The Syrian conflict, ISIS and Russian Muslims
By : Maria Dubovikova
More than 20 million Muslims live in Russia, representing some 15 percent of the population. Several regions of the country are predominantly Muslim, such as the Caucasus republics, whose population is over 90 percent Muslim. Islam is integral to the reality and life of Russia, and the role of Muslims in the country is growing – the government understands this well.
Most Russian Muslims are Sunni, but the sectarianism of the Middle East, enflamed mostly by Saudi-Iranian rivalry, does not exist in Russia. Moscow‘s foreign policy and its relations with the Middle East are guided exclusively by its national interests, without focusing on religious, ethnic, or other regional complexities. Its priority is stable relations with different, even opposing sides, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, or Israel and Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, or Turkey and the Kurds.
Moscow’s operation in Syria has caused concern in Russia over the possibility of aggravating and dividing its Muslim population. The reason for the concern is the portrayal by Middle Eastern and Western commentators of Russia allying with Shiite partners.
However, these commentators do not take into account that the Syrian army is not composed exclusively of Shiites – especially since they are a minority – and that rebels are not only Sunni. The conflict in Syria is not religious but geopolitical – religion is just a pretext to fuel the conflict. As such, Russia’s coalition is based on geopolitical, not religious considerations.
There is a flow of Russian Muslims, especially from the Caucasus, aspiring to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The organization has brainwashed them with promises of a better life and holy war.
It is a huge mistake to blame Russia’s stance on Syria for its Muslim citizens joining ISIS, as the inclination toward extremism in the Caucasus has a long history, and people from the Central Asian post-Soviet republics – which are not involved in the conflict – are also joining the organization.
Moscow’s operation in Syria has caused concern in Russia over the possibility of aggravating and dividing its Muslim population.
The head of Russia’s Council of Muftis, Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, supports Moscow’s operation in Syria as necessary to counter extremism and terrorism. His official statement was published and widely shared within the Russian Muslim community. His position is shared by the supreme mufti and chairman of Russia’s Central Spiritual Governance for Muslims, Talgat Tadjuddin.
The religious leaders highlight the fact that to fight ISIS bombs are not enough – enlightenment of the masses is necessary. Many Muslim volunteers are ready to fight in Syria to prove their loyalty to Russia.
Maria Dubovikova is a President of IMESClub and CEO of MEPFoundation. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations [University] of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia), now she is a PhD Candidate there. Her research fields are in Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, Euro-Arab dialogue, policy in France and the U.S. towards the Mediterranean, France-Russia bilateral relations, humanitarian cooperation and open diplomacy. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme
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