Staunton, June 11 – The attempt by Varvara Karaulova, a Russian who became a Muslim and sought to join ISIS, has sparked a new wave of hysteria about Islam in the Russian media, with speculations about the number of ethnic Russian Muslims, the prospects for a Muslim majority in the Russian population, and the possibility of a mosque within the Kremlin walls.
Most of these reports are so over the top that they fall of their own weight. But the most thoughtful discussion of them and their meaning is provided by Naima Neflyasheva, an ethnographer who specializes on the North Caucasus.
Noting that most of these articles simply recycle myths that have been circulating in Russia since the 1990s concerning “the aggressive nature of Islam and the hijab as the mark of a terrorist, Neflyasheva argues that they nonetheless raise two issues which should be subjected to careful analysis.
These are the issues of the radicalization of ethnic Russian Muslims and the gender aspect of radical Islamic movements. The first has long attracted attention given the activities of Said the Buryat, Pavel Kosolapov, Mariya Pogorelova, and Vitaly Razdobdko, but the issue must not be oversimplified or overdramatized.
On the one hand, she says, the shift of individuals from one faith to another is the norm when people travel or come into contact with those of a different religion. “Buddhists become Muslims, Catholics Orthodox, and somewhere neo-paganism even appears. Such are the realities of the contemporary world.”
“Today,” Neflyasheva continues, “if there were gathered and published statistics about the shift of Muslims of the North Caucasus into the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they would, I assure you,” she writes, “be shocking.”
And on the other, far from all converts do not become radicals. “There are many examples when ethnic Russians, having accepted Islam do not become so: they integrate into the umma, form strong families, work, are involved in scholarship and some have even become public figures.” Why, she asks plaintively, “is there nothing about these examples in our media?”
Indeed, Neflyasheva says, she intuitively feels that the much-discussed Karaulova had no intention of joining the radicals but was rather looking for a husband. “It seems to me,” the ethnographer continues, that the source of all this is a love story” obscured by “a charismatic Muslim man.”
There are, of course, real tragedies involved in such cases, she says. “Today already dozens of girls from the republics of the eastern Caucasus secretly flee to Syria or ISIS to take part in jihad.” Their cases are seldom reported largely because the closed societies of the region do not choose to talk about them to outsiders.
Such women, Neflyasheva continues, are not driven to this step by poverty or the influence of mullahs in rural areas. Instead, “these are girls from good families; some of them even are daughters of senior regional officials, have good grades, are graduates of prestigious universities, and participants in various student projects.”
“What, how and how are they motivated to join the ranks of the radicals?” Something is lacking in their lives, but what that might be is often obscure. What it is is “the question of questions,” she says, “not only for present-day anti-extremist policies and practices in the North Caucasus but also for every family. It concerns us all.”