After St. Petersburg bombing, a notable absence: Russian anti-Islam backlash

In the US and Europe, a terrorist attack carried out by a Muslim would drive harsh political blowback against Islam. That didn't happen in Russia – but that's not necessarily a sign of enlightenment.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
Members of the honor guard march by the Kremlin wall during a memorial in Moscow on Thursday to commemorate the victims of the St. Petersburg metro blast that took place on April 3.

Monday's terrorist bombing in St. Petersburg appears to bring Russia and the West closer in many ways.

Unlike past terrorist attacks against Russia's heartland, which were rooted in Moscow's savage war to subdue a local insurgency in the north Caucasus, this one was carried out by a Muslim immigrant who security services say had apparent links to Middle East extremists.

That tracks pretty closely with the frequent attacks that have recently struck European countries, whose armed forces are also fighting against jihadism in the Middle East. So too does the public response of rallying around the victims and redoubling official determination to destroy the terrorists in their desert lairs.

But there is one thing that looks remarkably different: the absence of the type of public backlash against Islam that is increasingly frequent in the West. There have been no public calls for a ban on all Muslim immigration, or crackdowns on local Islamic communities, or even demands to build a wall along Russia's long and porous border with Muslim-majority Central Asian neighbors.

The seeming lack of vocal, angry public anti-Muslim sentiment in Russia, even after a mass casualty terrorist assault, has even led some commentators to suggest that Russia might have something to teach the West about tolerance-driven integration.

The reality may be more complicated.

Analysts say that Russia's mainly white Christian population is no less susceptible to the fears and hatreds that are roiling Western societies. But they are held in check by a host of factors: a political culture that forcibly marginalizes extremisms of all kinds and limits their access to the media; a long history of war, conquest, and assimilation of Muslim neighbors into Russian-run states; a federal structure that includes several mainly Muslim republics; and a rising Russian Orthodox Church that has been very careful to retain good formal relations with Russia's three other official founding religions: Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism.

A Muslim Russia

Despite the fact that most mainly Muslim territories were spun off into independent states when the Soviet Union collapsed 26 years ago, Russia still has far more Muslims within its borders than most Western countries do. Current estimates suggest that about 16 million Russians are Muslim, along with about 4 million migrant workers from former Soviet Central Asia, making Muslims about 15 percent of the population.

Ominously, polls suggest that public intolerance toward Muslims appears to be rising in Russia, with 29 percent of Russians saying they have a "favorable" attitude toward Muslims in a January 2015 survey by the independent Levada Center, compared with 50 percent seven years earlier. The numbers who said they had a "negative" view of Muslims rose from 8 percent to 14 percent over the same period, with most of the remainder expressing a "neutral" attitude.

But the brand of Islamophobia that virtually equates the Islamic faith with a propensity for terrorism – a brand which Russians identify in the US with some frequency – does remain a distinct fringe phenomenon in Russia.

On the other hand, the picture that Russians and others have of the US may be distorted. Polls suggest that in the US, despite loud and bitter political polarization over the issue and repeated terrorist incidents, public tolerance toward "Muslim people" is actually on the rise.

"The thing is, we don't have any big political movements of any kind in Russia, Islamophobic ones included," says Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the independent Sova Center in Moscow, which tracks extremist trends.

"We have a lot of Muslims in Russia, people interact with them on a daily basis, and they're used to it. Since terrorism that struck Russia in the past came mainly from Chechnya and the north Caucasus, people tend to differentiate on an ethnic basis rather than by religion. For instance, there are many more people who don't like migrants from Central Asia than those who don't like Muslims."

'We know them'

Russia has been at war with Islamic enemies for over 500 years. Over the centuries, it fought long battles to subdue Tatars and other Muslim tribes who are now part of Russia. It also waged wars against the Persian and Turkish empires, incorporating many of their former territories into Imperial Russia.

Today, some of Russia's most "troublesome" minorities are traditionally Muslim people with long histories of conflict with Russia, such as Chechens and Crimean Tatars. But so are some of its most successful and prosperous regions, especially Tatarstan, which has found its own formula for quelling internal Islamist extremism and co-existing, sometimes uneasily, with Moscow.

That's one reason why most Russians don't see Muslims as a faceless "other," but are able to differentiate between different groups of them, says Alexey Malashenko, an Islam specialist with the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"We've been living among and, yes, sometimes fighting these people for hundreds of years. We know them," he says. "The average Russian can tell the difference between a Chechen, a Tatar, an Uzbek, and a Tajik and, believe me, there are big differences. There is a great deal of xenophobia under the surface in Russia, and sometimes it comes out," as it has in occasional urban race riots between Russians and migrant laborers – who are especially numerous in big cities like Moscow.

"But overt anti-Muslim political appeals, such as you do see in some Western countries, are absolutely impossible in Russia. Our authorities do not need or want the instability that could result from playing that card," he says.

Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders have been very careful to separate Islam from terrorism, and to make that a frequent public message.

Two years ago Mr. Putin presided, alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, at the inauguration of the $170 million new Moscow Cathedral Mosque, a huge downtown temple that can accommodate 10,000 worshipers. With an eye both to Russia's millions of Muslims and Russia's growing role in the Middle East, he used the occasion to condemn Islamist extremism.

"We see what's happening in the Middle East where terrorists of the so-called Islamic State discredit a great world religion, discredit Islam by sowing hate, killing people, and destroying the world's cultural heritage in a barbaric way. Their ideology is built on lies, on open perversion of Islam. They are trying to recruit followers in our country as well," he said.

The powerful Orthodox Church has also walked a cautious line. When Russia intervened in Syria almost two years ago, church officials hailed it in potentially inflammatory terms as a "holy war." But the church, too, has been at pains to stress that it is a fight against "terrorism," not Islam, and has repeatedly called for an alliance between moderate Christians and Muslims to combat extremism.

Familiar suspicions

Still, a more familiar Islamophobia bubbles not far beneath the surface. While Russia's authoritarian political culture keeps it mostly bottled up for now, any survey of the country's freewheeling social media will turn up plenty of small but clearly active groups who express the kind of militant anti-immigration, anti-foreigner, and anti-Muslim views that are familiar in the West.

"Potentially, any foreign citizen coming here is a threat," says Valentina Bobrova, a leader of the National Conservative Movement, a small group in the central Russian city of Podolsk. "Islam ... is an aggressive religion. We feel that it is attacking, trying to seize territories, minds, and souls in Russia, just as it is in Europe."

And the story of Ilyas Nikitin, a Russian Muslim whose photograph was mistakenly circulated as a suspect in the St. Petersburg bombing, is a cautionary signal of how quickly grassroots suspicion and ill-will can erupt. Despite being cleared by police, he was subsequently forced off an airplane when terrified passengers complained, and arrived at his home in the west Siberian city of  Nizhnevartovsk to find he'd been fired from his job.

"You can't say there is Islamophobia in Russia," says Rais Suleymanov, an expert with the security services-linked Institute of National Strategy. "But when some act of terrorism is committed by radical Islamists, average people are quick to project all of their underlying fears onto that [Islamic] doctrine."

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