Russia's Muslims Become Targets

Fear, Insecurity Rise Since Theater Siege; 'We Are the

New Jews,' Imam Says 

By Susan B. Glasser

Washington Post Foreign Service

Monday, December 23, 2002; Page A12

ZVENIGOROD, Russia -- The echo of Moscow's theater

siege reverberated loudly in the unheated, unfinished

mosque where Zvenigorod's 500 Muslims come to pray.

Two Central Asian men, sitting here wrapped in coats

against the winter chill, heard it in the hatred of

the town drunks and the scorn of the militia, which

confiscated their passports and vowed to kick them out

of the country.

It didn't matter that they had nothing to do with the

Chechen guerrillas who stormed the theater in October,

that they barely know how to stumble through their own

prayers to Allah, much less embrace the brand of

militant Islam adopted by terrorist groups waging war

on the West. They, too, were the enemy.

"When we say we are Muslim, they humiliate us," said

Rustam, a 45-year-old laborer from Tajikistan, who is

afraid to give his last name because the local police

detained him after the theater incident and demanded

that he pay 500 rubles or leave the country.

Yakub Valiullin, the imam who has struggled to build

this tiny outpost of Islam on the outskirts of the

Moscow region, nodded in sad agreement. After the

theater siege, he found himself answering questions

from the Federal Security Service (FSB) about the

Muslims in his congregation. Even now, he is guarding

these two Central Asian men, hoping to stop their

deportation. "They say, 'You Muslims kill people,' "

he said.

"They equate all Muslims with terrorists."

Such "Islamophobia," as it has become known here in

Russia, has divided and overwhelmed what by the

numbers should be the country's most influential

minority. Muslims are the largest religious group in

Russia after the Russian Orthodox and have a

centuries-long tradition here. Technically, they are

more numerous and more free than ever in their history

in Russia, and after 70 years of state-sponsored

atheism there has been a Muslim renaissance in the

last decade, with a major program of mosque-building

and thousands rediscovering the rituals of their

grandparents' generation.

But along with revival has come insecurity for

Zvenigorod's Muslims -- and many others among Russia's

estimated 20 million followers of Islam -- who say

they are experiencing a rebirth of the fear they hoped

they had left behind with the Soviet past. This fear

has flared repeatedly in the post-Soviet decade,

ebbing and flowing with Russia's war against the

predominantly Muslim breakaway republic of Chechnya,

and returning, stronger than ever, after the Sept. 11,

2001, terrorist attacks against the United States and

the Moscow theater siege.

"These events have only strengthened the hand of the

large group in Russian society who were already

hostile to Islam and considered Islam to be the

ideology of terrorism," said Robert Landa, a professor

at Moscow's Institute of Oriental Studies. 

Sometimes, the fear comes as a tangible threat, such

as the imminent expulsion faced by the two Central

Asian construction workers in retaliation for a

terrorist act they are linked to only by their

religion. Just as often, it is an abstract anxiety,

the feeling that at any moment the authorities can

close down the mosque.

"It's very hard for Muslims to live here now," said

Valiullin. "In Russia we have this problem -- we are

always looking for an enemy. It used to be the Jews,

now they have all gone to Israel. So the politicians

see the Muslims -- we are poor, we have no power.

Instead of Jews, they attack Muslims. They incite the

crowd. 'Beat the Muslims!' We are the new Jews."

Russia's Islamophobia has taken on many forms, from

violence, like the skinhead rampage in a crowded

Moscow market last year allegedly aimed at "persons of

Muslim nationality," to newspapers that run pictures

of local Muslim leaders next to photographs of Osama

bin Laden. Human rights groups have reported an

upsurge in hate crimes throughout Russia, some related

to ethnicity, others connected more directly with the

presumed Islamic heritage of the victim.

President Vladimir Putin has tried to speak

judiciously, often repeating that Islam is a peaceful

religion not synonymous with terrorism. But at times

he has used inflammatory rhetoric, suggesting that the

conflict in Chechnya is part of a broader war between

Islam and Christianity. "If you are a Christian, you

are in danger," he told a French reporter last month,

before suggesting to the reporter that he be


More than anything else, a single word -- much

invoked, much misunderstood -- has come to symbolize

what Muslim leaders say is the demonization of their

religion here.

It is "Wahhabism," which technically refers to the

austere form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. In

Russia, where a moderate brand of Sunni Islam has been

the traditional faith, the alleged importation of

Wahhabism has come to mean something akin to

"terrorism," and is the most damaging charge one can

hurl against a religious Muslim here short of accusing

him of treason.

The Chechen rebels are regularly accused of Wahhabism,

and Russian news media routinely raise the alarm, as

the news agency Interfax did the other day with a

story headlined: "Russia sees rise of Wahhabism." The

FSB often confiscates Islamic religious material --

even copies of the Koran -- as seditious "Wahhabite"

literature, according to interviews with a half-dozen

Muslim clerics who separately said they had witnessed

such incidents.

And the term has become a convenient rubric applied to

Muslims whose work offends authorities. Farid

Nugumanov, for one, found himself under investigation

by the FSB for his alleged Wahhabite sympathies.

Nugumanov, a journalist in the Orenburg region, had

published an article criticizing the decision to build

an Orthodox church next to the Muslim cemetery in his

majority-Muslim village. He not only lost the job he

had held for 16 years, but also found himself publicly

labeled "the Wahhabi."

"That's the way it goes in our region -- whoever does

not support the authorities is a Wahhabi," he said.

"Just like in Stalin's times, we are all considered

'suspicious' now just for going to the mosque."

For Russia's Muslim leaders, such incidents offer

proof of religiously motivated bias. "Why must we use

religious terminology like Wahhabism? If someone is a

terrorist, call it terrorism. But why call him a

Wahhabite? We don't call Irish terrorists Christians.

They're just terrorists," said Nafigulla Ashirov, the

chief mufti for the Asian part of Russia.

Ashirov has a fat file of his press clippings. One

shows his picture next to bin Laden's. Another, in the

prominent newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, calls him "an

accomplice of terrorism." Ashirov courted controversy

by criticizing last year's U.S.-led war to overturn

the strict Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but he

insisted he is no Wahhabi.

"This is a specific policy in Russia working here to

discredit Islam," Ashirov said. "Today there is no

uniting ideology like communism, so they have painted

a new enemy, Islam. It is not safe for Muslims to be

in Russia today."

But it is not just unbelievers wielding the term

"Wahhabite" as a weapon against religious Muslims.

A long-running feud between the two top Muslim

spiritual leaders in the country has contributed as

much as anything to the public concern about

Wahhabism. Talgat Tadzhuddin is a veteran of the

Soviet-era religious bureaucracy, presiding over the

Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims from his

headquarters in the Muslim region of Bashkortostan.

Ravil Gainutdin leads the rival, Moscow-based Council

of Muftis, a post-Soviet group now claiming the

adherence of a majority of Muslim congregations.

Each uses the charge of "Wahhabism" to undermine the


"Some people are trying to represent this as a

standoff between clerics and a struggle for power and

property and funds," Tadzhuddin said. "But we can't

accept this other group's support of spreading

Wahhabism in our country. They are spreading religious

extremism, fanaticism, blood and tears."

Just days ago, Tadzhuddin gathered dozens of his

adherents for a conference where they warned darkly

that there are already more than 100,000 Wahhabites in

Russia, a "heretical" group aided by his rival,

Gainutdin. The claim, entirely unsubstantiated, made

national news.

For his part, Gainutdin is perhaps best known for

holding a news conference after Sept. 11, 2001, where

he brandished a picture of Tadzhuddin standing next to

bin Laden's brother. He failed to mention that the

meeting had taken place a dozen years ago as part of

an official Saudi delegation to Russia.

"I know for a fact he has received thousands of

dollars from those he now calls Wahhabites," Gainutdin

said. "When he calls me a Wahhabite, he knows well

this is not true. It's his defense to keep himself at

the top of Islam in Russia."

Either way, the feud has served as a convenient method

of ensuring that Russia's Muslims do not secure the

political clout that their numbers would seem to

warrant. Both sides suggest that a very familiar

Soviet-era tactic has been employed to fuel the


"This division is in the interests of the state,"

Gainutdin said. "There are people in the government

who are not interested in Muslim unification, because

20 million people is a whole country and a very

serious force. So of course they are afraid of a

united Muslim community. It's useful to divide and


Here in tiny Zvenigorod, where Muslims have coexisted

with their Russian Orthodox neighbors since 1497, the

power plays of leaders might not mean much in a mosque

without heat, but the strong hand of the government

routinely reaches inside the modest red-brick


Valiullin, the imam, said the FSB often comes to

demand information, asking questions that themselves

are revealing about the prevailing attitude toward


"They want to know if I am hiding guns here," he said,

gesturing to the two spartan rooms that constitute the

mosque he has been building since 1999. "They ask me,

'Are you teaching terrorism in the mosque?' "

Often, Valiullin said, the Muslims here compare

today's problems to the different sort of fear that

governed them in Soviet times. Valiullin's 87-year-old

mother, Zainab, is a living connection to the old kind

of fear, the kind that destroyed mosques and drove

prayers underground.

As a child, she witnessed the Communists torching the

mosque where her forefathers had prayed. "They threw

the religious books into the river. My father picked

them up out of the water -- a whole cart full of

them," she recalled. He hid them in their attic.

Today's problems are less extreme. But, said

Valiullin, "We are still afraid. It can take only five

minutes to shut down this congregation. They can plant

drugs here, or 'terrorist' literature. They can call

us Wahhabites, and solve the problem of Islam in

Russia in this very simple way."

 2002 The Washington Post Company 


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