Academic journal article Connections : The Quarterly Journal

Jihad in Russian

Academic journal article Connections : The Quarterly Journal

Jihad in Russian

Article excerpt


On 28 June 2016, the main international airport of Istanbul was hit by a terrorist attack when three men carried out a suicide mission in which, after an initial assault with automatic weapons, they detonated their suicide vests. The Turkish authorities soon identified the three men as citizens of Russia (the Republic of Dagestan), Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, respectively, and they alleged that the attackers had wanted to demonstrate their support for Islamic State (IS).1 The terrorist attack in Istanbul is symbolic of a worrying development by which Islamist environments in the former Soviet Union seem to be producing still more supporters of IS and al-Qaeda (AQ), for example, who are willing to use terror as a means of furthering their cause.

The historical background

Pre-revolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union were both empires. Through a long series of military victories, Tsarist Russia in particular succeeded in subjugating a large number of minorities in the neighboring regions, thereby gradually expanding the empire. The specific feature of this expansion was the fact that colonies were directly attached to the empire and there was therefore a relatively free exchange of people between the center and the periphery.

Islam became part of the Russian empire by the conquest of Kazan (1552) and Astrakhan (1556). In the following 350 years, the country continued along a path of expansion which would eventually give it control over the current states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan as well as the Northern Caucasus, today the home of Russian republics such as Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. The common feature of these areas is the fact that they have a Sunni Muslim majority population and that Islam has played-and continues to play-a larger role in the public life here than in the other parts of the former empire.

Pre-revolutionary Russia largely left its Muslim population groups to themselves and the authorities had modest ambitions only to reform these minority cultures. This changed under Soviet rule, which attempted to create a new and better (wo)man (the "Homo Sovieticus") through a policy of aggressive atheism and "Sovietification" (in reality "Russofication"). This (wo)man was to be enlightened and therefore needed to lose religion in a total break with the prerevolutionary ways of life.

This policy had a certain effect and religious practices therefore largely disappeared from public life as the knowledge of religious affairs in society in general also declined. This was also the case in the predominantly Muslim areas. Here, a combination of unchallenged atheist information campaigns (for instance in teaching and in popular culture) and oppression (for instance the demolition of mosques, the closure of madrasas and the firing of staff members who had engaged in unwanted religious activities) brought general knowledge of Islam to a very low level. In certain areas, some knowledge was maintained through illegal underground activities, however, and in the Northern Caucasus in particular, the extensive secret Sufi networks helped preserve old knowledge and traditions.2

The second half of the 1980's witnessed a political thaw in the Soviet Union, and this development also left more room for religion. Soviet citizens eagerly turned to religion, which became an identity marker for many, and perhaps no more so than for the non-Orthodox minority groups in the country. This was also a noticeable trend in the Muslim areas in the new Russia as well as in the Muslim-dominated new states. Being knowledgeable of Islam and to be a practicing Muslim became a sign of status, if only to show that one was "non-Rus sian" in one's cultural outlook. However, after decades of atheism, it was not always straightforward to define what "we" believe in and what "our" traditions are, and the outside world also started to influence the Muslims of the former Soviet Union in ways that they had not experienced under the closedoff Soviet regime. …

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