Ji­hadis un­der the bed mul­ti­ply in au­thor­i­tar­ian’s fed­er­a­tion of fragility

Rus­sia’s Is­lamic Threat By Gor­don M. Hahn Yale Univer­sity Press, 349pp, $ 70

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Francesca Bed­die

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

Rus­sian

eth­nic

di­vides

and

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.

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