Should Muscovites fear Muslims?

Anton Belitskiy
Over the past decade the Russian capital’s Muslim population has swelled to almost 2 million, or about 15 percent of the total population. This has led to tensions with locals who are increasingly suspicious of the newcomers’ intentions, brash behavior and strict religious traditions.

Photo: Anton BelitskiyPhoto: Anton Belitskiy

While European cities often face horrible acts of terrorism, usually organized and inspired by the Islamic State, Moscow has remained more or less calm over the past five years, which is rather surprising when you consider that Russia is leading the fight against terrorist groups in Syria. The last major attack in Moscow was carried out in January 2011.

Moscow is home to about 2 million Muslims, half of them recent migrants, and many Muscovites are concerned about their growing numbers. RBTH’s Evgeny Levkovich tried to figure out why the city has so far been spared terrible violence and how long this calm will last.

Photo: Anton BelitskiyPhoto: Anton Belitskiy

Disreputable Dubrovka

Dubrovka is one of Moscow’s approximate 1,500 shopping centers, and its main feature is a convenient location, only 100 meters from the nearest metro station and five kilometers from the Kremlin.

“We’re one of Muscovites’ favorite shopping locations,” says a banner hanging above the building’s entrance. In truth, however, the mall is rather infamous among city residents, who dubbed it ‘the Muslim Market.’

 Photo: Anton Belitskiy Photo: Anton Belitskiy

Inside, Dubrovka feels more like a Parisian suburb than downtown Moscow: veil-clad women, prayer bead-toting men, stores offering halal food and Muslim clothing. One creative sign promises to “cover your modesty in the latest fashion.” All of this is spread over 80,000 square meters of shopping space.

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Nearby local residents are clearly unhappy. “Simply walking around the neighborhood can be scary,” said a middle-aged woman living across the street from the mall, who introduced herself as Anna. “I’m worried about my daughter, because she has to return home from university late at night. She has been accosted by groups of migrants on several occasions, and one time, she almost got raped. Many of them have fake registration papers, and there’s a shady company next to the market where migrants can buy documents for $200.”

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Sure enough, to the left of Dubrovka’s entrance there is a huge steel door, and people who are clearly not locals are lining up. I try asking them what they’re waiting for, but they each turn away without saying a word. Finally, a street cleaner wearing an official orange blazer agrees to speak to me and confirms Anna’s words.

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A land of wealth, beauty, and discomfort

A young guy with a long black beard, Murad, 26, earns a living selling used cell phones in the Dubrovka mall. In many ways, he epitomizes the Muslim migrants who come to Russia’s capital. Six years ago, he left his native village of Chinar (1,000 miles southeast of Moscow), following in the footsteps of his brother and his uncle.

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Together, the three men rent a room in a communal apartment in northern Moscow. Why did he move to the Russian capital? There are no jobs back home, but here, spending 12 hours a day in the market, he earns about 40,000 rubles a month (about $700). That’s enough to pay for the rent and to send some money home to his elderly parents.

Murad is an amateur wrestler, and abstains from alcohol and socializes exclusively with his fellow believers. The one notable exception is young ethnic Russian women who he considers “the second most beautiful after Dagestanis.”

Photo: Anton BelitskiyPhoto: Anton Belitskiy

Living in Moscow is not entirely to his liking, however, and he doesn’t hesitate to voice his complaints. “My relatives and I get stopped by police in the metro three times a day for document checks, simply because of the way we look. The policemen treat us rudely, as if we were criminals,” said Murad.

What Murad finds particularly disappointing about Moscow is the lack of mosques. “It’s not just me, all Muslims are offended by this,” he said. “Orthodox churches are built in every neighborhood, but we are confined to one mosque for all of northern Moscow. On religious holidays there’s barely any room to move, it’s stuffy, people are crowded against each other… You feel like a ram in a pen. Why are we humiliated like this?”

Soft power

There are indeed few mosques in Moscow — only eight to be exact. Prodded by Muslim clergy, the city announced plans to build a new mosque on a regular basis, but each time they encounter so much local opposition that they are forced to retreat and cancel their own decrees.

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Imam Shamil Alyautdinov, who has been preaching for 19 years in the Memorial Mosque on Moscow’s Poklonnaya Gora (five miles from the Kremlin), does not hide his displeasure. “If officials had followed through on all the promises they made over the past 15 years, there’d now be 50 new mosques in Moscow. And it’d help not just us. After all, it’s far better for migrants to visit official mosques instead of praying at home, socializing with riffraff.”

Obviously, by “riffraff,” the imam means terrorist recruiters. A source in the Federal Security Service (FSB), who agreed to be interviewed but not to be named, said that Alyautdinov’s words are rather meaningless.

“The Yardam Mosque in northeastern Moscow is as official as it gets,” he said. “But that didn’t stop the local imam from advocating for terrorist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. (Editor’s note: the imam in question, Mahmud Velitov, was arrested last year along with four associates; they’re accused of conspiring to recruit congregation members as terrorist fighters.) Incidentally, the man behind the Volgograd attack visited that same mosque.”

5 minutes to blow up Moscow?

I head off to Moscow’s largest congregational mosque in the vicinity of Prospect Mira, two miles from the Kremlin. It has six floors covering 19,000 square meters, and can hold as many as 10,000 people. This mosque is well known even by non-religious Muscovites because of its annual celebration of Eid al-Adha, one of the two most important festivals in the Muslim calendar.

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On this holiday, at least 150,000 faithful come here, and since most cannot enter the overcrowded mosque they fill the neighboring streets, including Mira Prospect, and start praying outside. This brings traffic to a complete standstill, much to the annoyance of the locals.

Today, however, is an ordinary day, and I find only a couple of believers inside. As I leave, I try to speak with an elderly, grey-haired man who introduces himself as Shamil, but my question about the Islamic State throws him into a rage. “Russians have no idea what the Quran really is, and that’s where all your fears come from! Just imagine what would happen if our religion hadn’t been one of peace. It’d take us five minutes to blow up all of Moscow!”

As a matter of fact, that’s how it was in the 1990s. Since Russia’s counterterrorist operations began in 1993, Moscow alone has seen 32 terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of 542 people. Most of those who committed and planned these attacks were followers of various extremist Islamic sects.

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After the reins of power in Chechnya were taken over by Ramzan Kadyrov, who then brutally suppressed separatism, the number of attacks decreased, until finally reaching zero in 2012. The last terrorist-made bomb was detonated in Moscow on Jan. 24, 2011, in Domodedovo airport, killing 37 people. Investigators said the perpetrators were members of the Caucasus Emirate, a Chechen jihadist group. After that, a period of calm set in, and that continues today.

FSB agents as imams

Alexander Gusak is a retired FSB officer who led a secret counter-terrorism unit in the late 1990s. He keeps in touch with his colleagues to this day, and said the current calm is mostly due to two factors - the hard work of his former coworkers, and the fact that Russia’s Muslim community, unlike those of Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, is much better versed in their faith.

“You don’t see half as much religious ignorance here, the kind when a person reads a couple of chapters of the Quaran and starts jihading without trying to grasp it all. Our Muslims are different. We all grew up in a single country, the Soviet Union. Tatars or Daghestanis cannot even be compared to people like the Salafists in Syria,” said Gusak.

Still the FSB is vigilant and its intelligence network has grown considerably in recent years. “That’s what Soviet intelligence agencies were famous for —undercover work,” said Gusak. When asked for an example, he recalled one case two years ago when some Muslims gathered next to the mosque on Bolshaya Tatarskaya Street, angered by the arrest of a fellow believer suspected of a crime, and who then started attacking a police minibus yelling, “Allahu Akbar!”

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“Even their imam wasn’t able to calm them down, and an OMON riot police unit had to be dispatched, but the Muslims then started calling friends and relatives, and, as happens all too often, a large crowd assembled in less than an hour,” said Gusak. “The situation was very tense, and if OMON had used force, a bigger riot could have started. That’s when undercover agents stepped in. They defused the situation, and the crowd dispersed, and OMON officers were able to arrest the instigators. Some FSB agents actually convert to Islam in order to watch potential threats within the Muslim community. And of course, they are deeply involved with the clergy.”

Despite all this, the likelihood of terrorist attacks remains high. “A lot of information about threats is never made public in order to avoid panic. The fact is, however, that if a truly determined terrorist group wants to commit an attack, it will succeed sooner or later. And this will remain a possibility until we overcome our main internal problems — bribery and corruption,” said Gusak.

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“Last spring, my colleagues prevented an attack on Moscow when they stumbled onto some aluminum dust and parts to make IEDs in an apartment block on the city outskirts,” said Gusak.  “I was inside the building myself, and I saw that most of apartments were rented out without paperwork. There were as many as 15 migrants living in each apartment. You’d ring the doorbell and people didn’t even answer; they simply slipped some cash through a slot in the door. The local police made a gravy train out of this. Good thing we busted them in time; but we could have been too late.“

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