Russia's encounter with Islam
by Paul B. Henze and S. Enders Wimbush
The Wall Street Journal
When bombs killed 40 people in Moscow's metro in late March, Russians received another poignant reminder of an increasingly likely future. These bombings were preceded by at least six similar outrages since 1996, all targeted at public transportation. All have been blamed on or claimed by Islamic militants. After the latest bombings, President Dmitry Medvedev promised that "We will find and destroy them all," echoing similarly empty promises by his predecessor Vladimir Putin, now Russia's prime minister.
But whereas finding and destroying terrorists who profess to operate in the service of Islam was once focused mostly on the independence-minded Chechens on Russia's southern flank, today Islamic awareness has spread throughout the North Caucasus and increasingly into the more populous Muslim regions of Russia along the upper Volga River. It will not be contained easily, least of all by bombastic threats from Moscow, which itself is home to more than 2.5 million Muslims, likely making it Europe's largest Muslim city.
Estimates of the number of Muslims in Russia vary greatly, but their natural growth far outstrips that of Russians, who are in a demographic death spiral. Within a decade, nominally Muslim peoples could comprise as much as 20% of Russia's population. Not every Muslim is a radical or potential terrorist, of course. That said, Russia's policies, like its brutal assault on Chechens and other North Caucasians in recent years, has unquestionably tipped the scales for many Muslims against easy reconciliation with Russian rule.
How different things might have been. In the 19th century, the Russian empire was home to Islamic modernist movements that were the most progressive in the world. But in 1918 the Bolsheviks came to power fearing competition from any force challenging their drive to build a new Russian empire on the ashes of the one they had just destroyed. In virtually every Muslim region of this vast territory Muslim nationalists--many of whom were professed Bolsheviks--sought to escape Russia's grasp on the basis of the Bolsheviks' own insistence that all nations of the empire had a right to self-determination.