Russian Muslims Flex Political Muscle

Although there hasn’t been much coverage in English-language news sources, this week a major human rights story out of Russia concerned a favorable court ruling for an ethnic Russian individual, converted to Islam, Imam Anton “Abdullah” Stepanenko, who was convicted on charges of “inciting religious strife” in Pyatigorsk (the defendant was found to have already served his term de facto, and was freed). Stepanenko’s arrest appeared to be a typical, baseless Guantanamo-style sham, and the impressive mobilization of Russia’s Muslim community in his support, both politically and in the media, demonstrated how minority communities in the Federation can exercise power when properly organized.


The Economist, in its infinite wisdom, has selected the Stepanenko case to make some broad, sweeping statements about Islam in Russia:

The imam’s travails, and ultimate release, exemplify two features of Muslim life in Russia. One is the state’s pragmatic combination of authoritarianism and flexibility towards minorities. Another is the emergence within Russia of an active but ultimately loyal Muslim community. Muslims want a fair deal and growing influence to match their rising numbers.

Hmmm… this pragmatic and flexible approach doesn’t quite seem uniform, especially considering the recent spate of “Russia for Russians” -related policy, which punishes minorities in everything from food markets to real estate, and largely seems to tolerate hate and violence toward immigrants (or simply those perceived as non-Slavic). Of course xenophobia and hate has its political benefits:

“This law is pure populism, a reaction to a xenophobic sentiment that has risen in society,” said Yuri Kogunyuk, a political researcher at Indem, a research institute based in Moscow. “Politicians are happy to harness this xenophobia for the elections.”

However, by the end of the Economist article all is made clear: if you want to flex political muscle as a minority community in Russia, just find one broad area in which to agree with the administration. For example, Anti-Americanism!

Since no political force in Russia has much hope if it stands in open opposition to Mr Putin, these Muscovite Muslims tend to flex their muscles by being (even) more critical of the West than the Russian norm. Shamil Sultanov, a Muslim legislator who is close to the new movement, praises Mr Putin for “standing up to America” and its nefarious plans. Such talk meshes easily with a strand of Russian nationalism that looks to Islam as an anti-Western ally. And the easy fit between Russian-style political Islam and ordinary Slavic pride may be one reason why the Kremlin tolerates it.

Is it not a great pity that political expedience can sometimes be confused with genuine political inclusion?