Islam and Russian christianity in the Middle East (BRET on NEE)

The Russian Patriarch Kirill regularly justifies the Russian military presence  in Syria in the name of protecting the local Christians against an ongoing “genocide.” In a joint statement with Pope Francis, issued on February 13th, Kirill heralded a united coalition in Syria aimed at eradicating terrorism in the Middle East.

Here is the column :  Bret NEE February 2016

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Strong rhetorics vs. pragmatic course of action

Depiste all his official speeches, President Putin has actually a very matter-of-fact attitude towards the 20 million Muslims who are his fellow citizens. He is also deeply pragmatic in his relations with his Muslim allies in the Middle East. The Russia leader goes from aggressiveness to appeasement according to which way the wind blows.

Sometimes he shows his open disdain for Islam. For example, in front of the Duma, the Russia Parliament, in February 2013, he bluntly declared: “The Russian customs and traditions are not compatible with the lack of culture or the primitive ways of Sharia Law and Muslims”.

Sometimes he praises the contribution of Islam to the Russian civilization, for instance in Russia Today in 2012. Far from being a doctrinaire advocate of the “war on Islam”, the Russian president alternatively exacerbates the religious divisions and narrows the cultural gaps in order to strengthen further his domestic authority. and to draw closer his foreign allies. He thus resumes the long, close and ambivalent relations between Islam and Russia.

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Islamic Russia and Russian Muslims

On the one hand, tensions have been ongoing throughout Russian history: the national identity is based upon the rejection of the « tatar yoke, » i.e. the domination of Muslim Monghol tribes over the Moscow region (1236-1480 CE); moreover, the czar imperial ambitions where targeted at the Ottoman sultanate and at the Muslim Kingdoms of the Caucasus and Central Asia; Bolsheviks turned many mosques into rubble and Stalin deported entire populations of Muslim background; lastly, the rivalry between Russia and Islam came back to the fore in the late 1970s in Afghanistan where the already decaying USSR met soaring jihadism.

On the other hand, Russia’s population is both Christian Orthodox and Muslim. In a 2012 poll, 41% of the Russian citizens declared themselves Ortodox and 15% Muslim. Russian Islam is not the result of recent immigration as is the case in Western Europe. The Tatarstan province, the Volga bassin and the Caucasus region have been Muslim for centuries inside the Russian state. As of today, more than 7000 mosques are active in Russia.

Moreover, the alliance between Russia and Muslim shaped the Middle East: during the Cold War, the USSR sided with Egypt and Syria against the United States and its ally, Israel. Post-soviet Russia tightened his ties with Iran, set up after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

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The Putin decade: war and peace

The traditional tensions have been revived during the Chechnyan Wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2000); terrorist waves (hostage-takings in the Dubrovka theater in 2002 and in the Beslan school in 2004) refueld anti-Islamic sentiments among the general public over the last decade; ant the revival of the Orthodox Church especially among the elites lead fueled the belief that Islam is a major threat to the Russian identity. On the global scene, the clash between Russia and jihadism is sharp. In particular, Daech’ holds Vladimir Putin for one of its arch-enemies because of the support the Russian leader provides to its enemy, the Syrian regime (based on a heterodox Islamic sect).

Nonetheless, at a deeper level, Russia is building strong ties with several Islamic States, Iran of course but also Jordania and the –stans of Central Asia that are member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. However surprising, those partnerships are based on a subtle distinction coind by the former PM Prymakov between Islamic “extremism” (i.e. Wahabism and Salafism) on the one hand and Muslism “fundamentalism” on the other. Since 2005, the Russian Federation has even taken an observer seat in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Russia is a full-fledged Muslim State because the tensions with the Sunni powers (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates) are counterbalanced by the links with their regional rivals.

Tactics and geopolitics

The Europeans should not be mistaken : when Vladimir Putin rallies them to the union of the West against Islam, he overplays religious tensions in order to remedy his relative diplomatic isolation due to the Ukrainian crisis.

The so-called “war between Russia and Islam” is a tactical delusion, not a geopolitical mission.

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