn issues a warning in this book: there is an Islamist threat in Russia fuelled by President Vladimir Putin’s ‘‘ anti- federalist counter- revolution’’.
If Russia falls apart, jihadist networks could fill the void.
Others also worry that despite Putin’s return to authoritarianism, the Russian Federation is a fragile state. Its economy, awash with oil money, has not diversified enough; the rule of law is still lacking; the population is declining.
Hahn quotes the adage ‘‘ demography is destiny’’. He says there are 15 million Muslims in the Russian Federation. On his figures, the number of ethnic Muslims rose 20 per cent from 1989 to 2002, while the ethnic Russian population dropped 3 per cent. Not all these Muslims practise Islam; Hahn suggests only about three million, though, as with other religions, worship is becoming more overt.
Geography is also important. Most Muslims live in rural areas where there is widespread poverty and unemployment.
This makes the young vulnerable to radicalisation, although the task of mobilising them is constrained by vast distance.
The book examines in meticulous detail the various Muslim communities in the south of Russia. Unlike much of the coverage of the war between Russians and Chechens, Hahn does not portray the conflict as black and white but as one of great complexity. He also points out that brutality has been the hallmark of life for the mountain people of the northern Caucasus. They have always fought among themselves, rallying only to face the outside enemy: Russia.
The Chechen fight against Russia for independence has evolved into a movement with some but not all the characteristics of other Muslim terrorist networks. Its nationalist origins are now
steeped in religiosity. It has attracted Saudi and al- Qa’ida support and has harnessed the internet, resulting in a terrorist campaign beyond Chechen territory. This culminated in the horrific attack on a school in Beslan.
Hahn sees that attack as a change in tactics, away from targeting civilians and sites in Moscow towards provoking conflict elsewhere in the Caucasus, in particular between Christian Ossetians ( for centuries the tools of Russia in the south) and Muslim Ingushetians. The stated goal is to foment revolutionary jihad and ultimately establish a caliphate on former Muslim lands within Russia.
Despite the scholarship, I remain uneasy about this book. Its belligerent language is designed to ring alarm bells. The facts do that, yet many of Hahn’s statements go further, to make assertions about what may happen, based primarily, it seems, on the author’s disapproval of Putin and agitation about the Islamic threat.
The threat is real. It comes from a few thousand determined and violent extremists who must be contained. It does not come from Russia’s Muslim population.
This is an important distinction, one too often lost in the hysteria lurking beneath much commentary on Islam today.
In Russia, it is the Tartars who may take most exception to the warning they could be the next to succumb to jihadist infection. They are the largest minority in Russia and have been astute advocates for special treatment. Their strategy has been based on staunch identification with Russia rather than with separatist movements. Most of them prefer to portray their Islam as modern and enlightened, a bridge between East and West. Hahn contends such moderation could be undermined by Putin’s centralism. That analysis relies on his view of the Tartars’ desire for self- determination, but takes too little account of their sense of being part of Russia.
At the end of his book, Hahn offers policy recommendations arising from his forensic examination. He calls, for instance, for vigilance that the Chechen- led networks of terrorists do not become a significant recruitment pool for international jihad or the spark for civil war. And he warns of the need to secure Russia’s weapons of mass destruction so that they do not fall into terrorists’ hands.
Hahn’s final recommendation is for international efforts to improve the economy of the North Caucasus.
This is sorely needed because, while the leaders of the Chechen- led network are not the uneducated poor, their recruits are all the more easily enticed because of dire living conditions. As in other incubators of terrorism, the solution must be found in addressing the causes of disaffection and not only fighting its repercussions. Francesca Beddie worked at the Australian embassy in Moscow during the early 1990s.