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Russia: Expert Discusses Moscow And The Islamic World

  • Julie Corwin --> Paul Goble at RFE/RL on 28 February (RFE/RL) On March 3, representatives of the Islamic movement Hamas, which easily won January's Palestinian parliamentary elections, will arrive in Moscow for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to position itself as a uniquely qualified mediator between the West and the Middle East in part because of its own large Islamic population. At the same time, local Russian authorities are exerting increasing pressure against Islamic groups, and the federal conflict in Chechnya continues unabated. Paul Goble, vice dean at the Concordia-Audentes University in Tallinn, is also a longtime Soviet nationalities expert for the United States, and the former director of communications with RFE/RL. Goble spoke on 28 February at RFE/RL's Washington bureau about the rising tide of anti-Muslim prejudice and oppression in Russia. In a subsequent interview with RFE/RL correspondent Julie Corwin, Goble was asked to explain the apparent inconsistencies in Russia's approach.

RFE/RL: You describe rising Russian nervousness about Islam within the borders of the Russian Federation. Yet, the Russian government has welcomed Hamas with open arms. How do you explain the apparent contradiction?

Goble: The Russian government's approach to Hamas is explicable in terms of a long-standing Russian policy to divide the Middle East to weaken American influence. I don't think the same people who make decisions about what to do with Hamas are making the decisions about what to do with Muslims at home. I think that the Russian government remains a recovering failed state in which there are different parts of the government making policy, and that looking for consistency in Moscow is a mistake. So this [contradiction] shouldn't surprise anyone.

RFE/RL: Do you think Hamas representatives know about the pressure against Islamic groups in Russia?

Goble: I think the people in Hamas are very aware that the Russian government is not so wonderful with respect to its Muslims. I think that's widely known in the Muslim world. I think that the general view is that the current Russian government is rather nasty toward Islam but if they'll help us right now then that's OK. The Muslim world is a very diverse place. Hamas, while it has a religious leadership, consists of a lot of people who are very secular. So that doesn't mean that they're moderate, it just means that they aren't religiously driven.

RFE/RL: What about the Iranian authorities, the Saudis, the Turks? Are they also aware of pressure against Islamic groups in Russia?

Goble: The Turks are paying quite a bit of attention. I assume that groups like the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs in Riyadh continue to pay attention, as they always have for the last 35 years. And in Iran there's a very interesting thing going on that most people are not aware of. The Iranians, who, of course, are Shi'a Muslims, have an entire university devoted to training Sunni mullahs and imams -- at [the Shi'ite holy city of] Qom, no less. And, most of the students there are from the Middle Volga and the North Caucasus and Central Asia. People look to Iran and they want it all to be simple and to be Shi'a. In fact, the Iranians are training Sunni mullahs and imams.

RFE/RL: You have predicted that the pressure against Muslims in Russia may result in violence this summer in any number of local regions, including Nabarezhnye Chelny in Tatarstan. Why do you say that?

Goble: There are things going on that are very discouraging -- the amount of police activity, the use of psychological tests against Muslims, the planting of evidence, the false testimony that is being extracted. All of these things have made people very, very angry. And, historically, people have assumed that Muslims in the Middle Volga, the Tatars and Bashkirs, are going to put up with it. But I think we're getting to the point where that may not be true, where people are angry enough that they may lash out.

RFE/RL: How can the West develop a dialogue with moderate Muslims, the group you describe as the most appealing for the West, the Jadidists?

Goble: What [Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro] Gil-Robles has done in the European Union, promoting conversations between European scholars on Islam and these modernists in Kazan, is a very useful thing. I think more of that can be done. In some ways it's better to have the Europeans do it, because the Americans are a red flag. But at the same time, I think that it's important to be very, very careful to specify on any and all occasions that there are these Muslims and those Muslims and still other Muslims, rather than acting as if there's a single community. The danger is that the oppression that is being visited against Islam in the Russian Federation and elsewhere is driving the moderates into the hands of the extremists. What we should be interested in doing is isolating the extremists, and the way you do that is to reach out to the moderates.