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How Putin’s Relationship With Islam Works

In the wake of terror, it is worth noting that Putin has long courted his country’s Muslim minority—with mixed results.

Ramzan Kadyrov, Pro-Russian, Leader of the Chechen (Chechnya) Republic

Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia “cannot be the target of terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists. We are a country that demonstrates a unique example of interfaith harmony and unity, of interreligious and interethnic unity.” He offered this observation by way of explaining why he believes Ukraine and its American sponsors, not an Islamic State affiliate, were behind last month’s deadly terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall in Moscow, which left over 140 people dead.

How credible is Putin’s claim, attribution of the attack aside? Does Russia enjoy good relations with its Muslim minority?


About 10 percent of the Russian population is Muslim, which makes them a minority comparable in size to African-Americans in the United States. Putin has made a deliberate effort to court the faith from his earliest days in office. Contrary to the impression some Western observers have tried to create of Putin as a fanatical Russian nationalist, Putin has always emphasized Russia’s “multiethnic and multifaith history,” as he put it in a 2005 speech in Kazan, which, to the crowd’s amazement, he delivered in the Tatar language. 

Some of this outreach is politically motivated. When Putin lobbied the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to admit Russia as an observer state—a request that was granted in 2005—it was partly in order to persuade Saudi Arabia and other OIC nations to stop aiding Muslim separatists in the Russian province of Chechnya. Putin has played up Russia’s large Muslim population in his courtship of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a geopolitical ally.

Putin’s interfaith solicitude, whether sincere or cynical, has filtered down to the Russian man on the street. The British scholar Dominic Rubin tells the following anecdote from a Muslim professor living in Moscow: Around 2010, there was a boxing match between a Ukrainian and a Dagestani, and to the professor’s surprise his Moscow friends were all rooting for the latter. “Ten years ago, people would have rooted for the Slav, regardless of nationality,” he said. But now they supported the Muslim fighter: “He’s Dagestani, a Caucasian, yes—but he’s Russian. People finally get it!”

Rubin’s book, Russia’s Muslim Heartlands: Islam in the Putin Era (2018), is based on extensive fieldwork. He seems to have interviewed every Muslim leader of note in Russia as well as dozens of ordinary believers from across the country, from Moscow to Makhachkala. He quickly discovers the biggest challenge the Kremlin faces in its outreach: the changing composition of Russia’s Muslim population. 

Millions of guest workers have migrated to Russia in recent years from Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The tactics that served Putin well with Tatar intellectuals or Chechen nationalists were less useful with this new population. The four gunmen who have been arrested as perpetrators of the Crocus City Hall attack are all Tajiks.  


“I have worked as a builder throughout Russia,” says Haireddin Abdolla, a Tajik living in Moscow interviewed by Rubin, “and I have been to nearly every provincial mosque in Russia. And that’s why I can tell you from personal experience on trust that extremism is a bigger problem in Russia than even the most worried people think. Speaking about Tajiks, I can tell you that a huge number of my fellow countrymen support ISIS either actively or passively.” 

“Let me be more precise: I would say 30 per cent of Tajiks are devoted Wahhabis,” he continues. “And 40 per cent don’t consider themselves Wahhabis, but by their beliefs and actions, you can see that this is what they believe.”

Putin has tried to adapt to these new challenges. A youth minister at a mosque in Dagestan, a province from which many young men traveled to Syria to fight for ISIS, tells Rubin of his efforts to combat radicalism, including a personal appearance by Putin himself:

I invited all the parents of boys who had gone off to Syria to the town hall. I wanted to talk to them, to find out their worries, and also what is driving their children to do this. Usually, you know, they go off because they have been promised a car, a house, money—it’s a way to get rich for them. A lot of them also have this idea that, you know, “we can’t live in the Russian Federation, it’s dar al-harb.” So we got Qaradaghi [a Kurdish scholar] down here to explain to them about dar al-silm. We had a conference with muftis from Moscow and Tatarstan. Putin also came. He said: “Allah has deprived Erdogan of reason.” He used the word Allah! Muslims were amazed!

But simply saying “Allah” is not enough to win over all of Russia’s tens of millions of Muslims, as last month’s terrorist attack proved. Muslim gangs have also been gaining strength in Russia’s prisons, to the point that jamaats have taken control of entire prisons, defeating not only the guards but also Russia’s traditional prison mafias. Many Muslim prison gang leaders are veterans of the Caucasian and Syrian wars.

Putin gave a speech in 2023 in which he said, literally, that diversity is Russia’s strength. In many ways, this is true. Russia would not be Russia without its Buryats and Yakuts, its Balts and Armenians. But as the recent deportation of thousands of Tajik migrant workers shows, Putin’s commitment to diversity only goes so far.