The Foreign Service Journal, April 2007

sensibilities, the government agents gratuitously spat and swore in the sanctuaries and beat innocent bystanders who had been engaged in prayer. Many Muslims were detained and beaten further while in custody. The public reaction was exactly as might have been expected. Residents of the North Caucasus republic condemned the government for attacking Islam. In addition, a number of radical Muslim leaders, who had previously espoused peaceful methods and focused on proselytizing, went underground and began establish- ing connections with Chechen Muslim extremists. The turn to radicalism and violence took several years to bear fruit, but the results have been tragic. In October 2005, a group of between 100 and 300 fighters simultaneously attacked the Nalchik city airport, sever- al prisons and police stations, and the headquarters of the MVD, the Federal Security Service and the riot police. The fighting lasted most of a day and resulted in (depending on the source) between 40 and 140 deaths among civilians and members of the Russian security services. Both the radical Islamists who claimed responsibility for the assault and the Russian government agreed that approximately two-thirds of the assailants were locals, while the rest came from Chechnya. This attack, together with the siege by Chechen guerrillas of a school in Beslan in the neighboring republic of North Ossetia the previous year, made clear that the violent conflict in the Caucasus has grown beyond its beginnings in the struggle over Chechen independence: it is rapidly spreading throughout the region, even as the conflict has become predominantly religious in nature. The attack also signaled that, in attempting to deal with Russia’s Muslim minority, the government in Moscow faces a challenge likely to become larger and more difficult in the future. A Growing Threat Estimates of the number of Muslims living in Russia vary widely — from 6 million to 20 million, depending on whether one counts only people who consider them- selves to be observant believers in Islam, or whether one includes all members of “traditionally Muslim” eth- nic groups. By most estimates, self-identified Muslims account for at least 10 percent of the country’s total pop- ulation of about 143 million. Looking at population size, however, underestimates their demographic and political influence. Ethnic Muslims are growing in number even as Russia’s total population shrinks. They are also geographically concentrated — in large cities, the Volga region and, most significantly, the North Cau- casus, a region that in recent years has been wracked by violence. Muslims have lived within Russian borders for cen- turies, and despite persecution they continued to practice their religion under Soviet rule. Nevertheless, the end of restrictions on religious practice that came with the fall of communism in 1991 led to an Islamic revival in Russia. It began gradually, but gathered steam in the late 1990s. The total number of mosques in the country has increased from 300 in 1991 and 4,000 in 2001 to over 8,000 today. Some analysts believe that within 10 years, that number will increase to 15,000. Complicating the matter are geographic, ethnic and doctrinal divisions that prevent Russian Muslims from presenting a unified front on most issues. First, Muslims indigenous to Russia are distinct from those who migrat- ed to the country from Central Asia and Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Second, significant dif- ferences in practice and belief distinguish Muslims in the North Caucasus from those who live in the Volga region and Siberia. Third, ethnic divisions occur within these broad regional groups. Muslims from Volga and Siberia, for example, include Bashkirs, Volga Tatars and Siberian Tatars. North Caucasian Muslims are even more ethni- cally diverse, including Chechens, Ingush, Avars, Dar- gins, Kumyks, Lezgins, Circassians, Karachai and Bal- kars. Each of these groups has different traditions of Islamic practice. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, although the vast majority of Russia’s Muslims are Sunni, doctrinal dif- ferences divide the adherents of traditional Islam (includ- ing Sufism) from various types of reform and political movements. The latter range from moderate and mod- F O C U S 40 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / A P R I L 2 0 0 7 Dmitry Gorenburg, a research associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, is executive director of the American Associa- tion for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. He is the author of Minority Ethnic Mobilization in the Russian Federation (Cambridge University Press, 2003). This article is reprinted with permission from Current History ( ), Vol. 105, No. 693, October 2006. ©2007, Current History, Inc.