Saturday, February 9, 2008

Window on Eurasia: ‘Islam of the Basements’ Comes to Russia, Leaving Security Services at a Loss

Paul Goble

Baku, February 9 – “Islam of the garages and basements,” a term French President Nicolas Sarkozy coined to describe radicalized, violent but largely undirected Muslim young people, has now appeared in the Russian Federation, according to a leading Moscow specialist on inter-ethnic violence.
But because Russia’s law enforcement agencies have no experience with this phenomenon, Irina Borogan says, they are falling back on what they do know and treating the acts of such individuals as if they were part and parcel of “a powerful Islamist militarized organization” (
In doing so -- and this is something that the Kremlin itself has encouraged, the analyst says -- police and prosecutors not only have discredited themselves and exacerbated inter-religious tensions but also have overstated one kind of Islamist threat while distracting attention from another that ultimately may prove more dangerous.
In an article entitled “Jamaat in Two Moves” published in Novaya gazeta on Thursday, Borogan traces how this happened in one case now being reviewed in Tatarstan and discusses why the “Islam of the garages and basements” that Europeans have been dealing with for some time is likely to spread in the Russian Federation.
Several years ago, a young Tatar named Khafiz Razzakov killed several couples in a park because their amorous behavior offended his sense of Islamic morality. He confessed to most of these crimes, and that might have been the end of it except for official interest in his religious motivation.
Because Razzakov had invoked Islam as an explanation and because in the late 1990s he had gone to Chechnya to fight against Russian forces, government investigators assumed his actions had to be more than those of a simple criminal and focused first on other Tatars who had fought in the Caucasus and then on their contacts in Tatarstan.
This group, which prosecutors and the media dubbed “the Tatarstan jamaat,” is “not at all like the jamaats of the North Caucasus,” Borogan notes. In Islam, “jamaat” simply means “community.” But Russian officials and the media typically say that it means a radical underground group prepared to use violence.
But in this case, such an extrapolation is clearly wrong, Borogan writes. There is no indication that the jamaat in the Middle Volga was in “open conflict with the official Muslim community” there, and “none [of its members] studied Islam in Arab countries,” the source of many radical ideas in Muslim groups in the North Caucasus.
Nor did the Tatarstan jamaat “have any support from abroad,” she says. It was not financed by foreign charitable foundations whose activities Russian officials have worked so hard to block. And it is “even doubtful” that any of its approximately 50 members maintain “any kind of ties with the Caucasus underground.”
Its “members” included people of various ages living in various cities and villages of Tatarstan, many of whom do not appear to have known one another until they were charged and some of whom appear to have been more interested in the group’s sports activities, something prosecutors presented as especially sinister, than in anything else.
That some of the members of this group had radical ideas, owned weapons or engaged in criminal activities is beyond question, Borogan points out. But instead of focusing on specific statements and crime, prosecutors felt they had to uncover a radical Islamist conspiracy in Tatarstan on the North Caucasus model.
To get the evidence for their theory of a jamaat-type conspiracy, local human rights groups and the relatives and lawyers for the accused say, the police used torture to get the members of this “group” to provide the “evidence” the authorities needed to make such charges.
“Potentially” groups of young Muslims like this are extremely dangerous: “they are autonomous, can arise in any region of the country, act without financing from outside,” and have some access to weaponry and explosives, Borogan argues, it is “far from being true that all of them [are or] will become terrorists.”
And the appearance and rise of such alienated young Muslims, as the experience of European countries with “Islam of the basements and garages” has shown, may constitute a serious threat to the Russian Federation. But the Moscow analyst argues, “our special services do not know what to do” about them.
Instead of focusing on this new-to-Russia danger, police and prosecutors there find it easier to imagine that what they are facing now in the Middle Volga is what they have confronted in the North Caucasus, an underground Islamist militant formation” and then make everything fit into that model.
Because of the unwillingness of officials to recognize that they are dealing with something new in the Russian Federation, they are sending to jail “people who are ‘guilty’ only of having been members of a certain structure and who did not commit a single terrorist act,” Borogan continues.
Such actions will not make “other spontaneous communities of religiously illiterate young who do not trust the official spiritual leaders less radical.” Instead, it will contribute to the rise of a new and dangerous “myth” about how the Tatarstan jamaat’s members have become “martyrs of the faith.”
And as the experience of European countries has shown, the spread of such ideas could lead to the appearance and growth of “real terrorist organizations” in the Russian Federation, she concludes, the product less of the efforts of the Muslim community there than of the mistaken actions of Russian police and prosecutors.

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