An Untapped Political Capital
No. 3 2008 July/September

Russians like to count the numbers of Muslims in the country.
Vladimir Putin cited a figure of 20 million, while others protested
saying: “No, only 17 million.” More pedantic counters reduced the
number to 13 million, and those who do not particularly like
Muslims insisted on 10 million – as if 10 million were nothing.

There is no way to explain Russia’s fate in the past and in the
future without the Islamic factor. It is organic in Russia not only
because Islam appeared on Russian territory earlier than Eastern
Orthodox Christianity, but – more importantly – because it has
become an inalienable part of society. Russia has had encounters
with Islam from the very first years of its history, both at home
and abroad.

Islam is typically associated with war – the conquest of the
Caucasian peoples or the incorporation of Turkestan. One remembers
the Tatars less frequently, although relations with them have not
always been smooth either. People also recall wars with Turkey, the
liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman yoke, and the Battle of
Shipka. Few people know however that the Tatars served in the
Tsarist Army and Navy and kept their own beliefs during their
service. They had their own clerics, ate meals cooked specially for
them without pork, and were decorated with orders having a special
design without a Christian cross. It was not accidental that Soviet
Russia’s first ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was an
ethnic Tatar.

Such historical facts are too many to recount, but the important
thing about Islam in Russia – particularly among the Tatars – is
that it has an original profile and has undergone reformation.
There is no other country and no other people in the
world that would be entirely influenced by reformed Islam

Gabdennasir Ibrahim uli Qursawi, an outstanding Tatar teacher of
Islam, said in 1804 – and the notable educator Sihabetdin Morcani
reiterated it later – that the Muslims had veered off from the
Koran and had replaced the Holy Book with medieval traditions. Much
at the same time and much the same thing was said in Saudi Arabia
by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. However, the latter’s conclusions
were made not in favor of reform. He put forth a very rigid
interpretation of monotheism that would not tolerate any
discrepancies with it even within the format of the same religion,
to say nothing of its hostility toward other religions. His theory
presupposed a toughening of ritual, an understanding of the jihad
as a war on the unfaithful, etc. Wahhabism today has become
synonymous with militant intolerance.

The Tatars chose a different path as they declared free thinking
and openness of culture to be central categories. They made jihad
synonymous with zealousness and fighting the disbelief within
oneself and interpreted education as a mandatory attribute of a
genuine Muslim. They declared the equality of men and women and
took a tolerant stance toward the secular state and other
religions. Wahhabism and Jadidism represent two
radically opposite trends within Islam.

Of course, some Tatars continue to espouse the so-called
‘traditional Islam,’ but it does not determine the vector of the
Tatar people’s historical development. What really matters is that
Russian Islam is a treasure, especially regarding
foreign policy
. It is in high demand in European
countries and elsewhere.

The Eastern policy was an important component of international
affairs in Soviet Russia. Along with supplies of weapons and
attempts to trigger revolutions in Muslim countries, Moscow wielded
ideological and spiritual influence there – something that has been
drowned in oblivion now.

In the 1920s, Mir Sayit Sultan Galiev, a Tatar Bolshevik,
developed the ideas of ‘Islamic socialism,’ which were very popular
in a number of Arab countries, above all in Algeria. French scholar
Alexandre Bennigsen called Sultan Galiev an “ideologist of the
Third World.” Stalin feared his authority. In the 1920s, state
power in the Tatar Republic went over to Sultan Galiev’s followers.
All of Central Asia and Turkey remained under the spell of his
ideas. Stalin did everything in his power to expel him from the
Bolshevik Party; he was imprisoned in 1923 and later executed.
Shortly before his death, he foretold the disintegration of the
Soviet Union.

The degree to which the ‘Islamic socialism’ theory was
successful may be debated. It looks archaic today, yet one must
reckon with the influence of the ideas of socialism that did not
bypass a single country in the world at the beginning of the 20th
century. The Arab countries hoisted the banner of ‘Islamic
socialism’ during the anti-colonial war. They could not adopt
atheism when they fought the bourgeois system. They linked progress
to a socialism that would necessarily have an Islamic

After World War II, the Soviet Union played an exceptional role
in the Middle East, in Arab countries and in the Islamic world in
general. No serious question would be resolved unilaterally there
at the time; the entire Western world had to reckon with the Soviet
Union. The idea of global unipolarity was unthinkable; the
existence of two camps kept Western expansionism in check. At times
the contentions between socialist and capitalist countries would
drive mankind to the brink of war, but they also allowed the Third
World to look for its own path of development. Once again, the
crucial thing was not the economic support or the training of
specialists, but the wide dissemination of the ideas of

These glimpses of history show that Russia’s foreign policy
embraced a strong ideological influence – in addition to diplomacy,
military operations, export of armaments and revolutions.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s international role
subsided; it began to recover after Vladimir Putin’s arrival in the
Kremlin. However, Russia’s relations with the Islamic world today
lack clarity – as compared to relations with the West, NATO and the
UN that reveal a systemic approach. The Russian mass media includes
many publications about Islam or individual Muslim countries;
Moscow continues to sell weapons; and there is no short supply of
trips by officials to Muslim countries. Not only Iranian leaders
but representatives of organizations like Hamas, too, make visits
to Moscow. Still, there is a lingering impression that Russia has
lost many of its former positions in the Islamic world and Russia’s
Eastern policy is patchy. The West allows itself to take one-sided
decisions on many key issues.

Meanwhile, the number of Muslims across the world keeps growing
steadily and all countries, including Russia, have to reckon with

Russia made a significant move when it joined the Organization
of the Islamic Conference (OIC) with observer status, yet its
further activity in the OIC did not go beyond speeches at
congresses and separate protocol meetings. Russia has so far failed
to make the OIC an instrument of its foreign policy.

Meetings of members of the Islamic World and Russia Group of
Strategic Vision have the form of scientific conferences that have
no practical effect on politics. Trips that muftis and imams make
to different countries are simply useless, as Muslim clerics most
typically preach to one another, making spacious references to the
Koran, issue well-meant resolutions and then go back home.

Generally speaking, Russian Muslim clerics are overly pragmatic
people who care little for spirituality and are mostly busy
searching for funds to finance their organizations. The rare imams
who do write books have a poor understanding of the subject;
theology has become the realm of scientists.

The ‘dialog of civilizations’ launched under UN auspices is a
thing worthy of approval, and yet it refers to the domain of good
intentions in what concerns its contents. I have attended many
forums devoted to this dialog and my conclusion is – to put it in
plain words and add a bit of cynicism – it boils down to the appeal
“Let’s live like friends.” The problem is that representatives of
various religions just defend their positions – they simply cannot
do otherwise; and that is why all the conferences – regardless of
where they are held – follow the same highly simplified script and
lack creativity.

I would not like to comment on the efficiency of various
research centers – their research papers are remarkable. However,
policies are made elsewhere. They are bigger than precepts or
concepts, which are easy enough to write. Policies are produced in
the course of practical activity that matches a country’s strategic
interests. A policy’s efficiency hangs on a comprehensive approach.
When political constructs are combined with diplomacy, and when
military and economic pursuits are backed up by certain ideas and
the mass media, the cumulative effect emerges. This makes foreign
policy efficacious.

Today, Russia has a historic chance to regain its influence in
the Islamic world in the wake of a crisis in U.S. Eastern

It has become commonplace to write about the importance of
observing a balance of forces in relations with the U.S. However,
remember that the U.S. spends more than $400 billion on its armed
forces, armaments, and defense production, while the rest of the
world spends about $200 billion for the same purposes. So, what
kind of a balance can there be? There is no sense in engaging in a
competition in that sphere, and the lack of armaments can be
compensated for with a prudent diplomacy. International relations
are not just saber rattling.

What does this actually mean? In conditions of unipolarity the
U.S. embarked on an aggressive policy in the Islamic world. The
placement of troops in Afghanistan did not invite any serious
objections, but the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq and verbal
assaults on Iran fueled strong protests in the Islamic world. As a
result, the Americans fell into the captivity of their own foreign
policy – counting on a rapid and purely military resolution to
Middle Eastern problems has driven them into an impasse where they
do not know the way out.

Western countries – which the Islamic world quite reasonably
perceives as U.S. allies – cannot fill the vacuum in the political
arena. Russia remains the only great power capable of doing so, and
yet it seems to be in no hurry to fill in the void. Moscow’s
foreign policy toward the Islamic world – at least its visible part
– is reduced to defending Iran and to issuing declarative
statements on Iraq.

U.S. President George W. Bush will not settle the Iraqi problem
and will leave its solution to his successor. The new president
will try to end the war and withdraw U.S. troops because of
protests back home. At the same time, the Americans will launch a
gradual restoration of their influence in Arab countries. Their
interest is broader than ensuring oil supplies – it concerns the
integrity of their foreign policy. No doubt experts
have already rolled up their sleeves to draft a new concept of the
U.S.-Islamic World dialog, which naturally will not allow any room
for Russia.
The unsuccessful Iraqi campaign will not
weaken the intensity of future U.S. policies toward the Islamic
community. The Americans will learn from their own mistakes and
will try and restore trust with the aid of their allies in Arab
countries. They will use economic levers and sophisticated
diplomacy, and – when needed – the threat of force.

The propaganda of democracy has created a situation in which no
country today would object to its principles. “Democratic
pressures” are so efficacious that Russia has to offer excuses if
criticism over its observation of human rights and breaches of
democratic norms is heard. Democracy is now used to justify U.S.
meddling in the affairs of any country. Washington pegs its entire
foreign policy on a combination of the use of force with diplomacy
and ideology.

However, the Islamic world wants a counterweight.

In spite of their differences – which are sometimes significant
– Islamic countries are united in international organizations and
this means they have united interests. Hence the policy toward them
should be integral, not patchy. Islamic countries show definite
signs of disenchantment with Russia’s policy and that is why there
exists an urgent need to design a strategy of more active work with

Tatarstan is working with the Islamic world actively enough and
it has earned a definite authority with leading Islamic countries,
yet this constituent republic of Russia does not have large enough
resources to conduct a serious policy. Its activity is confined to
the sale of commodities and the setting up of joint ventures. Nor
is the list of commodities especially big: Kamaz trucks,
helicopters, and many smaller items. Muslim countries view
Tatarstan as an exotic place rather than a serious partner, since
the trucks can be sold without any diplomacy. And yet Tatarstan,
which is perceived as an Islamic republic, could be a mediator in
Russian foreign policy. It has the additional advantage of being a
place where Muslims and Christians live together peacefully, which
is something quite rare.

There exists an important element of foreign policy activity,
namely, the proliferation of a reformed Islamic ideology. Ideas in
this vein are brewing in many of the Islamic states where rapid
economic growth is taking place. Russia has a unique experience
that enjoys high demand in Europe, and one cannot rule out that a
number of Muslim countries will take an interest in it too. Turkey,
for instance, is closely studying the experience of Tatar Islam.
The Turks translate books, teach specialists in Jadidism and hold
conferences. They are interested in any new ideas, as they must
observe the principles of tolerance as a condition for gaining
membership in the European Union. Along with this, traditionalist
political forces are quite active in Turkey as well. This calls for
a form of Islam that would satisfy the Muslim population and Europe
likewise. Jadidism provides the right option: it shows a way toward
tolerance and mutual understanding among different confessions,
between the secular state and Islam.

As long as Islam increases its influence on global processes and
the numbers of Muslims in Europe grow, so do the apprehensions.
Conflicts on religious grounds have swept a range of European
countries. Many migrants come from Morocco, Algeria and Kosovo
where a rather rigid version of Islam is practiced. Their
integration into the European cultural space gives rise to a
multitude of conflicts. The mistrust toward Islam is also growing
as terrorism becomes associated with this religion – not without
the influence of the mass media. The Europeans do not trust the
statements coming from the leaders of various countries that
terrorism and Islam are not synonyms. A new Berlin Wall
is rising – this time between the West and the Islamic

In conclusion, I would like to say just one more thing.
Everything begins with education in religious institutions. Trips
to some Western countries have shown me that the problems are the
same everywhere: students are taught using textbooks from Islamic
countries and on the basis of their experience, while European
Muslims live among Christians in secular states. Thus the system of
religious education runs counter to reality.

Meanwhile, Russia’s experience shows a different situation. It
embraces not only the historical tradition, but also the reform of
Islam, new textbooks, teachers trained in the European tradition,
and financing from own sources that helps slash the influence of
undesirable foundations. The entire world is facing the latter
problem and Russia’s experience may come in handy here. This in
turn means that Islam is Russia’s big political

Will Russia be able to use this historic opportunity? It is
difficult to say, yet it is clear that the near future is unlikely
to present us with any other such chance.