With ISIS gaining more financial and political clout, Russian experts consider various options for preventing radical Islamic extremists from gaining adherents within Russia or radicalizing Russia’s Muslim population.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, tours the White Mosque Architectural Complex during his working visit to Tatarstan. Right: Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov. Photo: RIA Novosti

During his recent visit to London, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated that Russia and the U.S. “share the same goals” when it comes to tackling the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). Not surprisingly, then, Russian experts continue to discuss why Russia is interested in the downfall of ISIS, and how this radical group is accelerating the proliferation of extremism within Russia.

Thanks to a recent upsurge, Islamist extremism seems to be gaining momentum in Russia, according to Alexey Grishin, the president of Religion and Society, a Russian information and analytical center. In fact, he suggests, 80 percent of Muslims in some Russian regions are under risk of radicalization.

As ISIS expands its influence among the areas it has occupied, similar types of pan-Islamist groups are gaining strength within Russia’s borders, hoping to emulate this success. And, as seen by the attention given to the recent opening of a new grand mosque in the center of Moscow – an event attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders – it’s clear that the future of the Muslim world is very much on the minds of Russia’s top leadership.

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During a recent speech at the Moscow Carnegie Center, Grishin said that the Russian Muslim community has been under continued threat from extremist groups. According to him, one of the factors that have provoked an increase in extremism in Russia has been the growing influence of ISIS.

Grishin argues that ISIS uses Russia as a recruitment pool, with Russian Islamist radicals inspired by the existence of such extremist groups. The emergence of ISIS encourages radical elements in Russia and has a serious impact on the doctrinal underpinnings of the Russian Muslim Spiritual Board.

Jack Goldstone, professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, agrees with this view, saying that ISIS is “the strongest force in the entire world right now promoting Islamic extremism.”

He believes that the vision offered by ISIS is popular because it shows “powerful Islamic warriors fighting against the corrupt and evil Western powers.”

How the ideas of ISIS find an audience in Russia

One of the most effective methods which these Islamists use in Russia to gain support is the large network of existing extremist media, mostly on the Internet, both on Russian and foreign platforms, Grishin said. Usually, they use media to spread propaganda about their values and, then, to recruit people into their ranks.

According to the statistics given at a summit in Dushanbe by Nikolay Bordyuzha, Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), there are 57,000 websites identified in the last six years with extremist Islamist content, spreading propaganda and advocating recruitment into ISIS in Russian and other languages of the former countries of the U.S.S.R.

50,000 of these websites have been blocked or destroyed but many remain unidentified. Moreover, the blocked websites reappeared under other names and web links elsewhere, which make their detection even more difficult and chaotic.  

Grishin states that it is now possible to talk of a “giant propaganda machine” which is working against the interests of Russia. Recently, the Russian Muslim Spiritual Board has begun creating a huge number of registered media, both online and print, without any control over their content and its quality. Grishin gives an example of some members of the Russian Council of Muftis, who have run “over 100 publications.” Some of these materials might be  “extremist” in their nature and character, Grishin warns.

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The problem is not that there is a purposeful publication of such extremist materials by public figures in Russian Islam, but that these figures do not monitor what is printed and allow it to be printed under their name.

This is only part of the “grossest mistakes and miscalculations” of Russian officials, says Grishin. He sees Russian officials as having an inability to address Islamist extremism properly. In this regard, he is concerned with the ratification of the “Social Doctrine of Russian Muslims” by the Council of Russian Muftis.

He describes the endorsement of the doctrine as a “catastrophe,” because, according to him, it nurtures in Muslims radical sentiments and rigor to defend extreme interpretations of Islam, which might create a fertile ground for Islamic extremism and terrorism.   

In its attempts to delineate the boundary between Muslims and the Russian State, the doctrine of Russian Muslims promotes an extremist version of Islam, Grishin warns. Most worryingly, although it states that, “it is unacceptable to mix religion and citizenship,” it also advocates that attachment to family, property, or country “cannot be of greater meaning” to a Muslim than their adherence to Islam.

Grishin identifies further passages that confirm “unconstitutional” extremist tendencies. He states that the Doctrine forbids Muslims to kill “unless Islam is being threatened.” It also states that jihad can only be declared by the lawful leader of a country, however, in Russia, it makes an exception, stating that it can be declared by the Head Mufti. The expert argues that this gives the false impression that in Russia the “lawful leader of the country” is actually the Head Mufti.

As a result of these errors and oversights made by officials, the total count of those who are sympathetic to extremist elements and could potentially support extremist actions in the Muslim society, according to Grishin, is determined to be around 50,000-70,000 people. This part of the population is a potential recruitment pool for ISIS.

Solutions to Russia’s ISIS problem

Sergey Malkov, member of the Association of Military Political Scientists, states that, in order to solve the issue of Islamic extremism in Russia, there needs to be what he calls “a government ideology.” Grishin agrees with this statement and adds that the reason that ISIS propaganda is so successful in its recruitment is that it offers a defined set of views.

A lack of such national identity in Russia then leads to people, especially young people (who are experiencing a “deficit of fairness”) turning to an organization advocating “equality” and “brotherhood” all “wrapped in Islam.” According to him, this is why 5 percent of the recruitment pool for ISIS now consists of non-Muslims.

However, foreign experts offer other possible solutions. For example, Goldstone argues that one of the ways in which Russia can abolish extremism within the country is to “contribute to the fight against the Islamic State to impose defeats and stop its successes.”  He also adds that it is necessary to “support moderate imams and Mosques and Islamic civil organizations in Russia” so that they can themselves help with “identifying potentially violent extremists.”

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However, Grishin argues that it is Muslims who should deal with ISIS themselves. Grishin argues that in order for Russia to have moderate imams, Russia needs to put more effort into developing its Islamic universities and educational institutions to address the challenge of preparing Islamic leaders.

The problems stems from the system of Islamic education in Russia, with many students receiving their higher education in countries of the Middle East, in centers or universities that some experts see as anti-Russian in their nature. Given the fact that the returning students might easily integrate into Russia’s Muslim community and find good positions within the country’s Muslim spiritual organizations, such a system creates some risks, argues Grishin. 

To create the necessary conditions for this, he states that, officials must become more adept at dealing with Islamists in Russia. This includes implementing such measures as hiring specialists on Islam in the Administration of the President or even, as other former Soviet republic have done, to create a department that deals with religion in the country.

Hopefully, this will then be sufficient to withstand the “purposeful recruitment” of extremists into institutions, the spread of their material, and their radicalization of the Muslim population of Russia.

Alexey Malashenko, chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Religion, Society, and Security Program, agrees with this view and says that, at the very least, although “religion is separated from government, it is the job of the government to sort out the Muslim spiritual boards.”