Can Democracy Counteract Xenophobia?

27 december 2012

Comparing the Russian and U.S. Experience

Maria Suslova is a post-graduate student at the Department of Applied Political Science at the National Research University Higher School of Economics.

Emil Pain is professor at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics; General Director of the Center for Ethno-Political Studies. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: Notwithstanding Russia’s specificity, it is high time to remove religion from federal authority and include religious communities in the system of institutions that constitute civil society.

Russians frequently engage in heated discussions about whether xenophobia is at the root of many large-scale conflicts. Some analysts – whom we shall call sporadic supporters of constructivism – hurl accusations at the mass media: there would be no phobias as a source of conflict if the media refrained from emphasizing the ethnic, racial, or religious identity of the conflicting sides or if they ignored such problems altogether. Supporters, also mostly sporadic, of the neo-institutional theory, which is more in fashion at present, object to such opinions and claim that conflicts arise out of flaws in the institutional system. If Russia were genuinely democratic and ruled by law, the fundamental prerequisites for ethnic and/or religious phobias would disappear.

Doubts arise concerning the validity of both positions when measured against the U.S. experience. The United States obviously falls into the scope of countries with highly-developed liberal and democratic institutions in politics and law, while the country is unsurpassed in terms of political correctness because of media restrictions against hate speech. Yet, even in the U.S., a noticeable surge in xenophobia, specifically Islamophobia, has been recorded since the early 2000s.

This explains our choice of countries as different as the U.S. and Russia for a comparative analysis to identify the impact of fundamental political conditions, which are linked to the type of political regime, on xenophobia, including Islamophobia. We presumed that the U.S., which is ranked number one globally in terms of the level of democracy, development of civil society, legal protection of its citizens, and standards of tolerance, has fought prejudice against Islam better than Russia, a country with visible authoritarian traits and weak civil institutions (which are actually in a nascent state). But reality has proven to be far more difficult than theoretic constructs. The research showed from the very beginning that Islamophobia (various forms of prejudice against Islam as an ideology and against its followers who are viewed as a religious community) is more typical of the U.S., while Russia displays other forms of xenophobia; namely, ethnophobia (hatred, fear, or bias against ethnic communities declared to be “aliens”) and a distrust of migrants.


Racial intolerance has been the main form of xenophobia in the U.S. almost from its very establishment. Yet white racism, or prejudice against African-Americans, had been practically overcome by the beginning of the 21st century. There is ample evidence of this: opinion poll data, FBI-monitored indicators of a decline in racially-motivated crimes, including violations of political correctness, and, simultaneously, an increase in the number of African-Americans in top government positions. However, the lull on the anti-xenophobic front did not last for long. The 11 September 2001 terrorist acts triggered a new form of xenophobia targeting Muslims in the U.S.

According to national opinion polls conducted by the Pew Research Center, derogatory attitudes towards Muslims almost doubled to 29 percent in the months following the September 2001 attacks from 17 percent before they occurred. By 2007, more than one-third of Americans (35 percent) expressed a dislike of Muslims. Although there have been no terrorist acts since 2001 in the U.S., anti-Islamic sentiment has not subsided. The negative attitude towards Muslims is largely fuelled by the foreign policy crises that have occurred since 2001 in the wake of the 11 September tragedy. These include the U.S.-led military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a high likelihood of war with Iran. The results of the sociological surveys carried out by various centers (the Pew Research Center, Gallup, Cornell University) in 2008-2011 indicate the following trends among the American public: first, Islam is seen in a more derogatory light than other religions. In one poll, 45 percent of respondents said that Islam incites its followers to violence to a much larger degree than other religions do. Second, anti-Islamic sentiment embraces, in one form or another, ever-larger sections of the population. Estimates by various sociological surveys put this number at 40 percent to 53 percent of Americans.

The media play a crucial role in creating and spreading the image of the enemy. A U.S. analysis of the content of three reputable and influential newspapers in the U.S. – The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post – showed that after the 11 September attacks, these three newspaper portrayed Muslims more disparagingly than before. It appears that it is relatively easy to get around the restrictions imposed by the stringent norms of political correctness. To spoil the image, writers do not even have to use words with negative connotations; they can simply stuff the text with terms like “terrorists,” “extremists,” “radicals,” “fanatics,” or “Islamic fundamentalists.” Also, the media increasingly often use so-called mythological representations, when qualities of a person are directly or tentatively (by mentioning in other parts of the same text) tied to his or her own religion; i.e. to Islam, rather than to his or her social characteristics, place of residence, or education.

If there is demand, someone will step in and supply a product. The 11 September attacks produced a huge demand for a negative image of Muslims and the media, as a branch of business, have been working hard to satisfy this demand (or one could say exploit it). In this way the media magnify the inimical image and expand the space for spreading existing prejudices, with all the barriers to this trend easily surmountable.

The U.S. has about seven million Muslims, or about 2.5 percent of the population. Islam is the fourth-largest religion in the U.S. Still, Muslims top the charts in evoking all kinds of phobias. Russia has a much bigger Muslim community (no less than 20 million, or about 15 percent of the population). Islam is the second-largest religion in Russia in the number of followers, but Russians, due to historical factors, are either neutral or even positive towards Islam.

Religious strife is far less explicit in Russia than animosity based on ethnic grounds, which is proved by the results of long-term monitoring of xenophobia by the Levada Center. Regular surveys indicate that a majority of Russians have a selective attitude towards Islam, and this selectivity is ethnic in nature. An unfriendly attitude has been registered only with regard to the smaller, North Caucasian, group of Muslims (about six million people) since the mid-1990s; and not even towards the entire group, but only a part of it; i.e. separate peoples. As for the greater part of Russia’s indigenous Muslim population (Tatars, Bashkirs, indigenous Kazakhs of the Volga and Urals river basins, and others totaling eight million in all), Russians have predominantly held a neutral or friendly attitude towards them. In the U.S., ethnic distinctions within the framework of Islamophobia either do not show up or research has not registered such factors. U.S. respondents typically find it difficult to distinguish a Muslim Arab from a Muslim Iranian or a Turk from a Pakistani. The vagueness of the Muslim image has caused awkward situations, as negative attitudes sometimes embrace even the Hindu Sikhs for the mere reason that their traditional headgear, the dastar, resembles the Islamic turban.

In Russia, xenophobia has been highly focused at times against certain ethnic groups. Xenophobic sentiment surged during the first Chechen War. The Levada Center’s monitoring data shows that in 1994 (the beginning of the war) there was an outburst of negative sentiment against only one ethnic group, the Chechens. Antipathy towards Chechens exceeded favorable attitudes and totaled 51 percent of respondents. In the late 1990s, however, xenophobic sentiment started spreading across the region: an unfriendly attitude dominated and embraced other ethnic groups in the Caucasus. In the 2000s, the list of “disliked nationalities” included migrants from Central Asia, the region supplying the greatest number of guest workers to Russia. The focus of the Russians’ ethnic phobias against people historically linked to Islam has inevitably augmented ethnophobia with Islamophobia.

The escalation of terrorist activities all across Russia, which the media link to the so-called ‘Islamic factor,’ has heated up the process. Also, ethnic separatism has been replaced by another ideology – Islamic fundamentalism – in the North Caucasus as an ideological foundation for the consolidation of armed paramilitary groups. Alexei Malashenko, an authoritative Russian analyst, points to a dual attitude in Russian society towards Islam. On the one hand, Islam is traditionally viewed as a domestic religion; on the other hand, Islam is increasingly perceived as a foreign phenomenon. A relative majority of Russian respondents (26 percent) identify Islam as a foreign religion.

Nonetheless, Islamophobia has not yet reached the level seen in the U.S. In 2011, one of the authors of this article asked Internet users in the U.S. and Russia to fill out a questionnaire. The percentage of negative answers to the question “What is your attitude towards the Islamic religion?” was almost twice as large in the U.S. as in Russia (40 percent to 24 percent), while 22 percent of Russians and 18 percent of Americans gave “friendly” answers. The majority of Russians (52 percent) and 35 percent of Americans gave neutral answers.

Georgy Engelgardt and Alexei Krymin, two researchers of Islam, rightly say that Russians are more xenophobic towards people from another ethnic group rather than a different religion. The vocabulary of Russian xenophobes provides the best proof of that and contains a multitude of spiteful nicknames for ethnic and racial groups. In the last few years this lexicon has been augmented by insulting names for labor migrants (those who have “stampeded the place”), but does not yet include derogatory words for religions.


An ethnic basis for xenophobia is typical in post-imperial societies. Ethnophobia was a predominant trend in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, an entity that brought together numerous ethnic territories under the auspices of a single state. During the post-Soviet era, ethnic separatism surfaced in several of these states, and all of them displayed a well-developed ethnic consciousness. But religious consciousness was never overblown in Russia and it was certainly completely suppressed in the Soviet era. Unlike many Western societies, Russia did not go through a Reformation. This could be the reason why religious differences are not so important for Russia’s social and political life.

By contrast, religion has played a significant role in Anglo-Saxon society. Major political battles on the British Isles have been tightly intertwined with religious standoffs since the Reformation. Political conflicts between England and Scotland, as well as between England and Ireland, and subsequently the political struggle that accompanied the English Revolution in the 17th century, were strongly associated with the struggle between reformist Protestants (the Puritans) and the traditionalist Roman Catholics (the Papists). Historians argue that radical Puritanism, which advocated deeper reform, turned into an ideological banner for the English Revolution (1640-1649). The Puritans stood at the inception of the United States. Puritan settlements in Massachusetts gave rise to the colonization of North America by the English in 1620. Puritanism and conservatism grew into Protestant fundamentalism. The very term ‘fundamentalism’ appeared in the U.S. in 1909.

Religion continues to play an important role in the U.S. An international opinion poll conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation in 2007, which surveyed 21 countries, showed that the U.S. led in the number of believers, even compared with the Catholic countries of Europe. According to the poll, 88 percent of Americans say they believe in God. This is a much larger figure than in any other developed nation. Various estimates put the percentage of Americans who attend church at least once a week at 21 percent to 41 percent. By contrast, the percentage of regular churchgoers among ethnic Russians is between 3 percent and 7 percent.

All forty-four U.S. presidents have been Christians, and forty-three of them were Protestants. Sociological research indicates that the majority of Americans still do not support the idea of electing an atheist or a Muslim to the presidency. For U.S. voters, a politician’s religious affiliation and his/her religious views are important. In Russia, those factors do not yet have a political relevance. The first two Russian presidents were naturally supposed to be “militant atheists” – in line with their professions and membership in the Communist Party during the Soviet era – but few Russians would actually rebuke them for this. And equally few Russians would be interested in the sincerity of the presidents’ ostentatious post-Soviet religiosity. A person’s ethnic origin is a different story and is looked at more closely. Remarkably, when a Russian president’s popularity ratings decrease, all sorts of fictitious ethnic biographies are invented, which tend to portray him as a non-Russian.

The differences in the correlation between ethnic and religious phobias (Islamophobia) in Russia and the U.S. are predetermined in many ways by the specific traits of the genesis of Islamic communities in both countries. Indigenous populations account for at least three-fourths of Muslims in Russia. The majority of Muslims who are the friendliest towards ethnic Russians – the Tatars and the Bashkirs – have been living in a single state within Russia for more than five centuries. On the contrary, two-thirds of U.S. Muslims are recent immigrants who arrived from various countries. At the same time, 35 percent of Muslims were born in the U.S and most of them are African-Americans. Only a small percentage are descendents of slaves brought to the U.S. in the 17th century from the Islamic regions of Africa, while the majority consists of people who adopted Islam during an active campaign carried out by organizations like the Nation of Islam in the second half of the 20th century. As they fought racial segregation, these organizations would frequently use ideological concepts described by some authoritative analysts as “black racism.” The leftist Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which advocated armed resistance to the “social aggression of the whites” in the interests of some kind of “African-American justice,” promoted an extremely radical brand of this kind of racism. Some members of that paramilitary – and de facto terrorist – organization adopted Islam. They did so at a time when a change in religious preferences was a demonstrative act that symbolized, in addition to a protest against the state policy of segregation, a breakaway from dominant cultural norms; that is, from the culture of the White Protestant majority. Many representatives of America’s racial majority perceived the act precisely in this way. Even now, they still assess African-American Islam and the religion on the whole as a challenge and an antithesis to themselves. The attacks on 11 September magnified this image of Islam in the public consciousness.

To sum up, growing xenophobia in countries as different as Russia and the U.S. seemingly confirms the thesis that it has non-social and non-political origins. A number of ethologists describe xenophobia as a biologically predetermined phenomenon, which explains the irrationality of its proponents and the inability to reason with such people. If this is true, then xenophobia cannot be eradicated in principle and can only evolve in human society from one form into another. For instance, racism can transform into Islamophobia. However, it is not biological nature that plays the leading role in the problems of xenophobia. Its structure, or the correlation of racial, ethnic, and religious phobias, is mostly determined by the historical and cultural specificity of the development of a country, not by biological factors.

Outbursts of xenophobia do not have any immediate relationship to human nature (which practically does not change). Nor are they tied to the type of the political regime. Most frequently, they arise from the non-systemic social and political factors that dramatically change the habitual course of life. Such examples include sweeping terrorist attacks (11 September 2001) or dragged-out armed campaigns led by insurgents against government troops (the Chechen War), and various crises – economic, demographic (when the majority turns, or runs the risk of turning, into a minority), and those involving international relations.

If this is the case, then a question arises: can liberal democratic institutions or other fundamental political factors in a democratic state curb the spread of xenophobia and, specifically, Islamophobia?


For more than two centuries Russia has had a centralized system of organizing Orthodox Christian and Muslim communities, closely intertwined with the state power vertical. By analogy with the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Mohammedan Spiritual Council was set up in 1788. Also by analogy with the Synod, the Spiritual Council reported directly to the emperor for almost 150 years. The centralized governing agency of the Muslims was revived in 1923 after a brief break caused by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent Civil War. The NKVD (!), the Soviet secret police, endorsed the rules of the Central Islamic Religious Department (CIRD). The Islamic Religious Department would subsequently be reorganized, but a centralized governing agency (either in the form of CIRD or IRD) and government control over it always remained in place. The All-Union Council for Religious Affairs, reporting to the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union, was set up in December 1965 “for the purpose of consistent implementation of the Soviet state’s policies towards religions.”

Islamic Religious Departments (IRDs) exist today, too, and the state retains paternalism over them. Compared with the Soviet era, the IRDs are more dependent today on the regional authorities than on the federal government. Rapport with the ‘powers that be’ makes the departments quite powerless to protect Muslims from the arbitrariness of the very same authorities – both regional, when it comes to the corruption that defies belief even by Russian standards, and federal, which tends to practice an extremely broad interpretation of the “fight against terrorism.” Since ordinary Muslims rarely find protection with official Islam, they increasingly often turn for assistance to an alternative Islamic school of practice, Salafism. In such cases, the authorities openly take the side of the official Sufi trend in Islam and declare the Salafi jihadis to be enemies. The use of force against the adepts of Salafi Islam has actually turned into the main form of “fighting extremism” in the North Caucasus since the late 1990s. Dagestan passed a law to ban Wahhabi and other extremist activity in September 1999. The law put Salafism on par with extremism. This move sparked a full-scale civil war between the representatives of the two movements in Islam, resulting in thousands of people killed, wounded, or missing. The majority of politicians in Dagestan, including regional legislators and President Magomedsalam Magomedov, admit today that the law caused much grief. However, the law is still in effect.

Islamic Religious Departments, which are perceived as an extension of state power, have found themselves walking on thin ice in a situation where mistrust towards government is increasing. Numerous studies have shown that the rapid rise in popularity of Salafi Islam has a direct link to swelling social, economic, and political protests by the population in the North Caucasus. Moreover, militants in Dagestan have attempted to kill more imams than federal officials. Only policemen die at their hands more frequently than traditional Sufi Islam imams. Thus, it is not only Muslim believers, but also Muslim clerics relying on the unified power vertical who find themselves defenseless.

The U.S. has never had a centralized agency made up of Islamic clerics controlled by the state. The Islamic community’s organizations are integrated into civil society. Representatives of both Shiite and Sunni Islam set up local organizations of all kinds of their own free will and choose national networks that they think are good for them. These networked associations are much more independent from the state (in the organizational, legal, and economic sense) and enjoy much more influence than those in Russia.

The Islamic community occupies an important place among the five largest minorities in the U.S., and elected politicians have to reckon with the community. Also, the Muslims are well organized in terms of institutions and this makes them an influential electoral force. For instance, one of the numerous associations, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), held a media campaign in 2004 on which it spent some $50 million in a swoop action. The Council’s Executive Director Nihad Awad says his organization spends $10 million annually on various media campaigns. Larger associations of Islamic public organizations, like the Federation of Islamic Associations in the U.S. and Canada (FIAUSC), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the American Muslim Council (AMC), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and the American Muslim Alliance (AMA), possess huge financial resources.

Since 2004, a nationwide Muslim English-language channel, Bridges TV, has been broadcasting in the U.S. (Russia, which has three times as many Muslims as the U.S., does not have a federal TV channel for this group, although religious figures have long pressed for creating one.) In some U.S. states television channels frequently broadcast Muslim programs in both Spanish and English.

These are just a few features of institutional opportunities for the network of American Muslim organizations. This network, which was dissatisfied with President George W. Bush’s policies after 2001, did much to ensure Democratic victories. The data provided by the confederation of U.S. Muslim organizations showed that almost 90 percent of Muslim voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama, and this fact played a significant role in the presidential race in 2008.

American Muslim associations have stated that protection from discrimination and the opportunity to make their voices heard in public are their main objectives. In addition, they defend Muslim viewpoints in legislative and executive power agencies. One must admit they do their job well enough even amid an unprecedented spread of Islamophobia. Research published by Cornell University in 2008 said that about 44 percent of Americans believe that the civil freedoms of Muslims should be restricted. But not a single anti-Islamic demand has been translated into legislation or has even reached the stage of discussion by legislative agencies either in Washington D.C. or in individual states. This is largely because Islamic human rights organizations invoked anti-discriminatory legislation to nip attempts of this sort in the bud. They also helped to overcome the resistance of many New Yorkers to the idea of building a mosque at the site of the 11 September terrorist acts.

Networked structures of Islamic communities play a significant role in providing aid to migrants from Islamic countries who want to adapt to America’s social, economic, and cultural conditions. Centers facilitating such adaptation have been set up at dozens of universities, colleges, and municipal offices. Representatives of Muslim communities cooperate with local self-government and federal agencies.

The principle of partnership constitutes the essence of the U.S. policy towards religious and ethnic communities. This partnership stands in marked contrast to Russia’s principle of paternalism and government willingness to subjugate all of society.

The idea of partnership is embodied in the largest measure in U.S. policy to prevent terrorism. One can make judgments about the importance attached to the cooperation strategy by official documents; for example, the 9 May 2007 report by the State Department, which states that collaboration requires the establishment of trustworthy networks to help squeeze out and marginalize extremist networks. Everyday routine practices characterize the partnership policy even more boldly. For instance, each police department has a public council of representatives for ethnic and religious communities, and some of them act as pro bono advisors to police chiefs in different cities and towns.

Just imagine something like this taking place in Russia with regard to ethnic or religious minorities and police departments. Most Russians would view them as fantasies. According to conclusions drawn by the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of American Muslims are ready to cooperate with law enforcement agencies and do actively cooperate with them. Collaboration between community organizations and the government produces encouraging results. However large the spread of Islamophobia might be, there have been no terrorist acts under the slogans of fighting for Islam for more than ten years, and overseas terrorists, like those who organized the 11 September attacks, do not find solid pillars of support in the local Islamic community.

Unfortunately, the situation in Russia is markedly different. Russian citizens have organized all major terrorist acts (more than twenty in different parts of Russia). The problem of their involvement in terrorist organizations, which use the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism as a cover, is growing as the radicals’ network is spreading. The results of monitoring the mass media in Russia’s southern regions offer complete evidence of this. Even if we confine ourselves to the most recent information obtained in the process of writing this article, it will show that court hearings held in May and June 2012 in Stavropol, Astrakhan, and Volgograd exposed the activity of armed organizations made up of local residents. These people had taken part in previous terrorist attacks (cf. the Neftekumsk armed group in Stavropol territory) or were preparing them. This means that now the threat of terrorism looming over various regions in Russia comes from locals and people in the neighborhood, not terrorists passing through from the North Caucasus, who fairly recently were the only ones to be feared.


Public trust in state power is the most important prerequisite for preventing the transformation of xenophobia into violence. Even if xenophobic indicators are high, a society with deep-rooted traditions of legal culture and a predominantly law-abiding population does not resort to violence if it feels confident that the “courts will make everything right” or the “police will protect us.” This largely explains why there have not been any widespread clashes in the U.S. after 2001 that would resemble the pogroms taking place in Russia.

Let us take 2001 as the starting point and analyze the incidents that occurred only in the regions outside of the North Caucasus, focusing on the clashes between members of the ethnic majority and ethnic minorities related to Islam. Even with all these restrictions, the number of conflicts is stunningly high compared to the U.S. By 2012, at least ten conflicts of this kind, involving more than a hundred individuals each, had been registered in Russia.

In all of these instances, the main motive behind the attacks was revenge for incompetence, or complicity, on the part of law enforcement agencies. Such sentiment sparked a mass demonstration by football fans on Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square in December 2010. The unrest then spread to fifteen cities. The football fans believed (possibly mistakenly) that a group of men from the North Caucasus had been involved in the murder of Yegor Sviridov (one of the fans) and that the men were released from custody after bribing the police. These kinds of suspicions are typical in Russia where, according to numerous comparative surveys, the overall level of trust is estimated to be one of the lowest in the world.

The devastating floods in the southern Russian city of Krymsk in July 2012 exposed an almost total mistrust by local residents towards the authorities. In territories with multi-ethnic or multi-religious populations, a lack of trust in the authorities inevitably intensifies the “horizontal” mistrust towards one’s neighbors, and especially towards “foreigners.” One encounters this factor in various spheres of life almost every day in Russia.

Legislation against racial and religious discrimination is the commonly accepted barrier erected to prevent the transition of xenophobia as a condition of the public consciousness into concrete actions endangering the lives of members of ethnic minorities or impeding the implementation of their needs or interests.

International practice has worked out the main requirements for anti-discriminatory legislation. First, it must contain a very clearly formulated definition of discrimination. Apart from the notion of direct discrimination, it defines tentative discrimination, i.e. practices that put representatives of minorities of various kinds into a less favorable position. Second, legislation should specify the spheres of public life to which the ban on discrimination applies. These are employment, vocational training, primary and secondary education, access to commodities and services (including healthcare and housing), and social security. Third, law enforcement practices make up an important element of anti-discriminatory legislation. There should be a well-specified mechanism that the victims of discrimination can use to defend their rights, while encroachers on the anti-discriminatory law would bear the brunt of responsibility. Fourth, the institutionalization of equality policies is as a mandatory component for anti-discriminatory legislation. To ensure this, the functions and duties of federal agencies and local self-government have to be defined. Provisions then have to be made to establish a dedicated independent department for overseeing equality issues. The latter should have certain judicial functions, specifically the right to hold independent investigations.

The anti-discriminatory system has been fully established in the U.S. and Canada, as well as in Sweden. It is less developed in other European Union countries and is practically non-existent in Russia and other former Soviet countries.

A number of Russian federal laws are concerned with discrimination. The Labor Code contains the most detailed provisions on equality and prohibition of discrimination in the hiring process and in the work place. However, lawyers point out two dramatic shortcomings of the legislation. Firstly, these regulations concern specific fields and they are not integrated into the full-format anti-discriminatory legislation. Secondly (and most importantly), they have no practical meaning as they contain many ambiguities – made apparent both in theory and practice – regarding the circumstances, addressees, and character of the claims that can be made in case of legislative violations. There are no established procedures for exposing discrimination. Russia does not have the administrative mechanisms to counteract it, since no responsibility for resolving such issues is vested in federal or municipal agencies. As a result, discrimination has very broad interpretations in Russia.

The data provided by the Center for Ethno-Political and Regional Research shows that xenophobia generates de facto discrimination against national minorities, primarily in gaining employment, and renting and buying houses. For instance, experimental research at fifty enterprises in southern Russia showed that discrimination against national minorities might be the motive behind 40 percent of all job rejections.

In countries with a vertically arranged type of government, laws defend the government and the political system, not the common man. This factor underpins the crucial problem of post-Soviet and Russian legislation in the sphere of human rights. The legislation is declarative and imitative as regards the protection of rights. Thus the law is incapable of preventing public unrest and inter-group conflicts, and can even provoke such violence.


Let us now answer the question that serves as the title of this article. We believe that a democratic state ruled by law can counteract xenophobia (or Islamophobia) and its destructive aftermath, even though a state cannot prevent outbursts of phobias in the public consciousness the way it cannot prevent global economic crises or ecological disasters. We think it is worthwhile to change the traditional goals of anti-xenophobic policies. Such policies should be aimed at preventing the transition of xenophobic ideas and assessments to the xenophobia of actions, rather than manipulating the public consciousness in order to purge it of phobias. This means that the government and society should shift their efforts towards preventing the dangerous consequences of any changes in the public consciousness. A democratic state ruled by law, controlled by and relying on society, can put up such a barrier. The political conditions inherent in such states create opportunities for the survival, self-expression, and security of minorities, even if xenophobia as a state of public consciousness is relatively high.

Compared with the U.S., Russia has better historical and cultural prerequisites for friendly, partner-like cooperation between Islamic minorities and the majority of the population. But just as Russia’s valuable natural resources failed to make it the most affluent nation in the world, the historical and cultural prerequisites of friendship between people often fail to turn into genuine collaboration. Unfortunately, Russia leads G8 countries, not in terms of economic achievements, but in the number of terrorist acts and large-scale inter-ethnic clashes that have acquired religious overtones in recent years. 

Russia’s Islamic community differs from the U.S. Muslim community in its history, numeric strength, time spent in the resident country, and relationship with the majority of the population. Yet notwithstanding Russia’s specificity, it is high time to remove religion from federal authority and include religious communities in the system of institutions that constitute civil society. Even more apparent is the importance of transforming anti-discriminatory legislation that complies with world standards into real judicial practice. The only question is whether these changes are possible under Russia’s current political regime.

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