Let us not be Fooled

By Morgane Fert-Malka

For Russia, just like in Europe and the US, Islam as a discursive item participates in an information strategy. Rather than taking discourses about the ‘Islamic threat’ at face value, we must look into the way ‘Islam’ is instrumentalised in broader discursive strategies and what really lies behind the fight against ‘global Islamic terrorism’.

In the discursive ebullition that has followed the Ukraine crisis, epitomised by the ‘New Cold War’ phrase, new dividing lines have emerged between the traditional geopolitical zones – loosely the US, the EU and Russia – and within these zones. Within the EU, member states and even within these states, foreign policy institutions and key opinion leaders have been increasingly polarised about the way to describe Russia’s behaviour on the international scene, the EU’s relations with Russia and the stance to adopt in the future. From viscerally pro- to viscerally anti-Russian, from rationally pro- to rationally anti-appeasement, all positions are represented among politicians, high civil servants of the EU, NATO and their member states, pundits and journalists.

Much of this discursive joust revolves around, obviously, the question of Crimea and the eastern border of the EU in general. While most EU members of the former Soviet bloc describe Russia as revisionist and annexationist and cry for harsher economic sanctions as well as a clear military buildup of NATO’s eastern presence, some countries in Western and Southern Europe are decidedly more keen to appease and accommodate a nation they see as an important economic partner and a cultural ally. Although their heads of states more or less often play the blame game and support their Eastern EU neighbours, their military and civil service establishments as well as political elites tend to be in general better disposed towards Russia – for a variety of reasons – when speaking below the level of official foreign policy statements, or in private. This translates, in minor key, into a preference for the phrase ‘transfer of sovereignty’ over ‘annexation of Crimea’ among some officials in private, and into a moderate or even apologetic stance on Russia’s military build up and provocative statements. Painting the discursive landscape of the EU towards Russia, with all its fracture lines and crevasses, its evolution since 2014 and its practical consequences, cannot be done here in a short commentary. Communities at all levels are divided about the choice of words, because everyone knows that words matter.

There is another front in this discursive battle – Islam. ‘Islamic extremism’ and ‘Islamic terrorism’ have acquired a central position in global geopolitical discourses and have become some of the longest-lasting and most intense threat narratives in Western post-Cold War societies (Esposito 1999) – but also in Russia. Immediately after 9/11, for instance, President Vladimir Putin drew parallels between the US and Russia as being both victims of international terrorism, and hoped that what he painted as a common plight could tame Western criticisms of the Chechnya campaigns. Indeed, just as words matter as regards Crimea, they do also as regards Islam for Russia’s relation with ‘the West’. To some extent, the Russian leadership has succeeded in promoting a narrative of common interests for Russia and ‘the West’ against a ‘global Islamic threat’, a narrative upon which it has drawn pragmatically, depending on the political climate of the day. Now with the war in Syria and the crises in the rest of the MENA region – and the current migration crisis – the success of this narrative is more important than ever and plays a confounding role in the tensions between Russia, the EU and the US regarding Ukraine. Specifically, for Europeans who are on the ‘pro-Russian’ side of the spectrum, Russia’s ability to play a role against IS is a potent argument for conciliation and alliance.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that the ‘clash of civilisation’ (Huntington 1993) narrative that was so successful (although extremely controversial) in the US and Western Europe, has limited relevance in Russia, because of the precarious definition of a ‘Russian civilisation’, the position of Islam within it, and the confounding role played by ‘the West’ in Russia’s self-identification processes. Since at least the 19th century, Russian intellectual elites were torn between various identity poles – a torment that culminated with the formulation, in the 1920s, of the concept of ’Eurasianism’ (Laruelle 2012), in which Islam has a particular place. First, Islam is indigenous in Russia. In fact, Muslim populations, and particularly the Tatars, participated in the formation and unification of the Russian nation since the Kievan Rus – and even before that. Second, the conquest of the North Caucasus and the taming of North Caucasian insurgencies throughout the centuries also contributed, in a more subtle way, in building Russia’s imperial identity. Islam is therefore an essential component of the Russian ‘civilisation’, somehow contrasting with the situation of Western European states that absorbed Muslim populations mostly as a result of their colonial and postcolonial history and can thus portray Islam as an import and, at times, as a deviance.

This is not to say that Russian Muslims have not been subject to marginalisation or persecution along the centuries. The heterogeneity of the Muslim question has constituted a challenge but has also been useful to the Russian rulers, who – in Czarist, Soviet and post-Soviet times – have tried different combinations of repression and co-optation, inclusion and exclusion of the different groups as part of their broader attempts to define the unity of the Empire, the Union or the Federation and Russia’s “special path” (Sergunin and Kubyshkin 2012). The oscillations of these discursive strategies have implications both for Russian domestic policy (notably counterterrorism and social control) and for Russia’s relations with the outside world. At times, Russian leaders have strongly subscribed to a civilised/barbarian world divide (O’Loughlin et al. 2004) that places Russia together with ‘the West’ against international (Islamic) terrorism. Conversely, at times when relations with ‘the West’ have lacked momentum or been outright strained, Russia has attempted to put forward a certain uniqueness – characterised by ethnic and multiconfessionalism – as warranting a central place in a future multipolar world rid of what Russia denounces as a Western proselytic moral universalism (Dannreuther and March 2010), hence emphasizing the positive role of Islam. Thus, counter-intuitively, Russian official discourses about Islam seem to have been as dependent on Russia’s relation with ‘the West’ as on its relation with its own Muslim populations or with ‘the Muslim world’.

Looking at the discourse of major security or foreign policy formulating organs – for instance the Kremlin, the Security Council of the Russian Federation and the Foreign Affairs Ministry – since 2010, it is clear that the risk and threat narratives surrounding Islam are multiple and shifting. There is not one single and stable vision, within the Russian officialdom, of the ‘Islamic threat’, where it comes from and what needs to be done about it. There is no agreement either on whether Russia and ‘the West’ should stand together against ‘Islamism’, or whether ‘the Muslim world’ and Russia alike are the victims of deliberate attempts by ‘the West’ to destabilise sovereign regimes under the politics of ‘double standards’ and ‘controlled chaos’ (Fert-Malka 2016). In the early 2010s, official discourses widely drew parallels between the ‘Arab springs’ and the electoral protests in Russia, describing them both as being engineered by secular Western powers keen to exploit the latent fragility of multiethnic, multiconfessional states. This was, incidentally, the occasion to call for greater central control on Russia’s institutions and citizens. This leitmotif was resurrected with the Ukraine crisis, depicting Crimea, Russia, and its near abroad as multiethnic societies under covert attack by the secular West. There, clearly, the ‘clash of civilisation’ was not between the Islamic and non-Islamic world – as illustrated by the stance of many Russian officials on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. At the same time, sanctions were weighing in and the threat of ostracisation was looming. Thus, concomitant to these anti-Western narratives, Russia started promoting again its fight against global terrorism and its new incarnation, IS, calling for an alliance of the ‘civilised world’ under the aegis of the UN against the barbarity of religious extremism (Fert-Malka 2016).

Russia’s acrobatic discursive game is by no means without resonance. It is mirrored in European and US discourses about Russia’s intervention in Syria, at times depicted as the mere support of one dictator to another, and at times as a proof that Russia is part of the ‘civilised’ (and secular) world against Islam. What commentators on both sides fail to see is that Russia’s stance towards Islam, eminently inconsistent, is mostly instrumental. Whenever the Russian officialdom speaks about Islam, it is not about Islam. It is about legitimising certain power practices: greater social control within the country and an assertive foreign policy. The latter, however, is tied to the former. Restoring Russia’s ‘great power’ is also a way to dissuade other powers to meddle in its internal affairs and perhaps try to export a ‘coloured revolution’ there. In the end, the discourses about Islam participate in a national project of consolidation: a rallying call around a positive narrative of Russia’s greatness, partly resting on its multiculturalism spiritual uniqueness, and against the negative image of an adversarial world in which Russia feels fragile and exposed.

As counterintuitive as it may sound, official discourses about Islam in Russia are sensitive not to a ‘reality of the Islamic threat’ nor even, it seems, to changing perceptions of the ‘Islamic threat’ but very much to the changing perception of the Western threat and of Russia’s internal vulnerability. The ‘Islamic threat’ mediates another threat, perceived as more essential and expressed as such in the discourses: the threat of disintegration or ‘coloured revolution’, perhaps fomented or at least supported by ‘the West’, and in general the risk of a severe confrontation with this West. Accordingly, the ‘Islamic threat’ is also important insofar as it fits in discursive strategies aiming to legitimate policies that counter those other threats perceived as essential: simply put, greater state control on the hearts and minds of the Russians (to prevent disintegration) and a more assertive foreign policy, a sort of defensive derzhavnost (for Russia to stand its ground against the West) – these two strategic directions being mutually reinforcing.

These conclusions are by no means a normative opinion. They stem from a thorough analysis of official discourses and their underlying logic (Fert-Malka 2016). They have implications for the way European policy-makers should hear and understand what Russia says about and does in, notably, Syria. The main recommendation is: look for underlying motives, and understand that those motives are for a large part tied to Russia’s existential fear of disintegration. But these conclusions have broader implication too, as they show how the ‘Islamic threat’ is a construct that lends itself well to instrumentalisation. The centrality of the ‘Islamic threat’ theme in discourses around the world – and its heavy use in legitimating various political projects, from military interventions abroad and alliances to constitutional reforms at home – makes it all the more important to be aware of the political goals they serve. For policy-makers and citizens alike, it is crucial not to take discourses at face value. Words matter, and those who utter them usually know it. It is up to the audience not to let itself be fooled.

photo credit: kremlin.ru, Moscow’s Cathedral Mosque has reopened after reconstruction, September 23, 2015

Elements of bibliography

Dannreuther, R. and March, L. (eds.) (2010), Russia and Islam: state, society and radicalism, Routledge

Esposito, J. (1999 [1992]), The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, New York: Oxford University Press, 3rd ed.

Fert-Malka, M. (2016), Russia’s ‘Islamic Threat’: the Instrumentalisation of Islam in Russian Official Discourse 2010-2015, Unpublished Master’s thesis, Sciences Po Paris School of International Affairs

Huntington, S. (199), The Clash of Civilizations?, Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993

Laruelle, M. (2012), Russian Eurasianism: An Ideology of Empire, Johns Hopkins University Press

O’Loughlin, J., O Tuathail, G., Kolossov, V. (2004), A ‘Risky Westward Turn’? Putin’s 9-11 Script and Ordinary Russians, Europe – Asia Studies, 56 (1), p. 3-34

Sergunin, A. and Kubyshkin, A. (2012), The problem of the “Special Path” in Russian Foreign Policy, Russian politics and Law, 50 (6), p. 7-18.

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