Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#12 - JRL 8483 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
December 3, 2004
A Negative Link to Islam
A Scholar on Islam Says the Koran and Suicide Bombers Don't Mix

Interview with Alexander Ignatenko

Many Russians have blamed Islam for the rise of terrorism. But the relationship between Islam and violence is much more complicated, says Alexander Ignatenko, President of the Institute of Religion and Politics and one of Russia's leading scholars on political Islam. As a member of the Presidential Council for Coordination with Religious Organizations, Ignatenko advises the Kremlin on Islam-related issues. Andrei Zolotov Jr., Russia Profile staff writer, conducted this interview.

R.P. Following the recent series of terrorist attacks, the public is looking for clearer answers about the links between terrorism and Islam. Do you think such links exist?

A.I. With regard to this particular series of terrorist attacks, Shamil Basayev, who created the Riyadus-Salahin Shahid Battalion, took responsibility for them. He claims that people from this group of kamikaze terrorists carried them out. Information published by the terrorists themselves shows that the members of this group are fed the idea that if they carry out these so-called "heroic acts of self-sacrifice," they will go straight to heaven, in accordance with the promise Allah has made to every shahid - that is, to every Muslim who dies defending Islam and the Muslim community. What we have here is a clear example of certain Muslims' religious faith being exploited for non-religious and political purposes, as well as a distortion of certain Islamic precepts. To begin with, you cannot set out deliberately to become a shahid. It is Allah who decides whether or not a person is a shahid, depending on an action that he or she has performed but that was not premeditated. What's more, the perpetrators of these "heroic acts of self-sacrifice" commit two acts categorically forbidden by the Koran - unlawful murder and suicide. In other words, these kamikaze terrorists are doubly guaranteed to go to hell for the mortal sins of killing innocent people and taking their own lives. So is there a link here with Islam? Yes, there is, but you could say it is a negative link rather than a positive link. And there are a number of reasons for it. To give just one of them, Islam does not have a clerical class in the same way that, for instance, Orthodoxy or Catholicism does. Learned people who know the faith play the role of clergy in Islam. So it is possible that someone may claim to have great knowledge of Islam when in fact this is not the case. Osama bin Laden, for example, is a builder by education and profession, while Ayman al-Zawahiri, his right-hand man, is a pediatrician. Shamil Basayev was never known for his religious education either. Nonetheless, these people claim to represent Islam and to teach people what they should be doing as good Muslims. The problem is not so much in these self-proclaimed preachers as in the fact that certain Muslims follow them. Moreover, opportunists emerge among the professional clerics, the scholars, who also become followers of these extremists and terrorists. Saudi Arabia's Wahabi ulema [community of legal scholars], for example, has issued fatwas [legal declarations made by religious legal experts] encouraging Al Qaeda to spread the so-called shahid movement to Russia.

R.P. Why are Islamic theologians reluctant to condemn terrorism? In the meantime, both in Russia and elsewhere, the Muslim community tends to blame outside forces and to see itself as a victim of persecution. Are there grounds for this view?

A.I. Overall, I would say there is no Islamic theologian who does not condemn terrorism. The issue lies elsewhere. A large number of theologians view the acts considered terrorist through the prism of those against whom they are directed. They see these actions as a response to aggression against Muslims, an aggression taking place, as they see it, in any part of the world where Muslims are caught up in violence - in Palestine, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Afghanistan, Iraq and so on.

In the eyes of these theologians, these actions are part of a "defensive jihad." They do not see, or they do not want to see, that sometimes this "defensive jihad" takes a form that is pure terrorism; i.e., blowing up planes, buses and trains. It is worth noting that Saudi Wahabi theologians had already prepared a theological justification for the events of Sept. 11, 2001, before they even happened, as a way to calm the possible doubts held by the future perpetrators of these terrorist attacks.

What needs to be stressed is that the situation in Russia is quite different. Russia was confronted with Al Qaeda before anyone else. In his recent "Address to the American People" just before the U.S. elections, Osama bin Laden specifically mentioned Russia, affirming that "we and our mujahedin have bled Russia dry through 10 years of war." In other words, they have been fighting us since 1994. The Islamic clerics in Russia and the Russian Muslim community have reacted appropriately to this threat. In 1999, for example, following the Al Qaeda-backed Wahabi attack on Dagestan, the Dagestani parliament passed a law banning Wahabism and other forms of extremism.

We are now starting to see increasing condemnation and rejection of terrorist acts such as the abductions, beheadings and suicide bombings committed in Iraq by groups that use the words "Islam" or "Islamic" in their names. But this is still not happening on a mass scale.

R.P. You were present at the meeting of the Presidential Council for Coordination with Religious Organizations that took place just after the events in Beslan. What were your impressions? What else can the authorities do to increase the role played by Russian religious organizations in the war on terror? What can religious leaders themselves do?

A.I. Above all, the meeting was very clear in its condemnation of terrorism, and this condemnation came from the Islamic clerics as well. There are three muftis on the council. It is also significant that the religious figures present - including representatives of Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, Protestantism and Buddhism - all stated in a joint declaration that, to fight terrorism effectively, the state and civil society must join forces. The council supported the measures taken by the Russian authorities and announced by President Vladimir Putin to ensure public safety and to counter terrorism. The joint declaration also contained the answer to your question about what the religious leaders can do themselves. The declaration states that "the people behind international terrorism are using religion as a justification for their evil acts. Islam, which they are trying to enslave in their service, is the real victim of terrorism. Future suicide bombers are told that they will go to paradise, but all religions teach that it is a great sin to kill innocent people. We firmly believe that these terrible crimes will earn the terrorists only the flames of hell. Let all Muslim spiritual leaders, and those of other religions, not keep silent, but raise their voices and speak the words of truth. We believe in victory in this fight against terrorism."