Friday, July 13, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Islamic Extremists in Russia Increasingly Homegrown, Muslim Leader Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 13 – The radicalization of Russia’s Muslims in the 1990s was generally the work of Islamist missionaries from abroad and of Muslims from Russia who had studied there, but now the second wave of radicalization is the result of actions by homegrown Muslims, according to a leading Muslim official in Moscow.
Shafig Pshikkhachev, who represents the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus in the Russian capital and also serves as the executive director of the International Islamic Mission, made that argument during an interview Interfax published this week (
Pahikhachev’s statement is intriguing not only because it flies in the face of Russian government claims but also because of his own past work in and continuing ties with the North Caucasus, the region in the Russian Federation generally assumed to be most affected by foreign Muslim missionaries.
But both the care with which he makes his case and even the quite obvious reasons why he chose to make it now add credence to his remarks even if many others, including Muslim leaders like Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin of the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) are certain to disagree.
Asked by Interfax if it was not the case that “propaganda conducted by missionaries from abroad” is “today the chief source for the dissemination of radicalism among young people,” Pshikhachev minced no words in saying that was certainly not true as far as his experience is concerned.
“No,” he said, “not only from abroad! Preachers from their own areas have been prepared already for a long time. Many of our young people at one time were called abroad, they went there, and they received a certain preparation. As a result, some returned, and some are involved in propaganda [to this day].”
These returnees have their own students now, he continued, and consequently and “unfortunately, our own citizens are involved” in the process of spreading radical views among Russia’s Muslims. That does not mean, however, as Pshikhachev acknowledged, that foreign centers do not control some or that these centers are not behind rebel groups.
The reasons that Russia’s Muslims are open to radicalism, the Moscow Muslim leader said, have their roots in history. First of all, the destruction of Muslim education under the Soviets meant that few Muslims there knew much about their faith and were thus willing to listen to those who told them in the 1990s what it meant.
Second, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet system, Russia’s Muslims and especially young members of that group have suffered disproportionately from unemployment and social problems. And as everyone knows, Pshikhachev said, the young take these things to heart more readily and deeply than their elders.
And third, until very recently, the post-Soviet Russian government, in the name of maintaining secularism, was not prepared to provide the kind of assistance the country’s Muslims need to create a serious Islamic educational system so that young Muslims will know the truth about their faith rather than get false versions from radical missionaries.
Now, however, the Kremlin is meeting the Muslims more than half way, Pshikhachev said, helping to build five major Islamic universities both directly and by pairing them with state institutions that can provide instruction in the secular subjects Muslims need to know as well.
Two of those institutions are in the northern Caucasus, Pshikhachev pointed out, and they will soon be graduating well-trained Muslims who will be able to win the respect of the broader Islamic community in Russia and thus undercut and ultimately isolate the radicals.
Pshikhachev was also asked about the International Islamic Mission that he directs. He noted that this body is the legal successor of the Department of International Ties of Muslim Organizations of the USSR that was set up in 1961 to develop links with Muslim communities abroad.
That body, he said, succeeded in developing ties to Muslim groups in 86 countries, but with the onset of perestroika and the collapse of the USSR, many of these ties were broken “unfortunately but perhaps also happily” because this meant that post-Soviet Muslims could launch a very different effort from a clean slate.
The new body focuses on developing ties with Muslim groups in the former Soviet republics, Pshikhachev said, and has had good success in doing so especially in the southern Caucasus. As a result of that success, he added, he was confident that “the most active stage of our cooperation is still ahead of us.”

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