Islamization of Russia

Photographs and Text by Oxana Onipko

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Russia has always bordered Europe and the Orient. Russian-led Soviet imperialism found a way to make it work. Institutionalized atheism, personality cults, the homogeneity of the working class and other forms of entrenched propaganda unified peoples of diverse ethnicities and cultures. Communism’s fall created an ideology vacuum, rekindling the latent passions of religion. Orthodox Christianity versus Islam is a new chapter in the nation’s ages old struggle of East vs. West.

In recent years, the East has gained dominance as pan-Slavism has splintered along geo-political lines. Coupled with this, the population of Russia is in decline. Meanwhile, millions of Muslims arrive from the violent Caucasus mountain region and the destitute former Soviet republics of Central Asia for cheap manual labor jobs.

The massive rise in numbers and the visible spread of Islam has sparked ethnic hatred in many. There is not enough room in Moscow's Mosques anymore so people are worshiping on the street. The World Bank estimates that 12.3 million migrants now live in Russia. Second only to the United States. “Russia for Russians!” is the new battle cry from the mouths of ultra-nationalists who see their motherland as a fortress under siege.

Violence from Islamic extremists is the principle fear among Russians. The 1990s saw continuous armed conflict throughout the Caucasus. Most notably two ferocious wars in Chechnya resulted in high casualties, long-term psychological scarring, and deep-rooted senses of mistrust, animosity and foreboding toward the entire region.

The recent March 2010 terrorist attack in Moscow by female suicide bombers from Dagestan, next to Chechnya, has crystallized many of these fears. More than 40 people were killed, and over 100 injured. The latest in a long string of violence “bleeding” from the Caucasus into Russia proper. Since the 1990s Russia has been continually struck by serious acts of terrorist violence; the Nord-Ost theatre hostage takeover and the Belsan school tragedy for example. The responsibility for these acts along with train and apartment blasts has been claimed by the self-styled mujahideen leaders of the “Caucasus Emirate” whose stated goal is to establish strict Sharia law in the region.

The movement has links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Foreigner fighters from the Middle East and Afghanistan have been documented fighting alongside locals. In particular, Afghanis who fought for years against the Soviet armed forces have played a significant role in the tactical training and preparation.

It is understandable why some Russians are concerned. But concern is no excuse for hate and fear-inspiring demagoguery.

Since 2009 I have been documenting Islam in Russia. I gained access to these people by spending hours at Moscow's central mosque and engaging them in long conversation. Eventually I learned about the various ethnic and cultural subgroups and made my way into people's homes and social units. The concept of "Islamization" became clear when I began to interact with a group of Russian converts to Islam from Orthodox Christianity. Their experiences and problems of fitting into society with a new religion and identity are indicative of a larger trend about Islam in Russia.

I have completed much work in Moscow and am now focusing my attention on the Caucasus region, Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. The region is critical to my project.

Since the installation of Moscow-backed Ramzan Kadyrov as the head of the Chechen Republic, the situation has stabled considerably. Post-war reconstruction of the capital city Grozny included “Europe’s largest mosque”. Also a course of moderate Islam as religious education has been instigated in public elementary schools. While Kadyrov himself has called for all women to wear headscarves. But even with improvement, according to US human rights watchdog group Freedom House Chechnya is one of the most oppressive regimes in the world along with North Korea and Burma.

Considerably less stable than Chechnya are the territories of Dagestan and Ingushetia. Kadyrov has succeeded in pushing much of the separatist Islamic guerrilla activity into these neighboring lands.

Here Russian Federation forces continue to fight an increasingly horrific campaign against an insurgency increasing in size and tenacity. But, away from the headlines, the conflict is taking its toll on ordinary people and families.

Every month brings new disappearances and murders. Often, the family members claim their loved ones have no connection to the militants, and it almost always remains unknown what, if anything, they have done to deserve such harsh punishment. There is no rhyme or reason to the pseudo-judicial executions, as if a misplaced word here or there, is sufficient invitation for a visit by a shadowy squad of men.

There are 55 BW images in the full edit and are available upon request.