The Russian Federation and Muslim Minorities

The Russian Federation and Muslim Minorities

Islamic Human Rights Commission
22nd April 2004

The Russian Federation and Muslim Minorities

An overview of the situation of Muslims living in the Russian Federation and at the occupation of Chechnya*.

A. The Russian Federation
B. Muslim Population
C. Muslim Republics
D. Islamophobia
E. Vladimir Putin: Symbol of Islamophobia
F. Chechnya: Secession in the Face of Genocide
G. Conclusion

A. The Russian Federation

The Russian Federation is the giant Eurasian landmass which stretches across 11 time zones. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed into 15 independent republics, the largest of which was Russia. Russia then agreed a treaty with the all but 2 of Russia’s republics to preserve the federal structure, which formed the Russian Federation. The federation is divided into 49 oblasts (regions), 21 republics, 10 autonomous okrugs (national areas), 6 krays (territories), 2 federal cities, and 1 autonomous oblast.

The population of Russia is approximately 144 million. While Russians make up over 80% of the population many other ethnic groups reside in Russia, such as Tatars, Ukrainians, Chuvash, Bashkirs, Belarusian, Chechens and Moldavans. There are no reliable statistics that break down the population by denomination. Available information suggests that slightly more than half of the inhabitants consider themselves Russian Orthodox Christians, although the vast majority of those are not regular churchgoers. Muslims constitute the largest religious minority in the country. There are also a small number of other Christian and Jewish denominations throughout Russia.

B. Muslim Population of Russia

There are some 23 million Muslims in Russia, constituting approximately 15 percent of the population and forming the largest religious minority. Approximately 1 million Muslims live in Moscow. Elsewhere, Muslims live predominantly in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, the northern Caucasus, and the Volga region

C. Muslim republics

Muslims constitute the majority in seven republics of Russia, including Chechnya and Tatarstan. Both Tatarstan and Chechnya-Ingushetia (as it was then) refused to sign the Federation Treaty in 1992. Tatarstan negotiated a separate treaty which gave it special rights as a “state associated with” Russia. Bashkortostan, another Muslim republic, followed suit in establishing confederal rather than federal relations with Moscow.

Chechnya’s refused to sign the Federation Treaty lead to its declaration of independence from Russia. In December 1994, Russia invaded Chechnya to reclaim the territory but were met with fierce resistance. In 1996, Russia was forced to withdraw after suffering a humiliating defeat. A peace treaty (1) was signed by Boris Yeltsin and Aslan Maskhadov, the elected president of Chechnya, granting Chechnya de facto independence, but deferring the issue of its status until December 31, 2001. The treaty rejected “forever the use of force or threat of force in resolving all matters of dispute” between Russia and Chechnya and declared that the two countries would “develop their relations on generally recognized principles and norms of international law.” Nevertheless, Russia once again invaded Chechnya in 1999 on the pretext of fighting terror.

In Muslim-dominated regions, relations between Muslims and Russian Orthodox believers are generally harmonious. In the Volga region, a liberal brand of Islamic thought dubbed “Euro-Islam” has been growing in influence. However, tensions occasionally emerge. In July 2003, a group of Muslim women in Naberezhniye Chelniy, Tatarstan attempted to remove masonry at the construction site for an Orthodox church they said was being erected illegally in a local park. On the 1st of October, the site was vandalized again and the authorities opened a criminal case against the alleged perpetrators. The construction site represents the fourth location that the Orthodox have been allocated by the local authorities.

In September 2002, a new Islamic party called the Truth was established in Russia under the motto “Russian Muslims are not terrorists”. The party aims to help spread Islamic ideas, correcting the false image often connected with Islam following the September 11 attacks and to know Russian Muslims’ opinions about the Russian Parliament, the Duma. One of the reasons behind the establishment of this new part is that the political leaders of the Russian Islamic party, which was established 5 years ago, are afraid that their political identity cards will not be renewed, the paper added.

In April 2004, Russian Muslim rights activists announced that Muslims would have their first ever rights group, which would defend their economic, political and religious rights and clear stereotypes tarnishing their image. The director of the Russian Centre for Human Rights, Kamel Kalandrov, announced that the Centre intended to set up a socio-political organization to serve Muslims in the Russian federation. The new body would help redeem the image of the Muslim community, be the middleman between the authorities and immigrants, cement ties with law enforcement bodies and provide legal and financial assistance to needy Muslim families.

D. Islamophobia

There is currently much evidence of official conciliation toward Islam in Russia. 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. The number of Muslims allowed to make pilgrimages to Mecca increased sharply after the virtual embargo of the Soviet era ended in 1991. Copies of the Qur’an are readily available, and many mosques are being built in regions with large Muslim populations. In 1995 the newly established Union of Muslims of Russia, led by Imam Khatyb Mukaddas of Tatarstan, began organizing a movement aimed at improving interethnic understanding and ending Russians’ lingering misconception of Islam as a terroist religion. The post-communist union has formed a political party, the Nur All-Russia Muslim Public Movement, which acts in close coordination with Muslim clergy to defend the political, economic, and cultural rights of Muslims and other minorities

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Cathedral Mosque in Moscow stood alone as a place of Muslim worship; today, Friday prayers are performed in 30 places in Moscow. An Islamic University and after-school Islam classes for children have sprung up to meet a growing demand for Islamic education. On July 14, 2003 it was announced by the Mufti of Tatarstan Republic that the Religious Administration would inaugurate in Kazaan a new branch of the Russian Islamic University. In 1991, the Islamic Cultural Centre of Russia was opened in Moscow. The number of Islamic publications has also increased. Among them are two magazines in Russian, Ekho Kavkaza and Islamskiy vestnik, and the Russian-language newspaper Islamskiye novosti , which is published in Dagestan

On the 15th May 2003, the Russian Supreme Court, reversing its own earlier decision ruled in favour of a group of Muslim women from Tatarstan who had sought the right to wear headscarves in photos taken for official documents. The women had been campaigning to overturn a 1997 Interior Ministry ruling which forbade women to wear headscarves in the photos.

Within recent years however, all across Russia, Muslims have reported instances of harassment and Islamophobia. Russia’s Islamophobia has taken on many forms, from violence, like the skinhead rampage in a crowded Moscow market in 2003 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. The Washington Post reports that since September 11th, a Muslim cemetery has been desecrated in Krasnodar in southern Russia, a mysterious shooting took place inside a mosque in Irkutsk, Siberia. And in Volgograd, a gang broke into a mosque construction site an hour before the groundbreaking ceremony, protesting, “We don’t need a mosque here.”

On the 5th March 2004, mosques in Moscow were raided by security personnel from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Federal Security Services after Friday Prayers. At least 18 people were detained under the pretext of foiling “terrorist operations”. Russian federal forces launched similar raids on the 27th of February 2004 and rounded up at least 84 people, the majority of whom were released without charge.

The Bigotry Monitor reported that on the 30th May 2003, glass bottles with flammable mixtures were thrown into a packed mosque in Irkutsk Oblast, damaging the roof and walls.

In July 2003, Russian local authorities prevented the construction of a mosque in Soshi in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia. Rose Ramadanova, the head of an Islamic organization in Soshi, declared to the Russian Islamic newspaper Al Sandorr News that the 43,000 Muslims in this city of 267,000 are unable to pray publicly as they have no mosques except a small mosque in the garage of a small building in the city. Muslims in this city are prevented from celebrating Islamic weddings. Muslims are also unable to pray for their dead or bury them as Islamic shari’ah dictates.

A number of mosques in Russia were also burnt out by arsonists since the beginning of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan in 2003. On the 13th of November, two mosques were set ablaze in western Russia, causing 130,000 rubles ($3,000) worth of damage.

Muslims have also scant political participation. The most recent parliamentary elections, held in December 2003, resulted in electing only one Muslim representative.

Muslim leaders are also targeted in assassination attacks. The former head of the Union of Russian Muslims, Nadirshakh Khachilayev, was assassinated on the 11th of August, 2003, in Dagestan. Khachilayev was a deputy in the State Duma where he served as the leader of the Islamic Opposition. His outspoken views caused the Russian government to strip him of his parliamentary immunity and he was prosecuted for terrorist activities of which he was ultimately acquitted. The shooting attack against Khachilayev came two days after Prominent Russian specialist in Islamic affairs Grigory Bondarevsky was found killed in his Moscow apartment. Nothing was found missing from Bondarevsky’s apartment except a detailed research document on the struggle for Chechen independence. To date, nobody has been prosecuted in relation to either assassination.

In Tatarstan, some Muslim women have reported being harassed on the street, their scarves ripped off their heads. Mullahs are no longer invited to open Tatar political meetings with prayers after Sept. 11 for fear of controversy.

In the industrial city of Naberezhnye Chelny, a madrassa was closed last year when authorities claimed religious extremism was being taught there. Russian media reported that some of the school’s students had turned up fighting in Chechnya. And at least two of the seven Russian citizens captured by the United States in Afghanistan and held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, also allegedly passed through the madrassa.

On the 11 February, 2004, a nine-year-old Muslim Tajik girl, Khursheda Sultanov, was beaten and stabbed to death by Russian extremist neo-Nazis skinheads, severely wounding her father and 11-year-old cousin in St. Petersburg. In April 2004, a Russian mob rampaged through a market place employing immigrants, mostly Muslims, in the South-western city of Volgograd, killing at least one Muslim and injuring around 40 others.

Muslims throughout Russia have been demonised by the mass media as “Islamic terrorists”. In April 2004, the Union of Journalists of Russia accused the country’s press of stirring up international and religious discord. It charged that Moscow had “no newspapers that [we]re free of Islamophobic, racist and fascist publications.” In the same month, a group of Russian Muslims brought an action against the newspaper Izvestia and 2 of its columnists for the publication of an article containing calls to genocide of the Muslims and to a war with the Islamic world. Although, the plaintiffs were defeated at the initial stage, they are appealing the decision. Should they ultimately, succeed, Islamophobia in its various guises would be officially declared illegal.

Currently, a young executive director of the Badir publishing house is being prosecuted for igniting religious hatred after printing ‘Monotheism’, a book by Abdul Wahhab, the 18th century founder of the Wahhabi Islamic movement. 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. Such sentiment has led to a formal ban on “Wahhabism” in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkariya.

The Chechen resistance fighters are regularly accused of Wahhabism, and Russian news media routinely raise the alarm. The FSB often confiscates Islamic religious material –even copies of the Qur’an — as seditious “Wahhabite” literature. The term has become a convenient rubric applied to Muslims whose work offends authorities. Journalist, Farid Nugumanov is under investigation by the FSB for his alleged Wahhabite sympathies after publishing 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 labelled “the Wahhabi.”

Muslim activists complain that Russia is not entirely a secular state, based on the Government’s active support of the Russian Orthodox majority. A Muslim group called al Rahman, which means the merciful in Arabic, was recently taken to court for teaching children on Sunday. Muslim recruits serving in the army often are subjected to insults and abuse on the basis of religion The authorities permit Orthodox chapels and priests on army bases. They give some Protestant groups access to military facilities on a more limited basis; however, Islamic services are banned, and Muslim conscripts are not given alternatives to pork-based meals or time to say daily prayers.

This institutional Islamophobia and discrimination violates numerous international conventions which Russia has ratified, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Articles 1, 5); and the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 14).

E. Vladimir Putin: Symbol of Islamophobia

This virulent Islamophobia also affects the Russian government’s official internal policies, particularly its relations with its Muslim republics. This institutional Islamophobia goes right to the top of the ladder. President Vladimir Putin has often 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. When Putin visited Britain in April 2000, he warned that the West should wake up to the threat posed by Islam. (‘Charles to run into the mother of all protests at Muslim school,’ Sunday Times, April 30, 2000)

On a trip to Tatarstan in September 2002, Putin scornfully dismissed the Islamic obligation upon women of wearing the headscarf as nothing more than a “fashion” that might disappear in a few years.

Worse was to come in November of that year when Mr. Putin charged that Islamic radicals were pursuing the systematic annihilation of non-Muslims. At a European Union summit in Brussels, he claimed that Western civilisation faced a mortal threat from Muslim terrorists, and claimed that they had plans to create a “worldwide caliphate”. (‘West in mortal danger from Islam, says Putin,’ Daily Telegraph, Nov 12,2002)

After being questioned on Russia’s human rights record in Chechnya. Putin rebuked the reporter with the following diatribe: “They are talking about the need to kill all kaffirs, infidels, all non-Moslems, or Crusaders, as they say. If you are a Christian, you are in danger! …But if you decide to reject your faith and become an atheist, you are also subject to liquidation according to their way of thinking. … You are in danger! …If you decide to become a Muslim, even that won’t save you. Because they consider traditional Islam also to be hostile to the goals they put forward. Even in that case you are in danger! …If you want to go all the way and become a Muslim radical and are ready to get circumcised, I invite you to Moscow. We are a multi-confessional country, we have experts in this field, too. I will recommend that they carry out the operation in such a way that nothing grows back.” (‘Putin Offers Reporter a Circumcision,’ The Moscow Times, 13 Nov. 2002)

F. Chechnya: Secession in the Face of Genocide

The Chechen people have been fighting for their independence from Russia for almost 400 years now. The history of their occupation and their consistent refusal to be pacified is the basis of their claim to secede from Russia. However, under international law, secession is also possible in the face of ongoing genocide.

The Chechens, as a distinct people with their own language, religion, culture, ethnicity, social and political system, are entitled to the right of self-determination. However, international law does not automatically interpret the right as allowing secession. Rather, it favours ‘internal’ self-determination in the form of regional autonomy or democratic participation. In the interests of international order and stability, the international community leans against secessionist claims. However, there is a wide body of scholarly opinion that ethnic minorities may earn the right of secession if they face persistent and continuous discrimination (2). Renowned international law expert Bruno Simma explains the right only exists for a minority which is faced with extreme violations of fundamental human rights such as “killing or unlimited imprisonment without legal protection, destroying family relations, expropriation without any regard for the necessities of life …special prohibitions against following religious professions or using one’s own language, and lastly, … executing all these prohibitions with brutal methods and measures.” Allen Buchanan is of a similar opinion in that he believes that the right to secede should not be “a general right ascribed to all groups (or “peoples”) that desire independent statehood, but rather as a special remedial right to be ascribed only to groups that have suffered serious injustices at the hands of the state.”(3) Joshua Castellino cites the case of Bangladesh, as an example of where secession arose due to allegations of a brutal genocide taking place at the hands of Pakistan. He argues that it arose through the right of self-defence, granted to “all peoples” by the UN Charter(4) . The UN also expresses in the Charter its opposition to genocide and the use, or threat of use, of actual force within the international community. Arguing that like individuals and states, peoples also have a right to self-defence, Castellino makes the case that the Bengali people’s only form of self-defence was to secede from Pakistan. Due to the alleged occurrence of genocide, “the creation of a new state [was] the only way available to stop it and to ensure the survival of the genus.”(5)

With regard to Chechnya, we are dealing not with a minority but with a people. The gross human rights violations which take place in Chechnya have been well documented by various NGOs. Thousands of Chechens, including children, have been subjected to torture, rape and murder. Nearly every village and town has repeatedly undergone the savage zachista or “mopping-up” operations, during which the Russian troops commit lootings, beatings, rape, extra-judicial executions, extortion and illegal detention of Chechen civilians. Over 300,000 people have been displaced in the territory of Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. Furthermore, the Russian authorities continue to force their repatriation to a war zone.

But the persecution of Chechens is not limited to the war zone but extends to the whole territory of the Russian Federation. Chechens are frequently viewed in Russia as criminals and derogatorily labelled as chornye or ‘blacks’. Arbitrary passport and identity checks, illegal searches of premises, arbitrary detention and ill-treatment, fabrication of criminal cases (notably illegal charges of carrying arms, explosives and drugs), restriction of movement and choice of place of residence, refusal to issue personal documents and forced deportation are commonly practiced against Chechens. This demonisation of the Chechen people is rampant in the Russian media. A common figure in Russian folklore and poetry is the stereotypical Chechen bandit- dark, lean, sharp-featured and carrying a dagger. Indeed, Lermontov’s “The Cossack Lullaby” involves a Cossack mother lulling her baby to sleep with stories of her husband’s bravery fighting the Chechens, and with a promise that when the baby grows up, he too will have a sword and horse with an embroidered saddle and kill the infidels. The refrain from this poem – “Zloi Chechen” or “The Wicked Chechen” – is memorized by Russian children at an early age.

Such widespread institutional discrimination of ethnic Chechens beyond the war territory highlights the collective nature of Russia’s persecution of the Chechens. There is no doubt that there is anything short of genocide taking place in Chechnya. According to the Genocide Convention 1948, genocide means “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group is rated as genocide: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”(6) . Between 1994 and 1996, over 100,000 Chechens were killed following the Russian invasion(7) . This constituted 10% of the entire Chechen population. Almost double that number have been killed in the current war. In July 2002, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights stated, “…the numbers of disappeared Chechens in recent months indicate a continuing assault against the Chechen people that borders on genocide.” Without a doubt, the Chechen people will be exterminated unless they are allowed secede from Russia.

G. Conclusion

The complete unwillingness of the international community to remedy the problems posed by the Chechen desire to secede has contributed to both the rise of Islamophobia and the extent of atrocities committed against Cehchens. Pre-9/11, the entire world regularly criticised Russia’s human rights abuses in Chechnya. In April 2000 and April 2001, the UN Commission on Human Rights condemned Russia’s policy in Chechnya. However, beyond rhetoric, no concrete action was ever taken in order to try and encourage civil society in Russia on the basis that any interference could have been perceived as recognition of Chechnya’s declaration of independence and could have convinced Russia that the West was trying to forcibly dismember it. Post-9/11, this rhetoric has even changed. Now, the condemnation is directed at the Chechens who have been collectively condemned as “Islamic Terrorists with links to Al-Qaida”. The war in Chechnya has been brought into the fold of the “War on Terror”. Notably, in the three years following 9/11, the UN Commission on Human Rights has refused to censure Russia for its policies in Chechnya.

Finally, it is worth looking at the United States’ position on the conflict. On the 16th February 2000, Governor George W. Bush recommended imposing economic sanctions on Russia for its actions in Chechnya “until they understand they need to resolve the dispute peacefully and not be bombing women and children and causing huge numbers of refugees to flee Chechnya”.(8) In November 2002, President George Bush had the following to say: “I recognise that any time terrorists come to take life, a leader must step forward. And the fact that 800 citizens could have been killed by terrorists put my friend Vladimir Putin in a very difficult position …the people to blame are the terrorists. They need to be held to account.”(9)

Finding a solution to the Chechen war based on justice and human rights is the only way to stop the rapid rise of Islamophobia in Russia. The Chechen Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ilyas Akhmadov, recently drafted a detailed proposal to bring about Chechen independence. His peace plan has been endorsed by many politicians throughout the world. The European Parliament recently adopted a resolution deciding to seriously consider this proposal to finally end this centuries long conflict.


* Republic of Chechnya of the Russian Federation

  1. Peace Treaty and Principles of Interrelation between Russian Federation and Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. 12 May 1997.
  2. See Simma, Bruno, The Charter of the United Nations. A Commentary (1994) 57-58
  3. Buchanan, Allen ‘Federalism, Secession and the Morality of Inclusion’, in 32 Arizona Law Review (1995) 53 at 53-54.
  4. Preamble to UN Charter
  5. Castellino, op. cit. 80 at 104. Simma offers a similar argument: “the right of self-determination laid down in Article 1 of the Covenants includes the right to resist such violations as a form of self-defence, and … secession, even through the use of force, might offer the only possible defensive reaction to brutal oppression.”Simma, supra n.57 at 59. Cassese also is of the opinion that “a racial or religious group may attempt secession, a form of external self-determination, when it is apparent that internal self-determination is absolutely beyond reach. Extreme and unremitting persecution and the lack of any reasonable prospect for peaceful challenge may make secession legitimate.” in Cassese, Anthony, Self-Determination of Peoples: A Legal Appraisal (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995) at 120.
  6. UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, GAOR 260A(III) 9 Dec. 1948.
  7. ‘No End in sight to the War in Chechnya’, Medecins sans Frontieres, 04/03/2002
  8. OnLine NewsHour, February 16, 2000
  9. Interview with George Bush by Russia’s NTV, November 18, 2002.
  10. Akhmadov, Ilyas, The Russian – Chechen Tragedy: The Way to Peace and Democracy – Conditional Independence Under an International Administration (February 2003)

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