Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

The Co-optation of Islam in Russia

Political scientist specializing in national security
People pray in mosque on February 8, 2011, Makhachkala, Dagestan Republic, Russia. (Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images)
People pray in mosque on February 8, 2011, Makhachkala, Dagestan Republic, Russia. (Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images)

In Russia more than 14 million people—about 10 percent of the population—identify as Muslim.1 Islam is the second largest religious group in the country, after Orthodox Christianity. Within the Russian Federation there are eight recognized Muslim republics: Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygeya.2 Tatarstan and Bashkortostan are part of the Volga-Urals, while the other Muslim republics belong to the Northern Caucasus. Most of Russia’s Muslims live in these republics, and each one has adopted its own policies toward Islam.3

In recent years, the republics of the Northern Caucasus have transitioned from policies that primarily repressed Islam in the early 2000s to following the Volga-Ural model of co-opting Islam. This broad shift, or “policy diffusion,” has occurred as political authorities in one republic after another have increasingly learned that repression of a majority religious group is costly and largely ineffective. Moreover, repression may contribute to radicalization. As an alternative, the co-optation of religion allows republican authorities to bolster their legitimacy and allows both Moscow and the Muslim republics to influence how Islam is organized, practiced and expressed. Co-optation is the “encapsulation” of potential sources of opposition through institutions via the distribution of benefits, such as money, positions of power, or policy concessions.4

So far, Russia’s efforts have largely been effective in reducing the threat of terrorism and separatism. However, the country still faces a threat from violent extremism—or what Russian officials refer to with a broad-brush as “Wahhabism” and “Salafism.” Russian authorities have used this threat to justify not only their ongoing efforts to co-opt and shape Islam, but to dramatically reduce the space for religious freedom and to crack down on political opponents. Over time, the “securitization” of Islam in Russia runs the risk of eroding confidence in the state—and it could backfire. Already, some Muslims in Russia have begun to opt out of the Islamic institutions supported by political authorities. This paper examines the laws and tactics that Moscow and Russia’s Muslim republics have adopted to both co-opt Islam and prevent violent extremism.

Centralizing Political Power and Delegating Religious Authority

Under President Vladimir Putin, the Russian government has increasingly consolidated its power over the political sphere and over the country’s peripheries, including Muslim republics. For example, in 2002 Tatarstan was forced to strike a line from its constitution that proclaimed Tatarstan’s “sovereignty,” since this conflicted with the national Russian constitution.5 Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, each republic negotiated a treaty with Moscow, with the exception of Tatarstan and Chechnya. While Chechnya declared independence in 1991, Tatarstan used that moment to leverage increased autonomy for itself, including control over its own budget. This arrangement even allowed for Kazan (the capital of Tatarstan) to negotiate international treaties.6 In 2017, this agreement—Tatarstan’s “special status”—was allowed to expire.7

A more dramatic expression of Moscow’s crackdown on political competitors took place in Dagestan. In 2015, Said Amirov, the second most powerful man in the republic and de facto leader of the second largest ethnic group (Dargins), was arrested. After Amirov failed to capitulate to central elites, Arsen Gadzhibekov, a high-level investigator, was sent to collect evidence against Amirov. Gadzhibekov was later murdered. Subsequently, a stunning raid conducted by the Federal Security Service was carried out with armored vehicles and armed helicopters. Amirov was arrested and charged with a litany of crimes and is currently serving a life sentence.8 The Amirov case serves as a powerful reminder to other regional elites to mind federal boundaries and not overtly to challenge the Kremlin’s political power or capacity.

An exception to the trend of Moscow’s growing political control over the Muslim regions is Chechnya. Putin has given considerable political latitude to Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov’s personalistic rule is characterized by terror, including an anti-LGBTQ purge in which members of the LGBTQ community (or those perceived to be gay) have been systematically tortured and even killed.9 However, it is noteworthy that Kadyrov is careful to frequently underscore his loyal support of Putin. Meanwhile, he has contributed troops to Russia’s wars in Ukraine and Syria.10

In contrast to the political sphere, Moscow has utilized different tactics in the religious sphere by delegating authority to the Muslim republics. Moscow and regional elites have found higher utility in co-opting Islam rather than repressing it. Today, most adherents of Russia’s minority religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, still experience discrimination. However, direct repression is no longer the authoritarian regime’s strategy of choice for dealing with religious groups who are the majority population in a given region. During the Soviet era, efforts to suppress all religious expression failed to eradicate people’s identities as Russian and Orthodox or Ingush and Muslim. Moreover, repressing majority religious groups risks fostering an oppositional religious identity. A prime example of this can be seen in Chechen efforts to resist tsarist, Soviet and Russian intrusion—Chechen resistance efforts eventually adopted a religious identity to channel its opposition.

Since independence, Russian authorities have further learned that outright oppression of a majority religious group is often unsuccessful and counter-productive. Moscow and individual republics have seen that repressing Islam in areas where Muslims are the majority has helped inadvertently to foster oppositional religious identities or has politicized Islam. For instance, the republics in the Northern Caucasus, particularly Kabardino-Balkaria, attempted to repress Islam in the early 2000s. These efforts were largely ineffective and ultimately endangered the consolidation of authoritarian rule. In fact, the lack of legitimate space to discuss and/or practice Islam may have been a factor in the radicalization of some sectors of the population.11 Likewise, the absence of permissible public discourse about theology and identity in Kabardino-Balkaria, when combined with state deployed violence, delegitimized the regional government and may have paved the way for anti-state violence.

As a result of these experiences, Moscow and the leaders of Muslim republics since the early 2000s have relied less on outright repression. Instead, “co-optation” has become Russia’s preferred method of choice when engaging with Islam. Co-optation is particularly useful to individual republican regimes in their bid to garner popular legitimacy. By co-opting the national religious identity, such as Bashkir Muslim identity, the republican regime is able to improve its image by upholding itself as the protector of this identity.

When dealing with other sources of potential opposition, the Russian regime frequently employs institutions such as legislatures and political parties for the purpose of co-optation.12 However, like other authoritarian regimes, Russia has not elected to use political institutions (like legislatures or political parties) to co-opt religion. Using a political institution could risk granting a power base to religious leaders. Accordingly, political parties based on religious affiliation are banned in Russia. The politicization of religion would also likely be viewed as partisan by citizens, thus potentially reducing the legitimacy of the regime. Instead, a religious institution is employed to co-opt Islam.13

Despite the Russian regime’s growing political consolidation, Moscow has been more circumspect in the sphere of religion. Instead of using strong-arm tactics, federal and regional institutions have been employed to co-opt Islam. At the federal level, several significant pieces of legislation have been passed under the pretext of preventing violent extremism. These laws serve to securitize Islam in Russia at the national level; they do so by providing a ready-made pretext for federal intervention if regional elites fail to demonstrate sufficient political deference to Moscow. Simultaneously, the task of co-opting Islam has largely been delegated to each of Russia’s respective Muslim republics.

Every Muslim republic has chosen to create an institution for Islam—a Spiritual Association of Muslims, or SAM. Each SAM functions to co-opt Islam through three avenues: 1) co-optation of mosques; 2) co-optation of religious knowledge (ranging from religious appointments to literature); and 3) co-optation through securitization (wherein any behavior straying outside of the SAM is equated with extremism).

National Laws

The Russian Federation’s legislation on religion both intends to limit regional independence and to bolster efforts by regional republican governments to co-opt Islam. According to the 1993 constitution, Russia is officially a secular state.14 At the same time, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islam has been acknowledged and carefully included in Russian policy with respect to religion.

In the 1990s, new legislation was adopted to deter the development of independent religious organizations and, taken together, this benefited the Spiritual Associations of Muslims, or SAMs. Later, beginning in the 2000s, more laws were implemented to deter foreign funding of religious activities in order to further limit the independence of a SAM vis-à-vis the republican regime. At the same time, legislation on religion has also begun to focus on religious extremism. This legislation enables republican regimes to apply vague definitions of religious extremism to independent Muslims groups. It also provides an avenue for central government intrusion under the pretext of fending off extremism within Russia.

In 1997, “The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association” was passed and signed by President Boris Yeltsin. The preamble of the 1997 law makes clear that Russia is a secular state. It also acknowledges Russia's “historical heritage” of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism—commonly referred to as the “four traditional religions”—as well as “other religions.” 15 At the same time, the law also underscores “the Special role of Orthodoxy in the history of Russia and in the establishment and development of its spirituality and culture.”16 The law therefore implicitly creates a hierarchy of religions in which Orthodox Christianity is accorded a special and uppermost status, while Islam, Buddhism and Judaism occupy the second tier, and “other” minor religions a third.17 In effect, this has meant that Orthodox Christianity has enjoyed a closer and more privileged relationship with the state, even though Islam is also carefully included in the construction of Russia’s “traditional” religious history.

The 1997 law also created a distinction between a “religious organization” and a “religious group,” with more advantages afforded to the former. Religious groups are limited to performing religious services and rituals and providing religious education within their community.18 On the other hand, religious organizations can perform religious services in private as well as public spaces (e.g., hospitals).19 These organizations can also own or use buildings,20 and invite foreign citizens to Russia.21 In order to be officially considered as an “organization,” the 1997 law stated that a religious entity was required to have been registered for 15 years.

Importantly, when the law was passed in 1997, only a small handful of religious groups had been registered in Russia for fifteen years, and so only a few groups could legally qualify as an “organization.” The only recognized organizations for Islam in Russia during the Soviet Union were the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of the European Part of the USSR and Siberia and the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of the Northern Caucasus.22 After the Soviet Union’s demise, the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of the European Part of the USSR and Siberia was renamed the Central Spiritual Association of Muslims in Russia. Thus, initially due to the 1997 law, Spiritual Associations of Muslims—SAMs—were the only Muslim institutions that were allowed to conduct religious activities in public or own or use buildings for religious purposes. Consequently, no other Muslim groups could establish mosques.

This official advantage for SAMs was rolled back in July of 2015 with an amendment to the 1997 law on religion. This removed the fifteen-year registration requirement for a religious entity to be considered a religious organization. This alteration occurred in response to a 2009 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which found the fifteen-year requirement to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. This took place because of a case brought to the court by a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.

However, the July 2015 amendment also put in place other onerous restrictions that favor SAMs. Similar to the 2011 law on religion in Kazakhstan, this amendment requires all places of worship to notify authorities of their existence and to provide the government with both the names and personal addresses of their members.23 Notably, religious bodies that are not associated with a central religious organization are prohibited from providing religious education or conducting ceremonies.24

There are varying levels of registration based on the location and number of members of a religious entity.25 The registration requirement de facto prioritizes the Russian Orthodox Church, which is among the few religious organizations able to obtain national registration. Two Muslim institutions are also allowed to operate at the national level—the Central Spiritual Association of Muslims of Russia and the Council of Muftis.

In effect, however, onerous registration requirements enhance the state’s control over Islam in two ways. First, they inhibit independent Muslim institutions from establishing a foothold in each Muslim republic. Second, they also serve to deter republican SAMs—like the Spiritual Association of Muslims in Tatarstan—from gaining a national following and thus from increasing their base. For example, the law has prevented the SAM in Tatarstan from gaining registration outside of that republic and thus from acquiring potentially greater reach in other parts of Russia.26 Overall, the 1997 law made it more difficult for independent mosques and smaller religious entities to operate in Russia, while simultaneously facilitating a monopoly of power over Islam by the SAM in each republic but denied them any national reach.

National Legislation Deterring Foreign Funding

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of countries, and particularly Turkey, provided support for the construction of mosques in Russia’s Muslim republics (as well as in Central Asia). Curbing foreign influence in religious affairs became an important issue for Moscow and regional elites in order to reduce the autonomy of Spiritual Associations of Muslims. Thus, in November 2015, another amendment was added to the 1997 law with the intent of limiting and controlling foreign sources of funding to religious organizations inside Russia.27 The amendment required all religious organizations to declare any sources of foreign funding to the Ministry of Justice. Further, it required that these reports to the government be made publicly available, and that the reports describe the activities of the religious organizations, identify their leaders, and explain how the foreign funding will be utilized.28 The 2015 amendment also granted the Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor General’s Office the right to inspect the financial and business activities of religious organizations in case of any suspicion that they have come under the influence of extremism.29 In effect, this has deterred SAMs from receiving foreign financial support.30

The most recent federal legislative push came in 2016 in the form of the Yarovaya Package, a set of proposed laws on “anti-terrorism,” which placed further restrictions on missionary activities and proselytization.31 The Yarovaya Package has been openly discussed by government officials as a law aimed primarily at controlling Islam in Russia (though it has also been applied against new religious movements). The package adds a definition (for the first time) of missionary activity to Russia’s law on religion and defines it thusly:

The activity of a religious association, aimed at disseminating information about its beliefs among people who are not participants (members, followers) in that religious association, with the purpose of involving these people as participants (members, followers). It is carried out directly by religious associations or by citizens and/or legal entities authorized by them, publicly, with the help of the media, the Internet or other lawful means. 32

Additionally, missionary activity is supposed to be carried out only by the director, governing body members, or clergy of an officially recognized religious organization.33 Others are required to obtain written approval from a registered religious organization, to carry a letter authorizing them to perform missionary activity, and to notify local authorities in advance.34 Foreign citizens or stateless persons35 are permitted to carry out missionary activity only on behalf of a specific religious organization, and they are allowed to carry out missionary activity only in the region in which their organization is registered.36

These restrictions on missionary activity are aimed, in part, at limiting the influence and financial support emanating from Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Both countries have previously provided funding in some republics for religious education through SAMs. Cutting off those republics’ sources of funding has further reduced the already limited autonomy some SAMs had vis-à-vis the republican regimes. Independent sources of support, including foreign funding, could increase a SAM’s leverage in relation to the regional regime, thus potentially converting a SAM into a subversive institution.37 Furthermore, this might well pose a threat to regional regimes as well as to the Kremlin.

In a domestic example, the mufti of Ingushetia—with the support of Ramzan Kadyrov, Head of the Chechen Republic—directly challenged the legitimacy of the Head of Ingushetia, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, by excommunicating him in May 2018. This excommunication was criticized by the Council of Muftis. Despite the fact that Yevkurov was the Kremlin’s preferred leader of Ingushetia, when he fell in popularity after a land-swap agreement with Chechnya, Moscow elected to replace him in June 2019.38 Thus, while SAMs primarily function as quasi-governmental agencies throughout Russia, they can still serve as an actor in the political field. Along similar lines, foreign funding also introduces outside actors that could interfere with internal republican affairs. This risk was minimized for both the Kremlin and republican elites with the November 2015 amendment to the 1997 law and the Yarovaya Package.

National Legislation on Extremism

In the 2000s, Russian federal legislation on religion began to focus on the emerging threat of extremism. The “Federal Law on Combating Extremist Activity” was adopted in 2002. This legislation did not purport to be evenly applied to all religious groups. It is, instead, aimed and in practice almost exclusively applied to Muslims, along with members of new religious movements (e.g., the International Society for Krishna or the Church of Scientology). The definition of “extremism” in the law was further changed via amendments in 2006 and 2007. The definition is a paragraph of imprecise clauses, including:

Forcible change of the foundations of the constitutional system and violation of integrity of the Russian Federation;… incitement to social; racial, national [ethnic] or religious discord; …propaganda of exclusiveness, superiority or inferiority of an individual based on his/her social, racial, national [ethnic], religious or linguistic identity, or his/her attitude to religion. 39

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has expressed its concern that this 2002 Russian legislation “does not require any element of violence or hatred to be present and that no clear and precise criteria on how materials may be classified as extremist are provided in the law.”40 The vagueness of these clauses has been leveraged both at the federal and regional/republican level to officially define the boundaries of acceptable religious identity and practice.

This same law has been used to prosecute people from minority Muslim communities.41 Some Sufi texts have been banned, such as Fundamentals of Rumi’s Thought: A Mevlevi Sufi Perspective by Şefik Can, as well as writings by the Turkish revivalist Said-i Nursî.42 Additionally, the law is used to repress political opposition. For instance, Fauziya Bairamova, a Tatar nationalist activist, was charged with inciting ethnic hatred under the extremism law in 2014 because of her opposition to the Russian invasion of Crimea, and for expressing her support for Crimean Tatars who opposed annexation.43

Similarly, the anti-extremism focus of the Yarovaya Package has been part of a broader securitization measure to frame political opposition as extremism. The Yarovaya Package includes provisions requiring telecommunications companies to store metadata for six months, and to assist the Russian government in its efforts to access encrypted communications. This requirement has been widely condemned by human rights groups as part of an effort to further reduce freedom in the political sphere and to collect information about opposition members.
More broadly, legislation on religious extremism provides tools for republican regimes to co-opt Islam within their borders. Meanwhile, it also poses a threat to Muslim republics. The leaders of the republics are expected to affirm that Moscow is the center of ultimate authority. If they are unable or unwilling to do so, “extremism” can be used as a pretense for Moscow’s unwelcome intrusion into their republican jurisdictions.44

Taken together, national legislation on religion has benefited the regimes of Muslim republics by helping each of them to consolidate religious power through their respective Spiritual Associations of Muslims. It has done so by making it more difficult for independent mosques and religious organizations to register, meanwhile increasing the leverage of republican regimes over SAMs by restricting support from foreign sources. At the same time, national legislation on countering extremism has also served to remind regional leaders and elites of their potentially precarious position if they do not prevent acts of violent extremism, or if they pursue too much independence from Moscow. The threat of Islamic extremism has already been framed as a pretext for intervention by the central government.

There have also been regional attempts, particularly during the 1990s, to control the religious sphere through law. For example, in 1998 Tatarstan passed a law officially awarding a monopoly to its SAM and banning all other Islamic institutions. Such laws have largely been erased due to their conflict with national law. Co-optation at the regional level through legislation is, therefore, no longer a viable option.

Additionally, some Muslim republics also initially managed to repurpose Soviet government institutions—including the Council for the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church (CAROC), and the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults (CARC)—into republican level Councils for Religious Affairs (CRA). This formal approach has also fallen by the wayside.45 On the other hand, unofficial regional policies that seek to co-opt and shape Islam through Spiritual Associations of Muslims have been allowed to flourish.

Spiritual Associations of Muslims

Russia’s first established Islamic institution, the Orenburg Spiritual Association, was created by Catherine the Great in 1788. This association was an official state institution responsible for, regulating and controlling the Volga-Urals and Siberia (and during the nineteenth century, part of what is now northern Kazakhstan.) The mufti of the Orenburg Spiritual Association was selected by the Russian state.46 This was the predecessor to the Muslim institutions that were established in the Soviet years: the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Central Asia (headquartered in Tashkent, Uzbekistan); the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of the European Part of the USSR and Siberia (Ufa, Bashkortostan); the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of the Northern Caucasus (Buynaksk, Dagestan), and the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of the Caucasus (Baku, Azerbaijan).47

The first three of these Soviet institutions were officially Sunni and each respective leader was referred to as a mufti. The fourth was primarily a Shi’a institution, headed by a shaykh-ul-Islam, though its deputy leader held the title of mufti and was granted similar authority over Azerbaijan’s Sunni Muslims.48 Each institution was colloquially referred to as a muftiate. In the early 1990s, various regional and national Muslim institutions emerged from the ashes of the four Muslim institutions created by the Soviets.

The creation of republican level Spiritual Associations of Muslims began shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. For instance, the Spiritual Association of Muslims of Kabardino-Balkaria was created in 1989.49 Subsequently, Karachay-Cherkessia’s SAM was created in 1990, and it has had the same mufti since 1991.50 Bashkortostan is unique in that it houses both a republican SAM (created in 1992)51 and the Central SAM. Republican leaders in Bashkortostan must thus manage relationships with both institutions. In Adygeya, a SAM for the republic and neighboring Krasnodar Krai was established in 1993.52

In 1994, the Spiritual Association of Muslims of Dagestan was created, which consolidated various independent Spiritual Associations of Muslims that sprang up to represent different ethnic groups within Dagestan (such as the Avar, Lak, Kumyk, and Dargin Qasiate Spiritual Associations of Muslims) after the fall of the Soviet Union.53 In Tatarstan, a monopoly was granted to one religious institution in 1998 in order to both quell the region’s nationalist demands and to stem off intrusions from the central government.54 Similar arrangements have spread to all the other Muslim republics, as each of them went through a protracted process of granting a monopoly over religion to one Muslim religious institution or SAM.

At the national level, two notable institutions remain—the Central Spiritual Association of Muslims of Russia (headquartered in Ufa, Bashkortostan),55 and the Council of Muftis (created in 1996). However, the influence of these rival institutions on each respective republic is limited, and the Council of Muftis’ power base is primarily in Moscow.56 In addition to the Muslim republics within present-day Russia, all of the other Muslim republics in the former Soviet Union, including those that are now independent states,57 currently have SAMs. For example, Kyrgyzstan set up a Spiritual Association of Muslims in 1993 and Uzbekistan in 1992.

Efforts to co-opt Islam in Russia today are deployed through these republican SAMs. Moscow has thus far calculated that an effort to directly co-opt Islam via the central government would incur too much resistance, besides being overly resource intensive. Furthermore, co-optation from the very top would likely be viewed as illegitimate by citizens, since it would be disconnected from the ethnic and national identities of Russian Muslims. Instead, regional regimes have elected to utilize religious institutions in order to co-opt Islam.

By allowing Islam to be addressed at the regional level, republican regimes are allowed to garner legitimacy through, for example, their association with regional identities, such as the Tatar Muslims or Ingush Muslims. This arrangement also provides further assurances to Moscow that (1) the religious sphere is monitored by regional authorities, and (2) that there is an absence of violent attacks. Thus, republican regimes are also incentivized to prevent violent attacks in order to reduce the risk of losing autonomy.

Each SAM sets policy on Islam and has engaged in an extensive effort to co-opt and shape Islam through three processes. First, each republican SAM seeks to co-opt every mosque within its borders. This follows an unofficial policy and is not directly enforced through legislation.58 This unofficial policy does receive some federal backing through the 1997 federal law on religion, due to its more lax registration requirements for larger religious communities. These more lenient requirements make registration easier for larger religious organizations like SAMs.

Secondly, each Spiritual Association of Muslims has established a monopoly based on the right to produce knowledge related to Islam within the borders of the republic. And lastly, straying outside the bounds of the Spiritual Association of Muslims is portrayed as “extremism,” a frequently nebulous term, which is not exclusively limited to acts of violence. Citing “extremism” serves the purpose of framing resistance to a SAM monopoly as being beyond the bounds of accepted society. Also, portraying potential instances of religious extremism as being deftly handled by local authorities is an attempt to ensure boundary control and to fend off justifications for central intrusion.

Co-optation of Mosques

From the 1990s, the co-optation of mosques in the Volga-Urals was executed by republican SAMs. Likewise, the transition from repressing independent mosques in the Northern Caucasus in the 1990s, to primarily co-opting them, has also been enforced by SAMs. Spiritual Associations of Muslims divide their territories into administrative units known as muhtasibates.59 Each muhtasibate oversees mosques within its jurisdiction. I have classified mosques in Russia in three categories: governmental, co-opted, and independent.

Governmental mosques are constructed with funds from republican governments or they are commissioned by high-level (republican) government officials. For example, the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque in Chechnya is named after the first mufti of Chechnya, who later became president. It was commissioned by his son, the current president of Chechnya, with support from Moscow. In August 2019, Kadyrov also oversaw the opening of another mosque in Shali, Chechnya. It is now the latest mosque in the region to claim the title of “largest in Europe,” with a stated capacity of 30,000.60 In the capital of Bashkortostan the central mosque, Lala Tulpan, was constructed with the support of the government, and the mosque is used in official advertisements to attract tourists from the Middle East.61 The first two presidents of the Republic of Adygeya officially supported the construction of numerous mosques throughout the republic.62

Co-opted mosques are constructed from money raised by donations from the local population and/or wealthy benefactors and are subsequently required to join the SAM. For example, in Kazan, Tatarstan only two mosques were government constructed, while all other mosques in the city were co-opted into the SAM in 1998.63 Alternatively, some independent mosques in Russia have been constructed from funds raised by locals and/or benefactors and have thus far been able to continue to avoid co-optation into the SAM while remaining independent. However, most mosques that have resisted incorporation into a Spiritual Association of Muslims, or compliance with SAM, have subsequently been closed.

In both the Volga Urals and Northern Caucasus, two patterns illustrate how mosques have been shut down by authorities. In some cases, an imam is either accused of being a Salafi or an extremist (see Co-optation through Securitization below), or the closing has been portrayed as a bureaucratic procedure under the guise of building or other administrative codes.

In Tatarstan, every mosque throughout the entire republic is part of SAM.64 Likewise all mosques in Bashkortostan are either affiliated with the republican SAM or Central SAM. Under Kadyrov, there are no longer independent mosques in Chechnya. This stands in stark contrast to the 1990s when numerous Salafi mosques were present in the republic.

Mosque closures in the Volga Urals have been limited. Since the 1990s, SAMs in this region have preferred to bring mosques into their sphere of influence. Additionally, the Volga Ural closures have not been accompanied by widespread state violence or repression of the wider Muslim community. Rather, these mosques closures are examples of targeted repression. In contrast to the Tatar-Bashkir approach, other republics previously deployed widespread state violence against imams and Muslims who went to mosques that theologically differed from the republican SAM, or who criticized the SAM in the early 2000s.

In a very stark instance, widespread violence perpetuated by the state in Kabardino-Balkaria jeopardized the perceived legitimacy of the SAM and republican government itself. This violence was even coupled with the closing of all mosques in the republic in 2005. Such heavy-handedness, implemented in varying degrees against all Muslims who wanted to pray or go to mosques, has negatively affected the perception of the SAM. Some citizens in Kabardino-Balkaria even petitioned Putin, requesting permission to move to another republic within Russia or abroad, in order to have the right of religious freedom.65 While mosques are once again open in Kabardino-Balkaria, the oppressiveness of this policy and the repression not only of individuals who engaged in violence but of all Muslims not in the SAM may have contributed to further outbreaks of violence against the state.66

The Kabardino-Balkaria government has since recalibrated. As part of this détente, independent communities, or jamaats, and some mosques, continue to have a presence in Kabardino-Balkaria. The effects of earlier widespread repression are still felt, however. In Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria some Muslims continue to refuse to go to the central SAM-affiliated mosque in protest.67

The ruling authorities in Dagestan and Ingushetia have also recalculated and made concessions to their Muslim populations. Indeed, some independent mosques continue to operate in Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria, as each of these republican regimes have learned that widespread repression endangers their legitimacy and is costly. Meanwhile, villages in Dagestan along the Chechen border have established independent mosques and expressed a desire to join Chechnya.68 A few imams of independent mosques in Dagestan identify as Salafi, such as in the city of Khasavyurt, while the SAM in Dagestan affiliates with Sufism.69 Additionally, under the previous president of Ingushetia, President Yevkurov (who was recently forced out of office), the republic also balanced counterinsurgency efforts with dialogue, and allowed some Salafi mosques to continue to operate.70 With only a few months in office, it remains to be seen how successfully acting-President Mahmud-Ali Kalimatov will operate in the religious sphere.

In the case of Chechnya, both the overwhelming violence deployed by Kadyrov against any type of dissent and the free rein provided to Kadyrov by Putin have made public resistance to the SAM a very high-risk endeavor. While no independent mosques exist in the republic, it is difficult to determine how ordinary citizens perceive the legitimacy of Chechnya’s SAM in light of the overbearing political environment.

Overall, the Volga-Urals have more effectively co-opted mosques in Russia relative to the Northern Caucasus by using more targeted suppression. This, in turn, has reinforced the legitimacy and power of the SAMs in the Volga-Urals region. Alternatively, the republics of the Northern Caucasus, which have had to contend with nationalist separatist movements, have a record of violently repressing larger communities of Muslims, including those who did not engage in violence. This has adversely affected the legitimacy of the SAMs in the eyes of the people, and has thus continued to inhibit the consolidation of their monopoly over Islam.

Shaping Religious Knowledge

The Russian government and each republican government’s determination to co-opt Islam also extends deeply into the realm of religious knowledge. In effect, each republican SAM claims the exclusive right to produce religious knowledge within its boundaries. Each regime has sought to monopolize Islamic religious and intellectual life and enforce its writ in two ways—first, by restricting access to religious ideas independent of its SAM, and second, by producing SAM-approved versions of religious knowledge (including Friday messages, books and online materials).

The former effort involves tightly controlling all religious appointments in the SAMs as well as repressing Muslim religious leaders who have had or seek profiles outside the SAM framework. All imams at SAM mosques—which comprise the majority of all mosques in Russia—are either appointed or approved by the SAM. Imams who have attempted to create a power base independent of the SAM are usually swiftly repressed. For instance, at one mosque in Kazan, Tatarstan, an imam attracted a dedicated following. In response, the mosque was closed, purportedly for a building violation. Meanwhile, the imam was charged with extremism under the pretext that he was a follower of the pro-caliphate revivalist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir.71 A similar episode took place in Dagestan. A self-identified Salafi imam in Khasavyurt publicly lamented the closing of Salafi mosques and claimed that he himself was being targeted by authorities. As a result, he was charged with inciting terrorism.72

Notably, there are few opportunities for Islamic higher education in the republics, and the educational opportunities that do exist are only available through the SAM. The most significant of these institutions is the Russian Islamic University, located in Kazan, Tatarstan. It was created in 1998 with the support of the Tatar government, the SAM of Tatarstan, the Central Muslim Spiritual Association, and the Council of Muftis. In 2007, the institute became the first Islamic educational institution in Russia to receive accreditation from the state.73 Other institutions of higher Islamic learning include the Northern Caucasus Islamic University of Muhammad Arif (Dagestan), Rizah Fakhretdin Islamic Institute (Bashkortostan), Maryum Sultanova Islamic Institute (Bashkortostan), King Fahd Islamic Institute (Ingushetia), Kunta-Haji Islamic University (Chechnya), and Moscow Islamic University.74 Additionally, all secondary madrasahs in the country must be affiliated with a SAM.

The current lack of Islamic educational opportunities is of concern to religious leaders as well as the general Muslim public. In one survey conducted in Adygeya, just 20 percent of respondents stated that they were “satisfied” with the educational level of their local imams. Conversely, 60 percent stated that they were “dissatisfied.”75 Indeed, the lack of educational attainment by imams was a common refrain during my own fieldwork in Tatarstan. Low levels of religious knowledge manifest themselves in other ways. For example, the SAM in Karachay-Cherkessia claims officially to adhere to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence.76 However, pamphlets produced by the SAM on how to read namaz (daily prayers)77 included practices from other madhabs (schools of Islamic thought) that do not reflect Hanafi orthodoxy.78

Imams in SAM mosques are no longer allowed to produce or deliver their own Friday messages. Today, the SAM of each republic produces a Friday message and then uses a distribution system to get its message to every mosque. The Friday messages in some republics are published in advance in a book, which is physically mailed to imams and is also available for citizens to purchase. Although the development and dissemination of the Friday message by SAMs is not official policy, it is enforced in all SAM mosques, and thus in most mosques throughout the country.

The co-optation of religious knowledge also extends to religious literature and websites. Within each republic, Islamic literature requires a SAM stamp of approval. Additionally, most republics also require that religious literature can only be sold in SAM-approved locations. While this is officially not part of Russia’s laws governing religion, each SAM in practice maintains a near monopoly over religious knowledge, and to varying degrees, each SAM has made efforts to produce religious texts and websites.

For instance, two of the most prominent websites are the Kazan, Tatarstan-based “Islam Today” and “Islam Review.” These news service agencies work closely together to produce content that is not directly critical of SAM associated authorities in Russia.79 The Council of Muftis maintains the popular website “” While “” is formally independent, its deputy editor is an advisor to the Council of Muftis. Some mosques, particularly those that are government constructed, maintain their own websites. Other SAMs have their own publishing houses. Medina Publishing House, for example, is supported by the Central SAM. The Islamic Herald (Islamskii Vestnik) is a Muslim newspaper in Makhachkala, Dagestan.80

In addition to co-opting mosques, co-opting religious knowledge through controlling access to religious appointments and educational institutions, and producing and disseminating Friday messages, religious literature, and websites, each republic has also sought to co-opt Islam through securitization.

Securitizing Islam

Russian authorities (both national and regional), including the SAMs, all argue that the various restrictions on Islam and its expression are fundamentally justified by national security concerns. Indeed, the co-optation of mosques and of religious knowledge in each republic is justified as a necessary measure to allow for the development and preservation of a peaceful and prosperous society. Meantime, Muslims who stray outside of the SAM-approved religious frameworks and requirements are depicted as threats to society’s overall security and development. Because of this, Islam has become increasingly “securitized” in Russia.81 Not only are terrorists or separatists labeled as “extremists,” but also political opposition and others whose religious views differ theologically from the SAMs.

Of course, Russia does face some legitimate security threats from violent groups (including from separatist movements in which religious ideology may play a secondary role.) For instance, the so-called “Caucasus Emirate,” an umbrella terrorist organization, first arose in 2007. The Caucasus Emirate was affiliated with al-Qaeda and sought to bring the northern Caucasus under unified rule. Led by Doku Umarov, the Caucasus Emirate claimed responsibility for the bombings of the Moscow metro in 2010 and Domodedovo International Airport in 2011.
Today, after Russian forces killed Umarov in 2014 and then his successor, the Caucasus Emirate is largely defunct. However, some remnants of the movement have since joined the Islamic State (ISIS).82

In 2015, ISIS declared that it had created a new governorate in the North Caucasus: Wilayat Qawqaz, led by Abu Mohammad al-Qadari. This new ISIS “province” claims to encompass Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachay-Cherkessia.83 While the Wilayat Qawqaz is still in present in Russia, its attacks have been isolated and small scale.84 Furthermore, it has been estimated that anywhere from 200 to 7,000 Russian nationals have fought either in Iraq or in Syria against the Assad regime, where they have joined ISIS or other violent Islamist groups. These divergent estimates are the product of unclear methodologies and probably faulty data; regardless, ISIS recruitment, particularly in the Northern Caucasus, remains a problem.85

Russia has been among the few countries to allow its citizens in Syria and those accused of belonging to ISIS—particularly children—to return to Russia. This policy is driven by both humanitarian and security considerations, as it is intended to prevent the radicalization of children abroad who in later years may return to Russia. After the collapse of the Islamic State, the way power will continue to be distributed amongst terrorist and separatist groups remains to be seen. As it stands now, the lack of an international actor to provide it with substantive support probably means that Wilayat Qawqaz will be limited to unsophisticated attacks by individuals. Increasingly, these individuals are likely to work alone or within a limited circle, without direct training from the broader ISIS network.

In contrast to the North Caucasus, acts of violence in the Volga-Urals region have been rare. The violent incidents that have occurred have been limited to targeted assassinations or assassination attempts against high profile members of SAM. In 2012, the deputy mufti of the SAM in Tatarstan was shot and killed while the mufti was injured in a car bombing. These events were widely regarded as a shocking occurrence. No specific group claimed responsibility for the attack. Five individuals were arrested and Tatar and Russian authorities claimed that the assassination and assassination attempt were the acts of Islamic extremists. The accused ringleader of the attacks was the chairperson of a company that organized hajj trips —and that was later taken over by the mufti (who was subsequently injured in the car bombing). According to The Moscow Times, Russian authorities stated that the assassination and assassination attempt were motivated by both ideology and finances due to a loss of income from hajj trips.86

At the same time, some ethnic Tatars and Bashkirs are known to have joined militant groups in Syria. In 2015, two men in Tatarstan were given prison sentences for fighting in Syria.87 In 2016, a new militant group, the Junud al-Makhdi, was formed in Syria. The self-described mujahidin group was formed by ethnic Tatars and Bashkirs.88 There is no evidence so far that Junud al-Makhdi operates domestically in either Tatarstan or Bashkortostan or is planning attacks in these republics.

While the actual threat posed by religious extremism is clearly different in the Volga-Urals and the Northern Caucasus, the official rhetoric of the authorities in both regions about Islamist extremism is strikingly similar. Indeed, throughout the Russian Federation, Islamist terrorists—whether they are members of ISIS, the Caucasus Emirate, or other terrorist groups— are all officially labelled by Russian authorities as “Salafis” or “Wahhabis.”

Some Muslims in Russia’s republics self-identify as Salafi; however, the vast majority of them eschew violence. Exactly how Muslims who identify as Salafi view religion and the nature of their religious practices—including the range and diversity of views between and within Russia’s various regions—has not been adequately examined.89 In my own fieldwork in Tatarstan, Russia and Kazakhstan, people who described themselves as Salafis did not necessarily associate this term with a particular religious ideology or theology, but with the basic knowledge and practice of Islam. By contrast, they described Russia’s SAM-recognized imams (in both Tatarstan and Kazakhstan where only SAM mosques remain) as poorly educated. Simultaneously, interviewees I spoke with in Russia who sought out Salafi leaders for religious advice were unable to articulate how these leaders differed theologically from SAM imams.

Meanwhile, those same labels of “Salafi” and “Wahhabi” are also applied by SAM and government officials to various smaller non-violent religious groups, again, despite their differences in theology.90 At the same time, these labels are also applied to religious leaders who have tried to create power bases outside of the context of SAM. In the kremlin91 of Kazan, Tatarstan, the most prominent mosque in the region was destroyed in 1552 by Ivan the Terrible during the Russo-Kazan war between the Kazan Khanate and Muscovite Russia that resulted in the conquering of Kazan.92 As a sign of resurgent national pride, a new mosque, Kul Sharif, was erected on the same grounds in 2005. However, the mosque was officially opened as a museum, not a place or worship, and thus it was not officially part of Tatarstan’s SAM.

Meanwhile, the imam of the mosque, Ramil Yunusov, attempted to create his own power base and subsequently became entangled in a conflict with the mufti of the SAM. Yunusov resisted attempts by the mufti to incorporate the mosque into the SAM. Unsurprisingly, Yunusov was accused by authorities of being a Salafi; he was subsequently arrested and removed from his position. Ultimately, Kul Sharif Mosque was subsumed into the SAM of Tatarstan.93

The labels “Salafi,” “Wahhabi,” and “extremist,” have also been used to denigrate the political opposition. After Crimea, the homeland of Crimean Tatars, was annexed by Russia in 2014, Crimean Tatar activists have increasingly been imprisoned or exiled. In June 2019, eight Crimean Tatars were jailed under charges of “extremism.”94

One consequence—which will likely over the long-term—of labeling all Muslims who engage in violence as “Salafis” or “Wahhabis” is to make it more difficult to distinguish between the different political and ideological motivations of these actors. Such an approach does not allow for an analysis that incorporates people’s beliefs, practices, worldview, grievances (legitimate or not), or how they interact with their social context.95 Contrary to Moscow’s thinking, it also obstructs efforts by the government to manage and deter violent religious extremism. Painting political opponents, Muslims whose religious beliefs differ theologically from the SAM, those who simply want to practice their faith outside the SAM framework, or members of new Islamic groups with the same brush as members of ISIS, the Caucasus Emirate, and other terrorists lessens the gravity of the charge “extremist” or “terrorist.” This broad-brush labeling may also generate more skepticism of the state among the population—and perhaps also drive anger and new forms of political opposition.


Moscow has chosen not to directly attempt to co-opt or to repress Islam within Russia’s borders. Russia’s political elite have come to believe—correctly—that such an effort would be viewed as illegitimate and would likely stir-up significant resentment and opposition. Instead, policies on Islam are delegated to the republics. The authoritarian regimes in the Muslim republics have learned that it is more advantageous to co-opt rather than repress Islam. While the North Caucasus have had more serious security threats to contend with than other parts of Russia, the choice in the early 2000s to repress Muslims was not effective. In fact, the decision to repress Islam only further exacerbated their problems, while jeopardizing the rule of regional elites and the legitimacy of the SAMs. The North Caucasus republics have now joined the Volga-Urals in efforts to try to co-opt the majority religious group. Co-optation reduces the risk of mobilizing the majority religious group and allows republican regimes to bolster their own legitimacy.

Muslim republics enact the co-optation of Islam through three processes. Firstly, the majority of mosques in Russia have been co-opted into a SAM. Secondly, religious knowledge is supervised and controlled through monitoring religious appointments and the production of religious literature and websites. Lastly, through laws and informal policies, religious movements, leaders, and independent thought outside of SAMs are framed, increasingly, as religious extremism, Salafism, and/or Wahhabism.

Moscow has put several safeguards in place to ensure that the central government can intervene should a republic attempt to gain too much autonomy or fail to manage and contain violent religious extremism. National laws on religion, including ones that focus on extremism, provides the federal government with a powerful pretext to intrude in religious affairs throughout the country. At the same time, Russia’s Muslim republics are trying both to co-opt Islam for their own legitimacy, while simultaneously seeking to prevent actual instances of violent religious extremism. Meanwhile, they are attempting to project an image to Moscow that the religious sphere is contained and monitored in order to maintain their boundary control.

Overall, these assorted efforts to co-opt Islam in Russia’s Muslim republics have so far been effective, thanks largely to the astute decision to delegate the co-optation of Islam to the republics. However, the decisions by Moscow and individual republican regimes to aggressively securitize Islam pose several medium and long-term risks. First, the conceptual stretching of the term “extremism” from individuals who engage in acts of violence to members of the political opposition and individuals whose theology simply differs from a SAM may weaken the charge of being accused of “extremism.” Without legitimate avenues in which to openly debate various theological viewpoints, some individuals—after already being identified as extremists by a SAM or the government—may decide to embody the labels imposed upon them. Conflating different extremist ideologies with each other as well as with independent political and religious thought provides little room for understanding the motives and aims of extremist groups.

Russia faces genuine threats to its security from violent extremism. However, other countries committed to combating violent extremism should view Russia’s (and other authoritarian governments’) claims about the threat of Islamist extremism with skepticism. Equating all independent religious thought and practice with groups that commit violence severely hinders dialogue and the exercise of religious freedom. In fact, the authoritarian refusal to permit independent religious thought and practice in public spaces may eventually lead to radicalization. This, of course, highlights the authoritarian’s dilemma with respect to religion. For the sake of maintaining their own power, authoritarian governments must inhibit the growth of independent civil society and religious expression. This weakens a society’s capacity to deal with extremism, and also heightens the risk of violence.