An Untapped Political Capital

9 august 2008

Rafael Khakimov

Resume: Russian Islam is a treasure, especially regarding foreign policy. 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.

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 (Jadidism).

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 component.

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 socialism.

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 this.

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 policy.

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 them.

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 world.

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 capital.

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.

Last updated 9 august 2008, 13:33

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