Staunton, VA, April 8, 2017 – The identification of those who carried out the terrorist attacks in St. Petersburg, Rostov and now Stockholm as Central Asians has led numerous commentators to speculate on what it is about their situation that has led them to accept Islamist ideas and then to engage in terrorist violence.
Not surprisingly, most of them identify as proximate causes the current situation in Central Asian countries, such as their rapidly growing and urbanizing populations which have broken with their traditional ties and the inability of the governments to promote economic development and thus keep the number of 18-year-old unemployed males at a minimum.
Those factors are undoubtedly important, but they fail to explain why so many Central Asians in particular are turning to radical Islam and terrorism. The real answer to that lies not in the current situation, however much it may contribute to radicalization, but in the Soviet past when the communists worked to destroy Islam along with all other religions.
More than 98 percent of all mullahs were killed or sent to the camps, an even higher percentage of mosques were closed and handed over to the secular authorities, and those that remained open offered a denatured religion, one that promoted loyalty to the state rather than adherence to religious values.
As a result, there emerged in Central Asia a phenomenon that occurred elsewhere in the USSR but was especially widespread in that region. That is the so-called “ethnic Muslims,” people who identified as Muslims because that was part of their national tradition but had little or no direct knowledge of the faith.
Sometimes that led to almost comic outcomes: Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev told me and others that he was a good Muslim and as such, he prayed three times a day. As almost everyone knows, a good Muslim prays five times a day. As a former CPSU member and major general in the Soviet air force, he simply hadn’t had the chance to learn that.
The Soviet authorities viewed the phenomenon of ethnic Muslims as a way station on the path to the complete atheization of society and thus welcomed it. But when Soviet power fell, such people suddenly and the opportunity to learn something of their faith, and they did so with enthusiasm.
Not surprisingly, both because of their own lack of knowledge about Islam and because of the ways they and others adopted to promote the rebirth of Islam, they did not get the kind of Islam that Russian scholars refer to as “traditional Islam,” that is one confined to the mosque and loyal to the state. They received an injection of something else.
First, during perestroika and especially after 1991, Central Asians turned first and foremost to those who had kept the faith alive there under Soviet repression, the leaders of underground mosques who by their very nature were political and against any regime that opposed Islam.
Then, they went on the haj in large numbers and studied in medrassahs abroad, often on scholarships supplied not by the more moderate of Muslims abroad but by the radicals; and they were radicalized as a result. The numbers of such Central Asians who gained such experiences are now in the thousands, especially in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
And finally, they were subject to the influence of foreign Muslim missionaries who came to Central Asia to promote their version of Islam, typically a more radical one than that of most Muslims either elsewhere around the world or in Central Asia. Hundreds of such people arrived and remain to this day.
Had the Muslims of Central Asian not been subject to Soviet anti-religious efforts, they would have been largely immunized to such influences; but because that was their fate, they were radicalized – and out of that have arisen the terrorists now attacking Russian and European cities.
Many in the West have difficulty understanding this simple fact: those who know little or nothing about their faith are far more likely to be radicalized than those who have a deep knowledge and appreciation of it. And as a result, these outsiders see any Muslim education effort as dangerous even though it often is exactly the opposite.
Tragically, people in St. Petersburg, Rostov and other places are now paying a horrific price for what the Soviet system created. That is not something Vladimir Putin or other admirers of the USSR are likely to admit, but it is the beginning of wisdom as far as understanding why Central Asians are now so numerous in the ranks of Islamist terrorists.