Inter Press Network

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Russia and its Muslim Population: A Balancing Act

by Yevgeny Bendersky

As last week's terror campaign against the Russian Federation reached a bloody crescendo with the deaths of hundreds of children in its southern city of Beslan, the world was once again reminded of the vulnerability of Russia to Muslim-sponsored terrorism. Within a space of one week, two passenger liners went down within minutes from each other, a suicide explosion killed innocent bystanders near Moscow's subway, and a group of militants took hostage -- and eventually killed -- hundreds of young innocent lives.

The Russian government pointed to the possible al-Qaeda link in all these events, once again promising tough measures in its own fight against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalist fighters in the restive Republic of Chechnya. The aftermath of these attacks in the name of Chechen independence now poses a difficult set of questions in Russia's relationship with its large Muslim population.

- Russia's Muslim Population

Officially, Russia's Muslim population number around twenty million people out of a population of almost 150 million. Incorporated first into the Russian Empire, and later into the Soviet Union by force, their religion was largely under the control of the state for centuries. This was especially poignant under Soviet rule, when overall religious freedoms were greatly curtailed. The majority of mosques and madrasas were closed or destroyed, with few outlets remaining for the expression of Islam as a religion in the country.

While nearly 50 million people identified themselves as Muslims in the U.S.S.R., they could not fully practice their religion and its laws. The staunchly secular nature of the Soviet Union largely stripped its people of the need for religion, and only few customs or major holidays could be practiced or passed onto the young generations. Thus, when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, the overwhelming majority of the U.S.S.R.'s Muslims had only a limited understanding of, and access to, their religion.

This changed drastically after 1991, when freedom of religion became one of the main tenets in the newly democratic Russian Federation. The government actively promoted the freedom of its main religions -- Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Islam experienced a revival, with hundreds of mosques and religious schools opening across the country, helped in no small part by Saudi Arabian, Turkish and Iranian efforts. This also meant that the population at large came into direct contact with a religion that has been regarded with distrust and suspicion for hundreds of years.

Russian history points to the rise of the country as a major player in world events by conquering powerful Muslim khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan in the 16th century, Central Asian territories in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the largely Muslim Caucasus in the 19th century. The image of a Muslim fighter as the freedom-loving enemy of the Russian state has been ingrained in the public mind in books, folklore and even movies.

The last time the state had to deal with a Muslim threat prior to 1991 was during the start of World War II, when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin forcefully deported hundreds of thousands of Chechens and Crimean Tatars to their death for their alleged collaboration and sympathy with Nazi Germany. Thus, the Russian population's suspicion of Muslims went side by side with tolerance and normal relations as a result of coexistence within the same state for hundreds of years.

Russia's Muslims have historically lived in two broad geographical areas of the country. One part lives in the Volga river basin, and is made up of Tatars, Bashkir and Chuvash peoples. They have been part of the Russian state since the 16th century, and their autonomous regions and republics lie in the heart of the Russian Federation. They are Russian citizens and have been an integral and inseparable part of the state -- be it the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union.

The second large Muslim population lives in the region between the Black and the Caspian Seas, in the Caucasus area. These populations were finally incorporated into the state much later, in the 19th century, and small-scale resistance to state rule existed all the way up to 1991. This resistance quickly escalated into full-scale war as the Republic of Chechnya sought to break away from the Russian state as an independent Islamic republic.

Still, the majority of Muslims in that region owe their allegiance to the Russian state, and have resisted attempts by Chechen separatists and their backers to drag them into full-scale confrontation with Moscow. Currently, Russian forces are fighting a bloody war in Chechnya, with no end in sight to this conflagration. The cycle of violence has attracted powerful Islamic fundamentalist forces, such as al-Qaeda, to the region, culminating in last week's hostage drama.

- Delicate Balancing Act

Therefore, the Russian government has been performing a balancing act in its relations with its Muslim population. On the one hand, it has expended considerable forces and criticism on the branches of Islam and the Islamic fighters, many of whom are foreign and of Arab descent, that are behind numerous and large-scale bloody attacks on the Russian military and citizens in Chechnya and the surrounding areas. On the other, it seeks to constantly reassure its Muslim population of their freedom to practice the religion and of their full inclusion into all facets of life in the Russian Federation.

This is a new area of work for the Russian state, since its actions prior to 1991 towards its own Muslims have neither been scrutinized by worldwide opinion, nor by Muslim countries around the world. Nor can Moscow ignore the fact that its large Muslim population, starved for Islamic teachings and practices for decades, is now eager to catch up on lost time. The attraction of Islam is growing amongst the young Muslim generation and with it the possibility that more radical Islamic teachings, made possible by post-1991 religious freedoms, can take hold on the population.

In 2000, President Putin warned that if Islamic extremism can take hold among the Muslim population in the Caucasus, it can then spread to the Volga region, resulting in the Islamization of Russia or in the country's division into several independent states. Both scenarios are unacceptable to Moscow, and it moved, in conjunction with local Muslim authorities, to close certain mosques and schools that were suspected of more radical teachings of Islam. While the state has actively promoted a more moderate form of Islam and has even incorporated Islamic parties into the ruling governments, the possibility of dissention between the Muslim population and the state remains.

This possibility came to light in 2003, and has highlighted just how careful Moscow's balancing act towards its Muslim population is. Russia's war in Chechnya has been characterized and described by Moscow as the fight of the state against a small, separatist-minded Islamic group adhering to the more puritanical Wahhabi sect of Islam. To that end, it was important to get the support of the rest of the country's Muslims for its actions in the breakaway republic. This support came when the Supreme Mufti Talgat Tajuddin -- one of the highest Muslim leaders in the country -- told his worshippers in 2001 that the war in Chechnya was necessary, since it was the fight against terrorists and not "brothers-in-faith."

The same Mufti, however, was later removed from his position and stripped of his rank in 2003, after he announced jihad -- or holy war -- against the United States for its actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Russian Council of Muftis, who called his actions "a colossal blow to the authority of Russian Muslim organizations and damaging to the country's foreign policy," highlighted the brevity of this event. Clearly, statements similar to Tajuddin's are an anathema to President Putin, who needs the support of a large portion of his country in his domestic and foreign policy.

To that end, in August 2003 Russia went a step further in reassuring its Muslim population by becoming a member in the Organization of Islamic Conferences (O.I.C.), the most influential Muslim organization in the world. This meant that President Putin offered effective measures for development of Islam in Russia, raising the spiritual, economic and political cooperation between the country and members of the Organization. Greater tolerance of Islam and Muslims in Russia also effectively means good relations with all Islamic states from Algiers to Indonesia.

Russia has now achieved a more important union with Islamic states than it had during the Cold War, when it was one of the principle weapons suppliers to the Middle Eastern countries. In addition, its membership in the O.I.C. serves its own geopolitical purposes by also checking growing American presence in the Muslim states following the terrorist attacks of September 11. Thus, it is all the more important for the Russian government to encourage peaceful and fruitful relations with its Muslim population.

But the war in Chechnya has gone to great lengths to antagonize the general population -- and, in some cases, the government itself -- against Russian Muslims. Many of them complain of harassment and intimidation by police and federal forces in Chechnya, the surrounding areas and even Moscow, home to a one million-strong Muslim community. The atmosphere of the Chechen war and the government's emphasis on Islam as the inspiration for the separatists are fueling negative attitudes, stereotypes and public suspicion.

The government's tolerance for Islam also has limits, as was shown in 2002 in several highly publicized Russian court cases. In situations calling to mind recent developments in France, where Muslims have entered a new chapter of relations with the government following the recently enforced ban on headscarves in schools, several Russian women lost their cases against the ban on headscarves on pictures in Russian passports. While these court rulings have not received as much publicity as similar cases in France and other European countries, they highlight the tension between the secular nature of the Russian state and new freedoms and opportunities the government is now obligated to protect.

- Conclusion

This tension now has the opportunity to lead to undesirable consequences, as Russia faces the possible dangers of sectarian violence often associated with India and its large Muslim population. Previous acts by Chechen Islamic separatists have not been as frequent nor did they target innocent children with impunity. They also did not include many Arab fighters. Russian sources have repeatedly stated that as many as ten attackers in Beslan were of Arab descent.

The Russian public, horrified by the week of terror, may grow less patient and bolder in its dislike of Chechens in Moscow or of Muslims in other areas of the country, perceiving their adherence to Islam as the support for the actions of the few men and women acting in the name of their Islamic beliefs. Perhaps sensing this danger, the worldwide Arab media was recently critical of the Muslim-sponsored terror in a capacity not seen since September 11, 2001.

It is not clear how -- through military and political means -- the Russian government and President Putin will respond to last week's terror attacks. But one point is clear -- whatever its response, Moscow will have to strike a careful balance between going after a few Islamic terrorists and providing safety, security and reassurance to its large Muslim population.

- The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an analysis-based publication that seeks to, as objectively as possible, provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of All comments should be directed to

-Posted on September 10, 2004

Rabbis Urge Israeli army to kill civilians

Rabbis said killing enemy civilians is "normal" during the time of war and that the Israeli occupation army should never hesitate to kill non-Jewish civilians in order to save Jewish lives...

By Khalid Amayreh in Hebron

A group of prominent Jewish rabbis have asked the Israeli army not to flinch from killing Palestinian civilians in the context of the ongoing military campaign against armed groups resisting the occupation.

In a letter to the Israeli defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, published on Tuesday, the rabbis said killing enemy civilians is "normal" during the time of war and that the Israeli occupation army should never hesitate to kill non-Jewish civilians in order to save Jewish lives.

"There is no war in the world in which it is possible to delineate entirely between the population and the enemy army, neither in the US war in Iraq, the Russian war in Chechnya, nor in Israel's war with its enemies," the rabbis said.

The rabbis quoted a Talmudic edict, or religious ruling, stating that "our lives come first".

"The Christian preaching of 'turning the other cheek' doesn't concern us, and we will not be impressed by those who prefer the lives of our enemies to our lives," they said.

Opposing branches

The letter was signed by a number of Israeli rabbis including Haim Druckman, a former Knesset member who heads a large religious youth movement known as the Bnei Akiva Society; Eliezer Melamed, head of a West Bank religious college; and Youval Sharlo, the head of another Talmudic college in Petah Tikva which combines Talmudic studies with active military service.

It is worth noting that many rabbis, especially within Conservative and Reform Judaism, don't share the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox view of non-Jews.

But the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism, despite their numerical superiority, have very little influence in Israel and are generally mistreated by the powerful Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox branches, which view Conservative and Reform Jews as somehow less than real Jews.

Incidentally, a few months ago a prominent rabbi in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arbaa near Hebron issued an edict stating that non-Jewish civilians may be killed to save Jewish lives, soldiers and civilians alike.

The rabbi, Dov Lior, argued that non-Jewish lives had no sanctity, especially during the time of war.

Lior has publicly praised and eulogised Baruch Goldstein, an American Jewish settler who in 1994 mowed down 29 Arab worshippers who were praying at Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque.

Calling Goldstein a "great saint", he said a "thousand non-Jewish lives are not worth a Jew's fingernail".

Talmudic maxim

Earlier this year, Lior enthusiastically supported the killing of Palestinian civilians in Rafah in southern Gaza, saying that "it is very clear in light of the Torah that Jewish lives are more important than non-Jewish lives".

In formulating their theological positions, Lior and other like-minded rabbis rely on an old Talmudic maxim which states that it is a mitzvah (imperative religious duty) to kill enemy civilians in war time.

The same rabbis also often quote Torah verses in which God is shown instructing the ancient Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites in ancient Palestine.

Since the outbreak of al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, the Israeli army and paramilitary Jewish groups have killed as many as 3500 Palestinians, the bulk of them civilians, including more than 600 children and minors.

During the same period, Palestinian fighters have killed nearly a thousand Israeli soldiers, settlers and civilians.

-Posted onTuesday 07 September 2004

U.S. Warplanes Strike Two Iraq Cities...

43 Killed in Bid to Retake Fallujah and Northern City From Insurgents

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Staff Writer

BAGHDAD, Sept. 9 -- After a week of violence that killed 19 Americans and challenged the authority of Iraq's interim government in vast areas of the country, U.S. commanders launched airstrikes Thursday on two cities controlled by insurgents and sent troops into a third to reinstall a deposed local government.

The Iraqi Health Ministry said at least 43 people were killed and 111 wounded during air attacks on Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, and Tall Afar, a northern city near the Syrian border. U.S. troops massed outside Tall Afar, in apparent preparation to move in and restore the local government there.

In Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad, U.S. soldiers accompanied deposed city council members across a bridge into the city and stood guard while they elected an interim mayor. The transition was peaceful and conducted under an agreement with community leaders, but insurgents were not required to disarm, according to Army Maj. Neal O'Brien, spokesman for the Army's 1st Infantry Division.

O'Brien said U.S. troops, who have stayed out of Samarra in the nearly three months since insurgents used bombs, kidnappings and other methods of coercion to wrest control from U.S.-installed officials, would continue to help maintain order.

The simultaneous operations in three provinces signaled an aggressive effort to reassert control after the recent spasm of violence. During the past week, a suicide car bomb killed seven U.S. Marines outside Fallujah, heavy gunfire sounded for a day in a Baghdad slum, roadside bombs exploded and two female Italian aid workers were kidnapped in daylight in the capital.

The violence pushed the death toll for Defense Department personnel in Iraq past 1,000 since the conflict began 18 months ago.

U.S. officials and leaders of the interim government contend that re-establishing authority over regions controlled by Sunni and Shiite insurgents is critical to a plan to hold nationwide elections in January.

The Fallujah airstrikes targeted a building occupied by three associates of Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian linked to al Qaeda, at a time when no other people were in the area, the U.S. military said in a statement.

"The clear and compelling intelligence leading to this mission was derived from multiple Iraqi sources," the statement said. "Terrorists of the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi network have been responsible for multiple acts of terror including the killing of innocent Iraqi citizens, Iraqi Police and Iraqi security forces as well as Multinational forces."

One doctor, Rafi Hayad, said four of those killed were children and two were women, according to the Reuters news agency. U.S. officials offered no information on casualties.

U.S. troops have stayed on the city's periphery since an April agreement was reached after three weeks of fighting. The U.S. military has said it suspects that Zarqawi uses Fallujah as a base to launch attacks against Americans. The car bomb that killed the seven Marines outside the city was the deadliest attack on Americans since April 29.

In Tall Afar, U.S. military officials said the operation was aimed at ridding the city of a "terrorist threat" that had led to "dozens of the attacks" in recent weeks.

The U.S. military denied reports that its forces were stopping ambulances from reaching the city. The ambulances were allowed to enter and exit after being searched, the military said. "This precaution is necessary because terrorists in Tall Afar have used ambulances to move about the city," a statement said.

In a statement Thursday night, the military said the operation was continuing after insurgents took cover in a mosque. The regional government's television station reported military operations would continue "until the city is liberated from outsiders and saboteurs so that peace can be restored," the Associated Press reported.

But Samarra had a peaceful turnover. Members of the city council gathered Thursday morning at a bridge leading across the Tigris River into the city. According to O'Brien, they were met by Col. Randel Dragon, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat team of the 1st Infantry Division, and Lt. Col. Eric Schacht, commander of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, and accompanied by U.S. troops.

The city council members then "escorted us into the city," O'Brien said. There was no violence.

Once in Samarra, the council elected an interim mayor who would be replaced after the January elections. U.S. troops and members of the reconstituted 202nd Iraqi National Guard battalion, which effectively dissolved after many of its troops deserted or declined to take part in battle last April, then assessed the condition of eight local police stations, some of which had been bombed by insurgents.

The U.S. troops will stay in Samarra "until the job is done and Iraqi security forces are in position to have control of the entire security situation," O'Brien said. "This is just the first step."

The 1st Infantry Division, which maintained a base on the periphery of the city, treated Samarra as essentially off-limits because of the danger. U.S. officials said the security situation changed after about 50 insurgents were killed in battles with U.S. forces during fighting last month.

O'Brien said local officials and religious leaders then opened negotiations with U.S. commanders. He said the local leaders also held separate meetings among themselves to reach a deal by which the former government would be brought back.

-Published on Friday, September 10, 2004; Page A01

Tales from the Tigris riverbank

By Robert Fisk

Across the lettuce-green waters of the Tigris river, we drifted yesterday, past Saddam Hussein's old school, past the 13th-century Mustansariya University, past the bomb-smashed wreckage of the ministry of defence. Saleh Mohamed Fawzi had turned off the boat's engine as we slid side-on beneath a great, old British railway bridge. "I can tell you everything about Saddam because he grew up just over there," Saleh said, and pointed a long, dark arm towards the steaming streets of al-Khurkh. The playground of Saddam's school backed on to the river, a wall of yellow concrete topped by a set of cheap football nets.

Saleh spends his days ferrying passengers across the Tigris for a few dinars - it saves the long walk over the bridges or the oven-like search for taxis in the Baghdad streets - and yesterday was a special day because he was asked by The Independent to take his boat right through the city. All he had to do to make a good fare was to tell the story of his life.

"Our journey will cost you but my own dialogue is free," he said. It was a good deal. Saleh is only 35, but his tale of war and military desertion and fear was a little history of Iraq. He is a Shia, and much of what he wanted to say was about religion and violence, and about America. He was also a soldier in Saddam's supposedly "elite" Republican Guard.

"I studied at the technical institute in Baghdad and all we wanted to do was avoid the war with Iran," he said. "When the war started, they closed the river between the presidential palace and the ministry of defence but all we were hearing were the stories coming back from the front. We knew that so many of our men were being killed fighting the Iranians. We studied very hard to avoid the call-up. And we succeeded. The front meant death. I never got sent to the front. But we lived in fear. In just my area of Baghdad alone, Saddam's men killed 55 of our people, just for praying in the m osque. That is because they were Shias."

Saleh's voice rises in pitch as he turns on the old boat's engine to avoid collision with a tree that is moving gently over the water towards us. "It was a gift from America to Saddam at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war - an American Johnson engine - and still it is working." I suggest that this is a compliment to American technology. "All the world knows how good that technology is," Saleh replies. "But you foreigners must not leave us alone with the Americans. Please don't leave us with them and let them dominate us. Bring your countries to do business with my land and share our benefits."

This was to be a theme of Saleh's story, that those who destroyed the leader he hated should not benefit from his downfall.

The wreckage of that regime lines the Tigris. We sailed quietly by the great compound of the old ministry of defence, its walls torn open, many of its buildings in concrete shards across a parade ground. The windows of a less-damaged central barracks were now lined with thousands of breeze-blocks: homes to hundreds of Iraqi refugees who now live where Saddam's generals once planned the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Alas for Saleh, that was a war he could not escape. "My family was here in Baghdad and I was sent to the southern desert - on our side of the border, just opposite Hafr el-Batn - and we were bombed so many times by the Americans and the British. My family lived near the Ameriyah bunker where hundreds of other families were killed by American missiles. Afterwards, people became ill. My daughter Hoda developed a sort of cancer. Her skin cracked open and she looked very old. I still take her to doctors who can't cure her. They say it's not cancer but she still hurts inside."

Three hundred and fifty miles to the south, Saleh was trying to save his life. "We were in a very isolated part of the desert and nothing grew there. The army had amassed thousands of shells and gunpowder and guns because they thought this would be a long war. In one place, they had tons of sugar and biscuits which they had stolen from Kuwait. But we had no food. They didn't resupply us. We were hungry and abandoned. So I deserted."

Saleh's boat was moving under the gloomy arches of a Saddamite bridge, a massive, pre-stressed concrete job that was constructed to repair a bridge destroyed in the 1991 war. He looked up at it in the semi-darkness that enveloped us the moment the white-hot sun had been hidden. It was as if Saddam's shade was still ruling his life. Saleh reached his home in Baghdad as the Iraqi army collapsed under Anglo-American air assault, then, avoiding the great rebellions break ing out in the Shia south, hid with his family. "God's mercy made this war short and humiliated Saddam and his front-men. Saddam gave an amnesty to deserters, so I gave myself up."

But Saleh was sent back into the Iraqi army, this time to the northern city of Irbil. "I hated it. I did not want to fight any more. So I ran away again. You know the punishment for desertion is death but I refuse to fight. It is a sin for a Muslim to kill. So I came home again and eventually I managed to bribe some officers to take my name off the conscript list. I didn't meet the officers. There was a money-agent who bribed officers for soldiers who had deserted. It cost me about 12,000 dinars (£400) and my wife sold all her family gold to get the money."

The sun had blazed back onto our little boat as Saleh started his khaki-and-green military engine again. Bull rushes stood in clumps along the water's edge. Because Saleh told his story in so matter of fact a way, it was easy to forget how brave he was. And how religious.

"Our Imam Ali said that a man is either our brother in religion or our brother in humanity and we believe this. You must live with all men in perfect peace. You don't need to fight him or kill him. You know something; Islam is a very easy religion, but some radicals make it difficult. We are against anyone who is killing or kidnapping foreigners. This is not the Muslim way. The Grand Marjas (religious teachers) have told us this."

I plunged my hand into the warm waters of the Tigris. What did Saleh feel about the river - the Tigris is the Dichle in Arabic - which he had been sailing upon since the age of 11? "I am a fisherman as well as a boatman and I also swim races and compete in rowing-boat races. The Dichle is part of me because it is the river which connects all my country and passes all the holy places and it joins the Eufrat (Euphrates) which goes by all the holy shrines. But the cement factories a nd the sewage make this river so dirty and it must be cleaned."

Saleh was in his boat when the American air raids started in 2003. "I found a body floating just over there and I took it back to the shore. It was in the water, back upwards and face down. It was a young man. But he had no identity. We buried him in the grounds of the British embassy close to us. When the British arrived after the invasion, they found the corpse in the garden and dug it up and sent it to the morgue. I never found out who it was." We were moving through countryside now with trees and lawns coming down to the water's edge. Sharp-eyed youths sat on the bank and pointed at our boat, shouting ajenab (foreigner) which I do not like to hear these days in Iraq. Deliberately, I had asked my driver to meet me on the edge of Baghdad, miles from the slumland pontoon where I h ad boarded Saleh's boat. First rule for foreigners in Baghdad: do not go back to the place you start your journey from.

But Saleh was still contemplating the nightmare of Saddam. "When he was young, he had to borrow all his clothes from his cousin, Adnan Khairallah. We think he didn't have a father because we've never known where his father is buried. Saddam had psychological problems. He kept talking about protecting Iraqi women but then he killed so many of their husbands that they were left penniless. Look what happened at Halabja."

When did he first hear about Halabja, I asked? "My brother was also in the Republican Guard. He was fighting in Kurdistan. He knew about the gassings. He told us. But there is something you should know. America and Saddam were together. America made Saddam. In this last war, their student was destroyed and his teachers took his place in my country. Please don't leave us alone with the Americans."

We said goo dbye at a little jetty bathed in white heat that had bleached the colour of the grass. "Now I must tell you to be very careful and take care because you are a foreigner," Saleh said. "I hope this new government will work. I like to be an optimist. But things are bad." He revved the old military engine and puttered back into the great, green, greasy Tigris river. He may be suspicious of the Americans but it is good to find a brave and decent Iraqi these days. May the Salehs of this world survive.

Copyright:The Independent
Posted from Baghdad on 08 July 2004