Islam, the Way We See It
No. 4 2006 October/ December
Alexei Malashenko

Research Director of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, Berlin, Germany; a member of the Research Council of the Carnegie Moscow Center and the chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program. He holds a Doctorate in History.

Russian society holds two
contradictory attitudes to Islam. On the one hand, according to
Nikolai Silayev, “the myth about the ’mysterious East,’
characteristic of Western Europe, never really materialized in
Russia: the East has always been considered endemic to

On the other hand, notions of the
“mysterious East” do exist in the Russian mindset, and it is only
necessary to consider the many Arab fairy tales, the harems, and
the India of Afanasy Nikitin, not to mention Japan and China. And
if the Tatars did not pose a mystery, the peoples of the Caucasus
and Central Asia posed it. The Muslim East has always been exotic,
even if in close proximity to Russia.

Islam has at all times been
perceived as something alien to Russia on the subconscious level:
Muslims live primarily abroad – in the arid Middle East,
Afghanistan and Central Asia.

This alienated view of Islam was
largely promoted by official Soviet propaganda that divided Islam
into “foreign,” that is, aggressive, politicized, and occasionally
used as a slogan (jihad) in the liberation movement, and “Soviet
Islam,” which was related to “backward old men” and “weak women,”
and seen as a feudal relic. Needless to say, even then, some
intelligent functionaries in the party apparatus and especially in
the State Security Committee (KGB) realized that Islam in the
Soviet Union had proved to be extremely resilient, retaining its
functions as a regulator of social relations. But to reiterate,
“Soviet Islam” was not identical to “their Islam,” while the
religious identity of Soviet Muslims was regarded as marginal,
doomed to extinction.

In the late 20th century,
following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and under the
impact of growing contradictions amongst the Muslim world, Europe
and the United States, as well as internal conflicts in Russia,
“Russian” Islam began to be increasingly identified with the Muslim
world, with all of its strengths and weaknesses. This holds true
especially for the North Caucasus – a border area that is a part of
Russia and a part of the Muslim world at the same time.

The Muslims are perceived as alien
or friendly depending on the specific political situation. The war
in Chechnya caused the North Caucasus, in the public mindset, to
move further away from Russia and closer to the Islamic world.
Tatarstan, with its thousand mosques, Islamic University and
resolve to adopt the Latin script, is also shifting closer to the
world of Islam. Boris Yeltsin’s famous slogan, “Take as much
sovereignty as you can swallow,” became a strong incentive for the
Muslims to turn away from Russia. 

The division of Islam into “alien”
and “native” remains to the present time, which is especially
characteristic of the new official ideology, although today there
is a somewhat different emphasis: the qualifier “alien” is applied
to Islamic fundamentalism (Wahhabism), as opposed to “native,” or
traditional Islam, which maintains a separation of religion from
politics and is absorbed into purely religious affairs.

The great majority of Russians
judge Islam by:

– actions of religious

– conflicts with the involvement
of Muslims;

– radical statements by Muslim
politicians and spiritual leaders;

– an influx of

Very few people have opened the
Koran, but yet practically everybody reads newspapers and watches
television where Muslims are involved in bomb attacks, wars, and
special operations in the North Caucasus, while in news reports,
Muslim spiritual leaders are saying uttering banalities.

There are several common
stereotypes associated with a Muslim: a head-shaven, bearded man
with an automatic rifle; a terrorist wearing a facemask; a crooked
businessman. It is noteworthy, however, that none of these negative
stereotypes are associated with the Tatars, who, in their majority,
especially in urban areas, are either close to or indistinguishable
from the Slavs by their lifestyle and mentality. The Russian man on
the street apparently ignores the Tatars’ Muslim identity: they are
just neighbors that everyone has long become used to. “Scratch a
Russian, find a Tatar,” as the saying goes. But no matter how hard
you may scratch an Orthodox Russian, you will never find a

The perception of the Islamic
world has been aggravated by the 9/11 tragedy, terrorist attacks in
Russia and in Europe, and the bellicose phraseology of Muslim
politicians. There have been other “incidents” as well, such as the
destruction of ancient Buddha statues by the Afghan Taliban (2001),
the murder of Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh (2005), the
prosecution of an Afghan citizen for conversion from Islam to
Christianity, and so on.


In Russia, as everywhere, public
opinion is influenced, above all, by crimes committed by Muslims,
which are played up in the media. But while criticizing the media,
politicians and other public figures for their negative image, it
should be noted that Muslims themselves provide cause for their
negative perception in the public mind.

Even without the benefit of a
magnifying glass, it is obvious that Russians have ample grounds
for complaints against immigrants from Muslim countries and
regions. Meanwhile, attempts by Muslim spiritual leaders to cast
Islam as a “world religion” are treated skeptically. First, imams
and muftis are usually not eloquent enough to convince the public
that they are right. Second, as freedom of expression is
suppressed, judgments made in the media receive little credence, as
was the case with Soviet propaganda. Third, the deeds of Islamic
radicals belie Islam’s purported peace-loving nature in the public

Furthermore, Russia has been
fighting against Muslims for almost two decades now with little
break. Thus, the enemy in the Russian mindset is associated with
the Afghan mujaheddin and the Caucasus militant. The present
generation of war veterans can rightfully call themselves the
“veterans of Muslim wars.”

Russia’s attitude to Islam and
Muslims also fits into the general context of xenophobia that in
the first half of the 1990s was considered to be a hangover of
post-totalitarian thinking; 10 years later, however, it has turned
into a core element of the public consciousness. Whereas in 1989,
some 20 percent of the population showed signs of xenophobia, by
2001 the share rose to 50 percent. According to Lev Gudkov, a
well-known philosopher and social scientist, judging by its level
of xenophobia, Russia had surpassed even Austria, the most
xenophobic country in Europe.

A poll conducted by the All-Russia
Center for the Study of Public Opinion on Social and Economic
Questions (VTsIOM) in March 2002 showed that Russian levels of
xenophobia were the highest against people from the North Caucasus
(43.3 percent), followed by Central Asia (38.7 percent), and then
the Arab countries (30.3 percent). The percentage dropped to 12.6
percent for Belarusians, Moldovans, and Ukrainians. Some 73 percent
of Interior Ministry officers were biased against non-Russian

It would seem that on the issue of
immigrants Russia is in the same league with most European
countries. For example, according to The Wall Street Journal
(December 10-12, 2004), Europeans expressed discontent with the
presence of Muslims in their countries (75 percent of Swedes, 72
percent of Dutch, 67 percent of Danes and Swiss, 65 percent of
Austrians and Belgians, 61 percent of Germans, 56 percent of Finns,
48 percent of Spaniards, 44 percent of Italians, 39 percent of
Britons, and 35 percent of Greeks). Yet it should be borne in mind
that in the not so distant past, Muslim immigrants in Russia were
Soviet citizens or are still Russian citizens; they speak Russian
and can easily adapt to Russia’s cultural environment. Muslims in
Russia are “strangers among their own,” while the older generation
of immigrants share the same mentality with the Russians. This may
bring them closer to the “host nation,” but it can also be an
additional source of irritation: “We used to be in the same boat,”
some Russians seem to be saying, “but now you are crowding us out,
living off us, and getting rich in the process.”

Whereas in the past xenophobia was
mostly dominated by anti-Semitism, now its principal target are
people from the south – 70 percent of them being Muslims. Alexei
Levinson has noted that “Caucasus-phobia” sometimes affects as much
as two-thirds of the population.

According to a recent poll
conducted by the Yuri Levada Center, Chechens evoked a negative
reaction from 52.3 percent of respondents, Azeris from 29.2
percent, whereas Jews from only 11 percent. 

Jews fought anti-Semitism mainly
by leaving the Soviet Union and Russia or, contrary to xenophobic
expectations, while preserving their ethnic/religious identity,
they integrated into Russian culture, asserting themselves as part
of Russia’s new elite. Muslims are not leaving or integrating.
Rather, they painstakingly guard their religious identity, and they
have extensive experience in resistance, including armed

So, cautious and even negative
attitudes toward Islam have a strong base. When asked the question,
“Which religion is more alien (hostile) toward Russian Christian
Orthodoxy, Islam or Catholicism,” 50.1 percent of respondents
mentioned Islam, whereas only 12.3 percent cited Catholicism
(Levada Center, 2002). It may be recalled that in a 1994 poll, only
16.5 percent of respondents said they held a negative opinion
toward Islam.

A negative view of Islam is also
cultivated through the dissemination of biased comments by Islamic
politicians and spiritual figures. These individuals talk about the
inevitable Islamization of Russia, in addition to prospects for
creating an Islamic state, which oppose marriages between Muslims
and “infidels,” and so on. 

Xenophobia toward internal enemies
is inseparable from xenophobia toward external enemies, but
“Americanophobia” is fundamentally different from Islamophobia. The
Americans are not feared – they are envied and their lifestyle is
imitated. I would describe this as a national inferiority complex
because it affects one nation, which in the not-so-distant past was
a superpower, in relation to another nation, which is still a
superpower. There is no inferiority complex in relation to the
Muslim world, although there is a certain measure of irritation
over the fact that the former little brothers in need of assistance
– Arabs, Afghans, Indonesians, and Central Asians – suddenly grew
up and started acting independently. This is incomprehensible, and
it inspires fear. Military experts and advisers who worked in the
Near East find it hard to understand how the Algerians, Egyptians,
Iraqis, Saudis, Yemenis, and others, who had great difficulty
studying the military art, were able to produce such a large number
of professional fighters (mujaheddin) that caused so much trouble
for their former Western and Soviet mentors.

To the majority of Russians,
however, relations with the Islamic world rank as a very low
priority. When asked the question, “What countries should have
priority for Russia in the long term,” only 1.8 percent of
respondents mentioned Muslim countries, with 40.2 percent giving
priority to the CIS countries, 26.2 percent to Western Europe, and
7 percent to China. 

On the other hand, Russians do not
view Muslim countries as a threat to Russia. In a poll conducted in
the late 1990s, when pollsters asked people to name states hostile
to Russia, respondents in the 17-26 age group mentioned the United
States (16.9 percent), Chechnya (13.1 percent), Japan (8.1
percent), Afghanistan (5.7 percent), Iraq (2.9 percent), Turkey
(2.6 percent), and Iran (2.1 percent); respondents in the 40-60 age
group gave the following answers: the United States (24 percent),
Chechnya (8.5 percent), Japan (10.1 percent), Afghanistan (8
percent), Iraq (1 percent), Turkey (1.6 percent), and Iran (2.1


At the end of last century and the
start of this century, media outlets substantially contributed to a
religious revival. They helped increase the ranks of believers,
shaping their religious identity and encouraging them to observe
religious rites. Although this mostly applied to Russian Christian
Orthodoxy, Islam was also given some support, but in a rather
cautious manner. Whereas the revival of Orthodoxy was
encouraged by the state, Islamic revival was

The relatively rapid formation of
Islam’s negative media image in the 1990s was due to a rise in
nationalism among the Muslims and the ethnic/political conflicts
that erupted in the late 1980s, with the conflicting sides often
invoking Islam to justify their cause. From the 1990s, Islamic
slogans started to be exploited by terrorists. These factors could
be described as objective.

The main subjective factor was
that the difficulties that had arisen in relations with the Muslims
quickly evolved into an “Islam scare.” The Islamic factor was blown
out of proportion (in the mid-1990s, the war in Chechnya was often
referred to as a “conflict of civilizations”); the fundamental
concepts of Islam (especially jihad) were distorted; and extremist
ideology was extrapolated (purposely or through ignorance) to the
entire Muslim tradition. Many Islam-related publications were
linked to wars, terror attacks, and armed conflicts.

Here are just a few typical
newspaper headlines: Islamic Wolves Kill Russian Soldiers;
Muslims Besiege the Kremlin; Chechen Whores Blow Up Moscow; The
Sword of Islamic Revolution Forged in London.

Here is an example of a “model”
text: “In the theater center on Dubrovka, not only terrorists and
commandos but also Allah and Christ came to blows. Both suffered a
devastating defeat” (Moskovskiye Novosti, No. 45,

Russian television also
contributed to Islamophobia, and more specifically to
Caucasus-phobia. Individuals with a clearly non-Russian appearance
are principal actors in such television shows as Criminal Russia,
Man and Law, and Emergency Report. A comparison of Russian-made
films with European and U.S. films shows that among those who stand
up to evil in the Western productions, there are many non-European
faces – Africans, Arabs, Chinese, and Southeast Asians, for
example. However, in Russian films, exclusively “blond fellows with
a Nordic character” fight against the enemy.

The Islamophobia component in
crime reports and thrillers is not the result of malicious intent,
but rather an attempt to assess the global situation, adapt to the
public mindset, and boost ratings. On the other hand, cultivation
of the enemy stereotype has long been part of the government’s
political agenda, even if implicitly. In the past decade, this
enemy image has become associated with the international terrorist
(i.e., the “evil Muslim”). This was followed, at the start of the
21st century, by restoration of the archetype of U.S. imperialist,
allegedly linked with the Islamic extremist.

What is even more worrying is that
there are virtually no shows on Russian television that provide an
honest and truthful account of Islam outside of politics, the
“conflict of civilizations,” and so forth. There is a pressing need
for objective information.

It is also remarkable that in the
wake of high-profile terrorist attacks in Russia, no attempt has
been made to check the rise of negative perceptions toward Islam.
After the bomb attacks in Spain and France, local authorities
repeatedly warned the public that anti-Islamism was unacceptable.
U.S. President George W. Bush, who in the wake of 9/11 had
inadvertently used the word “crusade,” deployed an extensive
damage-control effort, talking in favorable terms about Islam and
emphasizing the need to distinguish between terrorists and

Almost nothing of the kind
happened in Russia. While I do not think that Russian politicians
and media outlets should slavishly copy European and U.S.
experience, the fact that Islam remains terra incognita for Russian
television must cause some concern: this vacuum tends to be filled
with crudely apologetic or, on the contrary, provocative
Islamophobic material.


he Russian people do not only receive
their impressions by watching television and reading newspapers;
they also learn something about Islam from books. The problem is
that the noble characters in the works of Pushkin, Lermontov and
Tolstoy have been replaced in Russian pop culture by thugs and

The Russian classics did not
idealize “persons of Caucasian extraction,” but they did not turn
them into beasts justifying their deeds by references to Islam.
Those old books aroused genuine interest in Islam and in its
followers; there was no Islamophobia there. According to Yakov
Gordin, “the classics and their contemporaries did not see an
inseparable wall between two apparently irreconcilable worlds.” The
general attitude at that time was: Russia as a great empire was
“doomed” to victory, while its adversary was doomed to submit and
adapt to it. The empire can afford to be magnanimous toward its new
future subjects. This prospect looked fairly optimistic from the
19th century.

Today, by contrast, the situation
looks murky, to put it mildly. Alexei Yermolov, Pavel Tsitsianov
and Mikhail Vorontsov were the past conquerors of the Caucasus.
However, considering the tactics being employed by army and police
generals today, the word “thug” would seem somehow more
appropriate. Meanwhile, an insurmountable wall represents
the differences between the Russian and the Caucasus Muslim

Public opinion is becoming
increasingly aware of this wall. And pop literature, above all
thrillers, provides ample evidence of this awareness. There are
series of works where anti-heroes are represented by “persons of
Caucasian origin” and where their religious identity is described
with references to “jihad,” “Koran,” “infidels,” “Allah,” etc.
“Wahit will avenge us,’ he said in a hoarse voice. ’The whole of
Russia will be shaken by the hand of Allah!’” (Daniil Koretsky. Kod
vozvrashcheniya (The Code of Return), Moscow, 2006, p. 26). This is
a good example of the “clash of civilizations” made

Actually, thrillers only touch on
Islam superficially, as though to remind the reader yet again that
murderers and sadists profess this particular religion. Islam is a
de rigueur characteristic of anti-heroes. It is noteworthy that
more and more often standing behind the backs of Islamic terrorists
and extremists are Western secret services, but as of lately, also
Georgians and Ukrainians.

A case in point is Dzhakhannam, a
thriller novel by Yulia Latynina, a political journalist. Judging
from the book’s cover, which details a split crescent and a Muslim
rosary, with one of its beads shaped in the form of a bullet, it
bears all the hallmarks of Islamophobia. The novel attempts to make
a separation between the Chechen and Russian criminal underworlds,
which live according to their own distinct laws, even though they
occasionally cooperate.

In these various fictional tales,
the Islamic, Caucasian/Islamic, and Western/Islamic threats are
primitive but at the same time multifaceted. There are recurring
storylines in the Russian version, but also in U.S. and European
variety. There is an attempt to initiate a terrorist attack with
the use of nuclear weapons (e.g., Daniil Koretsky’s Kod
Vozvrashcheniya). In yet another doomsday scenario, Chechen Wahid,
a character from Alexander Prokhanov’s book Mr. Hexogen (Moscow,
2002, p. 196), also threatens to blow up nuclear power stations,
missile silos and chemical plants. Yulia Latynina is only slightly
less bloodthirsty than her contemporaries: the terrorists in her
thriller only want to blow up a storage facility with 3,500 metric
tons of hydrogen sulfide.

The threat of a nuclear apocalypse
is present not only in fiction, but is constantly discussed by
serious experts, many of whom are convinced that terrorist access
to nuclear weapons is only a matter of time. This is a Catch-22
situation: the danger of “Islamic apocalypse” is taken for granted;
it is reflected in pulp literature, which inspires the fear of
Islam. This shreds the fabric of interreligious accord, which in
turn affects the global political situation. In the end, all of
these factors can serve to justify preparations for a
no-holds-barred, “ultimate” war.

Unlike the 19th century, modern
literature generally caters to people with “a passive mind,” who
are tired and stressed out. They take everything they read for
granted. Few readers will take the time to analyze a thriller. This
is fertile soil for cultivating a Caucasian/Muslim enemy

The Islamic theme, however, is not
limited to thrillers. In the past few years it has also entered
sci-fi literature with an element of political philosophy. All
story lines here evolve against the backdrop of total Islamic
expansion that some authors see as an apocalypse, while others as
geopolitical intrigue, possibly with a favorable outcome for

A “classic” Islamophobic novel in
this category is Mechet Parizhskoi Bogomateri (Notre-Dam de Paris
Mosque) by Yelena Chudinova.

Chudinova describes the triumph of
Islam in Paris in the middle of the 21st century. In “Sharia
France,” women have to wear the hijab. One street is called Osama.
Those who have refused to convert to Islam live in five ghettoes,
while practicing Christians are forced to recite their prayers in
catacombs, and if discovered face death by stoning. When they learn
that the French Muslim authorities are going to destroy the
ghettoes, the “non-Muslim” survivors revolt and in the end blow
themselves up in the Notre-Dam de Paris Cathedral, which in the
last few hours before the destruction regains its Christian

The Muslim community ostracized
Chudinova’s novel, but the critics missed one important passage
that proves the author cannot be dismissed as a “zoological
Islamophobe.” She believes that one of the causes of what happened
in France, as well as in entire Western Europe, was that the
enlightened Muslims who settled down in the Old World were caught
unawares by their wild and fanatical religious brethren. It is this
fear of “wild Islam” that breeds Islamophobia, sustaining the
concept concerning the clash of civilizations.

In Chudinova’s novel, Russia
survived because it had just barely managed to close its borders to
“Euro-Islam.” Following this logic, Russian (Tatar) Islam also
saved Russia by its strong immunity to “wild Islam.” But for the
average reader, The Notre-Dam de Paris Mosque will only strengthen
hostility and hatred of Islam, while a more enlightened reader will
replace Paris with Moscow and tremble in horror.

Mikhail Veller, Chudinova’s
ideological soul mate, sends a disturbing message that the Muslims’
ultimate objective is to destroy the Christian world. “They
[Muslims] are stronger in spirit. They are ready to sacrifice more.
They sacrifice themselves every day, destroying all those that they
consider to be their enemies. They are ready to destroy all of us…
They are ready to destroy our culture” (Mikhail Veller, Cassandra,
St. Petersburg, 2002, p. 169).

Veller’s plan to fight terror is
impressive: “All terrorists are Arab Muslims. So if all Arab
Muslims are destroyed, there will be no terrorism. Its
technological capacity today enables the white civilization to
start and win an all-out war with no holds barred.” This passage
needs no commentary, except that the author might be reminded that
in addition to Arabs, Avars, Dargins, Kabardins, Russians, Tajiks,
Uzbeks, Uighurs, Chechens, Americans, and many other nationalities
carry out terrorist attacks.

Vladimir Mikhailov’s Variant-I
(Moscow, 1999) rolls out a whole landscape of a futuristic world.
Its storyline is phantasmagoric: Tsarevitch Alexei survives the
1917 execution of the tsarist family and ends up in Iran where he
and his offspring succumb to the charms of Islam. In 2045, some
international forces (primarily Muslim, but also Israeli) attempt
to restore the monarchy and bring it to power in the hope of making
Russia an Islamic state.

The concept of the future is
represented through the eyes of Mikhailov’s characters. Here are
some of their judgments:

a) “Russia needed money and allies
to compensate for what it had lost at the first stage after the
disintegration, and it found even more than it looked for – in the
Islamic world;”

b) “there is a pressing need for a
consensus with the Persian Gulf countries by establishing an
international monopoly on oil;”

c) “nuclear weapons may be
transferred to some of our Muslim allies;”

d) “Islam unites everything; it is
more comprehensible to the average believer than the Holy Scripture
is;” and

e) “soldiers professing Islam will
never waver.”

What impact will this book have on
the average reader? Mikhailov uses a potent word in reference to
the Islamic world – “Islamida,” apparently to emphasize the
omnipotence of this world. But this “Islamophilia” spooks the
Russian reader, eventually turning it into Islamophobia.

Yuri Nikitin builds a similar
concept into his books, Anger and The Evil Empire. According to art
critic Leonid Fishman, they present an “Islamic project” that can
be summed up as “ideological revenge.” A union with Islam is
proffered as the only way of saving Russia. Thus, Russians become
the “new shakhids” (martyrs, those who suffer for the sake of
principle) and ultimately defeat the West.

It is noteworthy that both
Mikhailov and Nikitin wrote their novels before 9/11. Presumably,
after the tragedy, the idea of Russia forming a united front with
Islam can no longer evoke an unequivocally positive response from
the reader. Nevertheless, such views remain, and, amid growing
anti-American sentiments, are still relevant.

Most of the books with an Islamic
theme that I have read have one thing in common: today, the Russian
state is unable to protect its citizens against violence. It is
corrupt and weak, while its officials collaborate with the
adversary and are part of the mafia. Needless to say, the
aforementioned books are ephemeral with plots and heroes that are
easily forgotten. But their judgments, which shape the reader’s
image of Islam and Muslims, remain in memory.  

* * *

The main cause of Islamophobia
lies in reality, in the events that are unfolding both in Russia
and in the world at large: conflicts in the North Caucasus, the
rise of nationalism in Russia’s “Muslim republics,” migration, and
international and domestic terrorism. The main sources of fear are
largely personified in the “evil Chechen” and the “evil

But the “Islamic threat” is not so
much reality as the perception of reality. Cultivated in the media,
reflected in artistic forms, and blown up by politicians and
clerics, it has become part of the Russian mass consciousness. This
refers to the Islamic, not Islamist threat, which really exists.
The difference between these two concepts did not begin to be
appreciated until recently – due to the efforts of certain
politicians, experts, and journalists. As for Muslim immigrants,
the general irritation at their presence has little to do with
religion. Against this backdrop, books like The Notre-Dam de Paris
Mosque look especially provocative.

This article has placed an
emphasis on the negative perception of Islam. Yet I would like to
draw the reader’s attention to the fact that some of the
aforementioned figures could have a different interpretation:
only 26 percent of respondents said that Islam was an
alien religion, while about one-half did not see it as an
aggressive religion.

We must face the fact, however,
that it is unlikely that the negative perception of Islam in Russia
will be reversed in the foreseeable future, especially since many
factors outside Russia influence this attitude. Everyone is
interested in stopping the rise of Islamophobia, not least the
Muslim themselves, who should also be more cautious and
circumspect, and not speak, for example, about the inevitable
“Islamization” of Russia.