Murphy's Law: What Russia Learns From Egypt


August 30, 2021: Russia and Egypt are cooperating in training Russian imams and religious scholars to more effectively create and issue fatwas (religious rulings) and confront the religious arguments supporting Islamic radicalism. When it comes to dealing with Islamic terrorism, Russia and Egypt have a lot in common, despite their many obvious differences. Both countries have developed unique methods for preventing Islamic radicalism and terrorism from becoming a major problem.

Russia always had a large number of Moslems, even though most of the population is Christian. When the communists replaced the monarchy after World War I about 15 percent of Russians were Moslem. That percentage was unchanged when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and the Russia, lost half the population of the Soviet (and Czarist) empire, was still fifteen percent Moslem, the largest percentage of any major Western nation. The Russian governments, both Czarist, communist and democratic, developed a tradition of simply not tolerating Islamic radicalism. The Czars saw it as reasonable, as did the communists. The radical communist (Bolshevik) government that took power in the early 1920s was anti-religion in general and shut down most places of worship. The number of Mosques in Russia went from 25,000 when the Bolsheviks took over to 500 when the Soviet Union dissolved. Several of the 14 new countries formed when that happened were Moslem majority. They were mainly in Central Asia and their new leaders were locals but often former Soviet officials. There were fewer restrictions on Mosque construction and open practice of Islam after 1991, but the post-Soviet Union states continued the Soviet era crackdown on any radical Islamic activity.

Exceptions were found in the Caucasus where imported Islamic radicalism found an audience among some Caucasus Moslems using it to inspire more local support for violence against Russian rule. The worst case was Chechnya, long the most troublesome area, even before the Russians moved in during the 1800s. Tolerance for Chechen separatism led to chaos during the few years Russia just left the Chechens alone. During that period Chechnya was unable to form a local government, with the many clans battling each other and unwilling to accept democracy or the rule of any rival group. This made it possible for Chechnya to become a sanctuary for Chechens who raided southern Russia to steal, kidnap and cause growing public uproar over the lack of Russian response. That ended when Russia invaded a second time with more preparation. The second invasion was more violent and old-school. The Russians killed or drove away the rebellious, gangster and newly Islamic radical Chechens. That had worked for the Czarist and communist forces and it worked again for an elected Russian government.

Violent intolerance for Islamic radicalism was also practiced in other Moslem majority states, even Saudi Arabia, where radical militias that helped the Saud clan take control of most of the Arabian Peninsula in the 1920s refused to halt their operations after the kingdom was established, and insisted on continuing their jihad in neighboring countries. The Saudis, and most of the subjects, realized that this would bring on a conflict they could not win, and the new Saudi king suppressed the local radicals violently.

Egypt was then, as it is now, the home of the most respected Islamic universities and religious schools, producing religious scholars and interpretations of Islamic scripture recognized as the most rigorous in the Islamic world. When the Saudis found themselves enormously wealthy after World War II because of their newly developed oil fields, a lot of that new wealth went into religious education and establishing Islamic universities to rival those of Egypt. Saudi Arabia and Egypt became allies in this endeavor because the Saudis needed Egyptian Islamic scholars and Egypt needed economic aid from the Saudis. Both nations also adopted the Russian practice of tight control over Moslem clergy and education and violent crackdowns on local Islamic radicalism. Exporting radical Islamic concepts was not banned. Islamic radicals could exist locally as long as they behaved. Violating this rule turned the Islamic terrorists into outlaws as far as local governments were concerned. Allowing the locally trained and encouraged Islamic radicals to go cause mayhem elsewhere eventually became a problem as well. That led to the current emphasis on training imams, especially those who ran mosques, on how to deal with radicals peacefully and if that did not work to call on government security forces to deal with the problem. These have become accepted solutions to Islamic terrorism in Moslem majority counties and those with large Moslem minorities like Russia.

The Western world has had a more difficult time dealing with Islamic terrorism. Since the 1990s the West has become very familiar with the culture of Islamic radicalism. It’s also become clear that not all Islamic radicals are the same. While all Islamic radicals share a desire to impose their religious beliefs on others (Moslem and non-Moslem alike), there is a wide range of fanaticism. On the moderate end of the scale, you have the Turkish Moslems who formed a political party based on moderate application of Islamic rules and customs. These Turkish Moslems have been ruling Turkey since 2000 and did a good enough job to keep getting reelected, at least until now. Many Turks fear that these Islamic activists would become radicalized and anti-democratic, but so far only the anti-democratic aspect has shown up. Moslems in many other countries would like to adopt this Turkish model, but so far that has proved difficult, especially since the elected Islamic politicians want to suppress efforts to vote them out of office.

There is already a form of Islamic radicalism that seems moderate enough, and international enough, to allow for widespread use in democracies. That is the Islamic Brotherhood. Unfortunately, the Brotherhood has many factions, some of which are very radical and intolerant of democracy. Worse yet, the first Egyptian national election after the 2011 revolution, the Moslem Brotherhood won. That did not work out as expected because the moderates and radicals in the brotherhood spent more time arguing with each other than dealing with problems they were elected to deal with. There was another popular uprising and another election where the Moslem Brotherhood was outlawed and a new government paid more attention to the economy and keeping the peace with neighbors.

Then you have the salafists. These are ultra conservative Islamic radicals who believe every Moslem must live strictly according to Islamic law. This includes hatred of non-Moslems and tolerance for using violence to convert non-believers to Islam. This led to the growth of the current jihadist movement, which believes living a conservative Islamic life is not enough. You have to force other Moslems to do the same and kill those who refuse. Same deal with non-Moslems, which causes problems when the kaffirs (non-Moslems) are smarter and more powerful than the righteous jihadists.

Because of all this religion-based radicalism, the Western post-2001 War on Terror morphed into the War Against Islamic Radicalism. This religious radicalism has always been around, for Islam was born as an aggressive movement that used violence and terror to expand. Past periods of conquest are regarded fondly by Moslems, who are still taught by their religious leaders and teachers that non-Moslems ("infidels") are inferior. The current enthusiasm for violence in the name of God has been building for over a century. Historically, Islamic radicalism has flared up into mass bloodshed periodically, usually in response to corrupt governments, as a vain attempt to impose a religious solution on some social or political problem.

The current violence is international because of the availability of planet wide mass media that needs a constant supply of scary headlines and the fact that the Islamic world is awash in tyranny and economic backwardness. This is why the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, and their desire to establish democracies, may do some permanent damage to the Islamic terrorism tradition. But the changes won't come as quickly as many hoped. The past has a huge influence on Islamic societies. For many, resistance to change is considered a religious obligation. Many Moslems consider democracy a poisonous Western invention. There is still a lot of affection for the clerical dictatorship (the caliphate) of legend, a just and efficient government run by virtuous religious leaders. The legends are false and there are centuries of failed religious dictatorships to prove it. But this legend has become a core belief for many Moslems and will not be shaken by reality or the historical record.




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