Russia expands Middle East mission to encourage Islamic moderation

Russia has actively been promoting a politically pacifist form of Islam, which is coinciding with a push by certain Arab countries to encourage Islamic moderation, writes Hassan Hassan in The Atlantic (January 5). Russia’s growing presence in the Middle East is usually viewed in strictly military and economic terms, but the country’s recent Islamic outreach has become increasingly evident in warming ties between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Much of the Russian opposition to Islamic extremism is an extension of the war in the Chechen Republic against Islamic separatists. The Russian emissary in the effort to fight Islamic extremism in the Middle East is Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, who is a follower of Sufi Islam. Kadyrov has been warmly welcomed in Saudi Arabia and has developed close friendships with many Arab leaders, Hassan writes. One sign of such close ties between Moscow and Saudi Arabia has been the latter country’s decision, under Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, to cease funding mosques and proselytism in Russia.

Among the factors behind the new Russian outreach in the Middle East is its fear of religious terrorism and nationalist insurrections among Muslims, who make up 15 percent of the Russian population. Hassan adds that Russia may be attempting to counter the perception that it is hostile to Islam and to its Sunni branch in particular, as well as trying to distinguish itself from the U.S., which is also perceived to be anti-Muslim. The Chechen involvement in Syria, including the rebuilding of the Grand Mosque in Aleppo, can be seen as part of an effort to dispel the view that Russia is anti-Sunni and pro-Shiite. Hassan notes that the “scale of the push against political and Salafi Islam is unprecedented in the Arab world. Several countries in the Middle East and North Africa are working together more closely than ever to suppress extremism and steer local populations to a new understanding of street protests as a tool of jihadists and an obstacle to social peace.” He concludes that the “U.S. and other Western countries may not accept the principle that Islamists and Salafis are as dangerous as militant jihadis. Russia, by promoting a particular brand of Islamic moderation in unison with Arab powers, could cement its position in the region more deeply than through economic and military means alone.”