x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Russia's mosque raids cast a wide net

The Russian government's campaign against religious extremism may be doing more harm than good

The Russian government's campaign against religious extremism, which includes carrying out mass sweeps in which hundreds of people are detained, may only serve to exacerbate the problem by radicalising moderates.

This strategy was most recently employed last Friday when security forces interrupted a Muslim prayer service in Moscow and detained about 300 people as part of a security clampdown in advance of next year's Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The Black Sea resort is close to the region where the government is fighting against a Salafistic Muslim insurgency.

The insurgents, led by the Caucasus Emirate group, whose campaign can be traced back to two post-Soviet wars with Moscow, aim to create an Islamic state in the North Caucasus.

The raid was led by the FSB, the country's federal security service, and carried out on the orders of President Vladimir Putin, who recently told senior security officers: "The fight against corruption, crime and insurgency has to be carried out harshly and consistently ... We must fight back hard against extremists who, under the banners of radicalism, nationalism and separatism, are trying to split our society."

The security forces, who refused to give a reason for arresting the worshippers, 170 of whom were foreigners, also confiscated religious literature, apparently to check it for extremist content.

The raid was one of three targeting Muslim places of worship so far this year. In February, about 300 people were detained in a sweep in St Petersburg, but most were released without charge, raising questions about why the net is being cast so wide.

On April 26, 140 Muslims, 30 of them foreigners, were detained in Moscow in what officials described as a search for extremists. Their stated justification was that visitors to the place of worship often "converted to radicalism and joined militant groups active in the North Caucasus, as well as participated in preparing and perpetrating terrorist acts in Russia". Four suspects accused of plotting to carry out attacks in Moscow in 2011 worshipped at the prayer room, say officials.

However, human rights groups and other critics say the real aim of the raid was catching illegal immigrants from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the South Caucasus, while at the same time assuring the broader public that Putin was taking a tough stand on religious extremism.

Approximately 15 per cent (23 million) of Russia's predominantly Orthodox Christian population is Muslim, making it the country's second-largest religion.

Most extremist violence takes place in the North Caucasus region, chiefly in the mountainous, Muslim-majority republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan.

Probably the single most high-profile militant operation in recent years was the Beslan school siege in North Ossetia in the North Caucasus region. Ingush and Chechen separatists took 1,000 people (including 777 children) hostage in September 2004, a crisis that ended with 380 dead.

This tragic event was followed most recently by the deadly April 15 Boston Marathon bombings - for which a pair of Chechen brothers stand accused - apparently perpetrated as an act of revenge for violence against Muslims around the world.

However, both the Russian and US governments say there is no evidence that North Caucasus militant groups were directly involved in the terrorist attack that killed three people and injured nearly 300.

Many would argue that the Russian government is justified in taking a hard line against militants, particularly in the run up to the Winter Olympics, but is it really necessary to arrest hundreds of people to apprehend a handful of legitimate suspects?

Given that this insurgency is at least partly attributable to anger over government strong-arm tactics in the North Caucasus, some would contend that carrying out such mass arrests is fanning the flames rather than calming them.

* Paul Muir