Russian Muslims and Foreign Policy
No. 3 2012 July/September
Rinat Mukhametov

Rinat Mukhametov is an expert at the Al-Wasatiya–Moderation Center (Russia). He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Can the Islamic Factor Become Essential?

For Russian Muslims, foreign policy is the continuation of the home policy. As part of the global 1.5-billion-strong community, they identify themselves and their interests with what is happening to their coreligionists abroad. However, in view of domestic peculiarities, it is mainly Muslim elites that are active in the international arena, whereas for the masses these problems are important largely due to religious principles, rather than calibrated political interests.


When Vladimir Putin led Russia into the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), he met stiff resistance from his close circle, including siloviki, energy tycoons and liberal economists. At the same time, he did not find much support from Muslims, either. Since then, Moscow has made several major statements about rapprochement with the Islamic world and respect for Muslims in Russia, and several landmark events have taken place, among them Russia’s entry as an observer into the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), an analog of UNESCO, established by the OIC; a visit of Hamas leaders to Moscow; the sending of a Chechen battalion to Lebanon after the 2006 war; and the Russian president’s historic visit to Saudi Arabia.

Putin became the first ever Russian leader to officially recognize at the highest level that Russia is “a Muslim country as well.” No tsar, emperor or secretary-general had done that before. Putin also said that Russian Muslims have every right to feel part of the global Ummah and that Russia had always been, and remained, a geopolitical ally of Islam.

In a televised Q&A session with the nation last winter, he again emphasized that “Islam has always been one of the foundations of Russian statehood, and, of course, the state authority in Russia will always support our traditional Islam.” This statement marked the second historical step to adapt Islam to the political and social conditions in Russia. The first step had been made 250 years before, under Catherine the Great, who proclaimed Islam to be a “tolerated religion” (the discrimination against Islam was finally abolished only in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 – only to return in Soviet times). Before Catherine, the Russian state had sought to assimilate Muslims.

While serving as head of state, Dmitry Medvedev echoed Putin’s remarks: “The Russian Federation, as an observer at the OIC, is determined to further expand the constructive dialogue with the Islamic world. I am confident that this active interaction will help create a more just system of international relations and resolve conflict situations at the global and regional levels.” During a meeting with OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu several years ago, Medvedev said: “Russia and the OIC are bound by special relations. We are not only observers at the organization, but we also want to have full-fledged relations with it in various formats and on various platforms.” Ihsanoglu replied that “the entire Islamic world welcomes Russia’s membership [as an observer – Ed.] in the OIC and favors the development of these relations.

Moreover, Medvedev was the only top-level world leader to personally meet with the Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, Khaled Mashaal – an event that raised eyebrows even in Muslim capitals. Even though the president of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has personal sympathy for Russia, Moscow has no supporters in the Palestinian Fatah organization. Of all the great powers, it is only Russia that has direct relations with Hamas. Since no real Middle East settlement is possible without Hamas, the Kremlin thought it would be politically expedient to significantly upgrade relations with the Islamic Resistance Movement. For Mashaal, his talks with the Russian president came not only as a confirmation of a special status of Hamas in the Palestinian arena but also as recognition of its special role in the Islamic world.

It is noteworthy that the Russian leadership, along with Russian Muslims, links the internal Islamic factor to the external one. Putin from the very beginning viewed regions with a predominantly Muslim population as possible centers of integration with the Islamic world, ranging from Central Asia to Arab countries and Malaysia. Apparently, he believes that this is natural for them and justified. After all, why should the whole of Russia look west? Part of it may well look east. First of all, this concerns the economy.

The president understands perfectly well that Moscow, as one of the largest cities in the world, will not want to reorient itself to the Islamic world. And this is not really needed. So, there must be other centers – Kazan, Grozny, Ufa or Makhachkala. The idea of rapprochement with the Islamic world initially had serious regional implications, which was to become an additional driving force for the development of some Russian regions.

Incidentally, the role of Muslims as agents of economic interests of their country in the Islamic world is historically justified. In his speech at a ceremonial gathering in Kazan in August 2005 to commemorate the city’s 1,000th anniversary, Putin said: “Russian rulers realized that in order to build strong and lasting relations with the Khanate of Kazan, Russia had to become a Eurasian power… Russia’s role as a bridge between two civilizations [European and Asian – Ed.] is more visible here in the Volga region than anywhere else.… Historically, Kazan has played a huge role in the development of Russia’s business life, and in the expansion of its economic and political influence. Suffice it to say that Kazan’s merchants, above all ethnic Tatars, were involved in original and progressive ways of promoting the Russian empire’s domestic capital and political influence first in Siberia and then in Central Asia and Transcaucasia.”

The problem is that Putin’s important statements and attempts to start a “strategic dialogue between Moscow and the Islamic world” have received no tangible response from the other side. Indeed, Muslims are very interested to see such initiatives advanced; however, they have never had the strength, skills or resources for that. Moscow’s participation in the OIC is still declarative, being rather a strategic groundwork for the future, which is little understood by Russian experts, officials and the public. As in the remote past, the “Eastern Party” in Russia is much weaker than the “Western Party.”

The reaction of Russian Muslims to developments in Yugoslavia in 1998-1999 was a typical illustration of the discrepancy between the mainstream of Russian foreign policy and public sentiment, on the one hand, and Russian Muslims’ attitude, on the other. The Muslim community did not conceal its resentment at the fact that Moscow fully sided with Belgrade, paying no attention to discrimination and crimes against Kosovars.

There is a lack of information about Russia in the Greater Middle East, and people of various walks of life there have much prejudice against this country. The same is true for Moscow. Foreign-policy makers in Russia, including those setting policies towards the Islamic world, lack understanding of what modern Muslim countries, the OIC and the global Islamic community are and how they can be useful for Russia.

Russian Muslims love to complain about the activity of certain political and corporate strata and groups that oppose the development of relations with the Islamic world. Indeed, there is a system of lobbyist structures linked to part of the Russian bureaucracy, which hinder this initiative. It is a fact. They do not have a common platform, and they pursue this line for different reasons. But their negative attitudes and relevant political procedures do exist.

However, the key problem is not with them but with the fact that Russian Muslims do not have such a lobbyist structure. And this factor has a negative effect on the situation. As a partner of Moscow, the Islamic world ranks third after the West and China. The same is true for the majority of Muslim countries. Fine words aside, they view Russia primarily as a counterweight to the U.S. policy – as Muslims often say in private conversations, “the stupid and ill-conceived policy of Uncle Sam.” But, of course, there are countries that would like Russia to act as a systemic opponent of America and to cover them with its nuclear umbrella.

Russia lags behind other great powers in terms of systemic work with the Islamic community. Americans, for example, have an extensive network for lobbying, influencing and harmonizing interests in the Arab-Muslim world. They have contact with large sections of society and parties to conflicts. Even with Iran, the United States not only has a bitter confrontation but also a long history of agreements: the Iran-Contra affair (some experts say that in those years Tehran received support not only from the U.S. but also from Israel), serious cooperation on Iraq, and common ground on Afghanistan.

In Russia, problems discussed in this article are dealt with by various Foreign Ministry departments, as well as by special departments in the Ministry of Defense and intelligence agencies. They handle these problems not very professionally, to put it mildly, in contrast, for example, to Russia’s relations with Europe. There is also the half-bureaucratic Strategic Vision Group, which has not met for several years now. This policy area is mainly dealt with by veteran diplomats and intelligence officers, which suggests that this segment of foreign policy is formed and filled according to a leftover principle.

Russia’s foreign policy is largely bureaucratic. Moscow maintains contacts only with ruling regimes but not with counter-elites and societies – and this is especially fatal in the Middle East. This is why Moscow supports even doomed regimes to the uttermost, as they are the only way for Russia to be present in the region (or rather, Russia itself makes them so). And even if the situation changes against Russia’s will, it takes Moscow a long time to adapt to the changes; instead of reacting, it complains all the time and looks for enemies. By the way, the Muslim Brothers, who have come to power in Egypt and some other Arab countries, are – due to a misunderstanding – still listed as terrorists in Russia, contacts with whom are banned.

There is no business organization in Russia that would be oriented towards the development of relations with the Islamic world. Efforts by Yevgeny Primakov and the Russian-Arab Business Council, in the establishment of which he played a major role, have not been very successful yet. There are some economic projects, but the bulk of interaction is still about military-technical cooperation.

Shamil Sultanov, president of the Center for Strategic Studies “Russia-the Islamic World,” has expressed his concern that “there is no actor for developing partner relations between Moscow and the Islamic world; this is the key point.” “Meanwhile, the Kremlin needs a strategic study into this issue,” Sultanov went on. “Putin repeatedly said: ‘We have a Muslim community; come on, work on it.’ There was no response to his words. Then he said: ‘Offer your ideas and suggestions.’ Again, no heed was paid.”

An international conference called “Islamic Doctrine Against Radicalism,” held on May 25-26, 2012 in Moscow, filled the strategic dialogue between Russia and Muslims at least with some content. The Islamic world, represented by its most eminent theologians, came to Russia for the first time. The scholars, invited to Moscow by the International Al-Wasatiya Center (Kuwait), the Al-Wasatiya Scientific-Educational Center (Russia) and the Foundation for Supporting Islamic Culture, Science and Education, supported Russia’s efforts to counter extremism. The internationally known Islamic scholars adopted a theological declaration condemning the use of such terms as “jihad,” “takfir” and “Caliphate” for political purposes. The Moscow Declaration is ranked together with similar Amman and Mecca Declarations. The scholars did not discuss foreign policy proper, but the Arab media still described the visit by such prominent and influential persons (in the Islamic world a theologian is more than a theologian) as a step towards Moscow, despite its position on Syria, which does not meet with understanding in the Arab-Muslim world.

Thus, despite all the difficulties and political instability in Arab countries and their attitude towards Russia, the influential theologians showed their willingness to work with this country, viewing it as a strategic partner of the changing Islamic world. Russian Muslims, who organized this dialogue, maybe for the first time acted as a bridge between Russia and Islam.

Incidentally, Al-Wasatiya is now the only Arab organization whose activity is officially approved in Russia. Beginning in the early 2000s, all Arab foundations and centers were closed because of suspected financing of Chechen separatists. Tiny but oil-rich Kuwait, which has been promoting the concept of Islamic moderation, has become Russia’s window to Arab countries in the Gulf area, with which Russia has never had close relations, and to the Muslim world in general. In 2010, Dmitry Medvedev decorated the Undersecretary of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, Adel Al-Falah, with the Order of Friendship for his special contribution to the development of Russian-Arab relations. It was the first time this order has been awarded to an Arab religious figure.

This is not to say that official Muslim organizations in Russia are absolutely passive and have no contacts with their coreligionists abroad. The Council of Muftis is doing its best to strengthen the Eurasian vector, chosen by Vladimir Putin (the initiative of the Eurasian Economic Community, the Collective Treaty Security Organization, the Customs Union, etc.). The Council’s leaders were the first Russian officials to tour Arab Spring countries in North Africa, where they met with their new leaders. But these efforts are made by a small group of the elite, whereas among ordinary people, especially indigenous Muslim groups, there opponents of Eurasian integration, which naturally increases migration pressure on Russia from Central Asia.

It may seem strange to someone, but Russian Muslims do not always support immigration to the country because the number of their coreligionists in Russia is growing quantitatively but not qualitatively. The Council of the Ingush People has recently openly demanded barring entry to Ingushetia for migrant workers. “Despite the critical unemployment situation, we see a very significant influx of migrant workers from Central Asian states to the republic,” the Council has said in a statement. “We understand that there are spheres where they are needed, but what we see in our streets, towns and villages has gone beyond the bounds of reason. However, the authorities are mobilizing all their resources to counter us and they do not assign much significance to the problem with migrants, who are indifferent to the authorities’ shortcomings.



Russian Muslim ideologues propose various foreign-policy concepts.

  •  Russia, in alliance with Iran, should lead “the world’s poor” in alter-globalist protests, proposes the chairman of the Islamic Committee of Russia, Heydar Jemal. However, the proposed way to implement this idea is very strange. Jemal says that the fall of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria would unite countries where the Arab Revolution has won, and that this united Sunni bloc would enter into war against Iran and would subsequently pose a threat to Russia’s integrity. Therefore, Moscow should make every effort to defend the Syrian president and Tehran’s positions in the Mediterranean and, building on this success, it should lead everyone who lives on less than two dollars a day to struggle against the West.
  •  Russia, in alliance with the entire Islamic community, should oppose the West in “the ongoing war of civilizations,” says analyst Shamil Sultanov. He holds that the very logic of geostrategy makes Moscow and the Islamic world, which are under threats from the West, seek each other’s friendship. Azhdar Kurtov, an expert of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies and Editor-in-Chief of Problems of National Strategy journal, shares this view. “When Russia was a great power, it could assist the Islamic world as a weighty ally in its confrontation with its geopolitical rivals, which are countries of the West, as all Muslims admit,” Kurtov says. “If Russia gains strength through right actions during Putin’s six-year presidency, this will have a beneficial effect on the positions of the Islamic world.”
  •  Russia should move closer to Muslim countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, say scholars Damir Mukhetdinov and Damir Khairetdinov. “Violence and the specter of colored revolutions are roaming near the CIS borders,” they say. Therefore, Russia and Central Asia should “develop together to meet the needs of their citizens and to keep civil peace and stability.” Mukhetdinov, who is first deputy chairman of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of European Russia, holds that the main role of Muslim leaders in integration processes should be to carry out Dmitry Medvedev’s instructions given to Muslim leaders at a July 2011 meeting in Nalchik. Medvedev said that the leaders of large communities must “address such complex issues as social adaptation of migrants.”
  •  Russia should give more attention to Arab Spring countries and Turkey, says Ruslan Kurbanov, researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies. Arabs are willing to invest heavily in Russia; they need to diversify their investments in order “not to get caught on the West’s hook, as all their accounts may be frozen and arrested by Americans one day for some trumped-up reasons,” he says. Kurbanov points out that Russia has never fought with any Arab country. “We never drove Iraq into the Stone Age with bombs; we have always supported the Palestinians and even received Hamas at the highest level. In general, Russia did much good in Arab countries in the 20th century. It still has a chance to become a privileged partner of the new Arab world. But Russia now risks having no allies left in the Middle East, in the Arab and Islamic world. These unpleasant prospects arise from Moscow’s inadequate reaction to the Arab Spring. It should not give grounds for speculations that Moscow has become an ally of Iran’s Shia imperialism and an opponent of the Sunni Awakening. The Arab Spring has a clear Sunni nature,” Kurbanov says.

According to those who share his position, attempts are now being made to form an Ankara-Cairo-Riyadh-Doha military-political bloc. This is a new promising force in the region. It would be shortsighted to be in opposition to it, to Arab peoples in general and to the Sunni world which has risen up in the name of a better life. Russia, as a world power and an arbiter, should maintain relations with all parties to the process. It should not put all its eggs in one basket and should, at least, avoid demonstrating a clear preference for those who have increasingly dim prospects.

All these concepts assign Russian Muslims the role of a link between Moscow and the Islamic world. The only problem is that Muslims themselves do little to fill the strategic partnership, so much spoken about by Putin, Medvedev and Lavrov, with political, let alone economic, content.

Special mention should be made of the fact that, strangely enough, there is not much difference between foreign-policy priorities of the two main groups of Russian Muslims – Tatars/Bashkirs and North Caucasians, although, of course, the former are mentally closer to Turkey, while the latter, to Arab countries. The divide rather goes along the lines of personal ideological and cultural preferences.



By and large, Russian Muslims do not pin much hope on any benefits that could be derived from foreign-policy activity. Perhaps, they draw conclusions from their past experience, when Moscow’s wonderful relations with Islamic countries did not at all guarantee any preferences for them.

For example, Arab and other Muslim countries were active friends with the Soviet Union, but they “failed to notice” persecutions of Muslims in this country. And today too, Muslim countries are slow to complain to the Russian authorities, for example, about bans on books about Islam, although these bans directly concern some of them, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Even Russia’s ally Iran said nothing when a district court in the Penza region banned Imam Khomeini’s Testament – in contrast to India which was outraged by a Russian court’s attempt to ban Bhagavad Gita as “extremist literature.” Sometimes, the presence of the internal Muslim factor even complicates the development of Russia’s ties with the Islamic world, causing the parties to pay attention to “annoying” problems and complaints from “the always dissatisfied minority.”

On the whole, foreign policy is a minor, if not peripheral, issue for Russian Muslims. True, Russian-language Islamic websites broadly cover information about troubles (more frequently) and achievements (less frequently) of Muslims in other countries (from Myanmar to the United States), and comments often contain anti-Israeli and anti-Western statements. At the same time, the same commentators and writers often point out the high level of religious freedom in the West and the number of mosques in “Islamophobic” London or New York, which cannot be even compared with that in “Islamophile” Moscow. But all these things are incommensurate with the reaction to Russia’s internal affairs relating to Muslims’ religious, ethnic and civil needs.

Of course, Muslims would like Moscow to move closer to Islamic states and help them. They take to heart tragic events in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and especially Palestine. Russians Muslims are even ready for sacrifice for the sake of their foreign brethren, and ready to tolerate some things and close their eyes to something in their country in the name of the common interests of Islam. After all, all Muslims are one Ummah, and it is their religious duty to sympathize with their coreligionists.

The Palestinian issue is probably the most important foreign-policy issue for Russian Muslims. They actively welcomed and supported the invitation of the PNA and Hamas leaders to Moscow. At the same time, the Kavkaz-Center website, the news portal of the “Caucasian Emirate,” not long ago wrote, in all seriousness, that “the main jihad is now taking place in Chechnya.” The Palestinian issue, very important to Muslims around the world, is not at all a top priority for North Caucasian radicals. Moreover, they even criticize Hamas for its moderation and friendship with Moscow.

But these are all opportunistic reactions. Even a cursory analysis shows that domestic politics matters much more to Russian Muslims. Meanwhile, their views of events abroad – now in Syria and earlier in Libya – and of how Moscow should react to them may be opposite. What Muslims, like all Russians, desire most of all is that Russia’s foreign policy be reasonable and adequate and that it help improve the wellbeing (both material and spiritual) of everyone.