Wall Street Journal

Russia's Encounter with Islam

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.

Lenin quickly disabused them of this idea through one of his many feats of ideological gymnastics. Self-determination is indeed a right, he argued, but because it would stand as a barrier to the unity of the working class it was in reality a counterrevolutionary act. By 1928 Lenin, then Stalin, had liquidated virtually the entirety of Russia's illustrious Muslim intelligentsia. For the duration of Soviet rule successive Soviet rulers sought to eradicate Islam, though there was a tame official Islamic establishment deftly used to court foreign Muslim states.

The Soviets' anti-Muslim strategy failed, but its unintended consequences are now obvious. The Chechen struggle for independence was a manifestation of anti-colonialism which in its beginning had very little to do with Islam. Chechens were not fanatic Muslims. Historically speaking, they were late converts to Sufi Islam, less fanatic than most of the other branches of the faith. They maintained—and continue to maintain—that they were victims of colonial conquest and entitled, like the Georgians, the Uzbeks and the Azerbaijanis who had "union republics," to become automatically independent when the Soviet Union broke up.

Postcommunist President Boris Yeltsin launched a war to keep Chechnya part of Russia, but he ended up having to compromise in face of fierce Chechen resistance. Even so, prospects for a settlement in Chechnya did not seem hopeless. The second Chechen War, initiated by Mr. Putin, began almost 10 years ago; in effect, it has never ended. Moscow's effort to lure Chechens into support of a Chechen satrapy has continued, but a series of Moscow-appointed rulers in Chechnya have not been successful. Meanwhile, rebellion has spread across the entire North Caucasus.

Islam has always been part of the potent cocktail containing the nationalist and anti-colonialist ideas powering the Chechen resistance. As Russian brutality increased, so did the adherence of many Caucasian Muslims to an increasingly conservative interpretation of Islam, driven in no small part by Wahhabis from the Arab world who seeped into the North Caucasus to assist the fight against Russia.

The attachment of Chechen fighters to the wider community of radical Islam is at least partly to secure solidarity in the face of unremitting Russian opposition. But some have become true believers that Islam offers the answers to their predicament. Not surprisingly, the Russian leadership has embraced "Islamic fundamentalism" as the sole explanation for the quagmire they themselves created on their southern flank.

The problem will spread. Within the Caucasus it has already infected the Daghestanis, a substantial group that occupies a strategic territory bordering Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. Tatars (Russia's second-largest titular nationality) and Bashkirs (the Muslim people of the Middle Volga region) are making unprecedented claims for autonomy within Russia, sometimes even for full independence. Islamic clerics are speaking out boldly in ways that challenge Moscow directly.

Will Russia become the next major frontier for Islamic radicalism? Contradictory forces are at work. The Muslims of Russian empire have been predisposed historically to moderation, even modernism. But Russia today has its own Islamic radicals, and it is bordered by Islamic states in Central Asia which host homegrown and foreign Islamic radicals. Russia's young Muslims can no longer be sheltered from trends in the larger Islamic world, as modern media and the Internet connect them around the clock. Meanwhile, Russians continue down the well-worn path of thinking of Russia's Muslims as Lenin did, even as they fill their cities.