Beliefnet
MOSCOW (Sept. 19, 2001)--With his clean-shaven chin and classic blue jeans, 40-year-old Akhmed Magomedov hardly fits the stereotypical image of a Muslim radical--bearded, brandishing a machine gun and calling for the blood of infidels.

But Magomedov, a Dagestan native who lives in Moscow preaching a fundamentalist brand of Islam called Wahhabism, is part of the growing radical wing among Russia's Muslims. ``Like the Bolsheviks in Switzerland a century ago, Wahhabis find haven in Moscow today,'' Magomedov joked bitterly in a recent interview. The chances that the Russian establishment will co-opt Muslim extremists and bring them into a political dialogue are next to none, especially after last week's terrorist attacks in the United States. Instead, experts said, the movement is likely to become ever more marginalized and its potential as a violent threat will continue to grow, especially in overwhelmingly Moslem regions such as Dagestan and Chechnya.

''In coming years, Russia will struggle with them fiercely,'' Alexander Iskandaryan, head of the Center for Caucasian Studies, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. ``But even if the state totally eliminates [existing] Islamic extremists, the problem will not be solved because the conditions for their proliferation will remain.''

Fundamentalist communities are a heterogeneous bunch, but experts agree about their origins. Fundamentalism surfaced in Russia in the early 1990s, when the doors to Muslim communities--whose religion had been suppressed during Soviet times were thrown open to proselytizers from all walks of Islam. The most radical of them met with the greatest success in the south, where poverty and clan conflicts were the norm. ``When Communism ends, when people are ignorant of democracy and are oppressed by local corrupt elites, they turn to the Islamic alternative,'' said Alexei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center, referring to the model of a Muslim state based on principles set forward by the Prophet Mohammed and his early followers.

''Many young proselytes turned into headstrong purists then,'' recalled Magomedov, who himself became disillusioned with moderate Islam in the mid-1990s.

The extremist groups have different names: Wahhabis, Salafis, fundamentalists and even Islamic modernists. They live in the Northern Caucasus, in Tatarstan and in major cities with Muslim diasporas. About 20 million of the world's 1 billion Muslims live in Russia--with 1 million in Moscow alone--and, according to experts and insiders, the number of radical groups is rising steadily.

''We don't have any statistics, but the growth trend is absolutely clear,'' said Dmitry Makarov, a Wahhabi expert at the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies. ``Their most talented, educated representatives live in big Russian cities, such as Moscow or St. Petersburg, and disseminate fundamentalist views in Muslim diasporas.''

''When I talk to young congregation members at Moscow mosques, I see that most of them are fundamentalists,'' Magomedov said. ``They want to live in a new state based on Islamic principles.''

Experts usually cite two reasons behind the increasing radicalization of Islam in Russia: foreign financial aid and Russian officialdom's inept handling of Muslim communities.

''Both traditionalists and fundamentalists received millions of dollars from international Moslem organizations over the past decade,'' Makarov said. ``Of course, they influence communities in Russia and make them more radical.''

Makarov and others said it is difficult to determine whether Osama bin Laden, the Afghanistan-based radical Muslim leader suspected by Washington of masterminding last week's attacks, has provided financial or military aid to Russia's Muslims.

Malashenko, however, said this was not of primary importance because aid from abroad only aggravates Islamic extremism in Russia while a greater impact, he believes, was made by the two military campaigns in Chechnya.

''All [Chechnya's first separatist President Dzhokhar] Dudayev wanted was to create an independent secular state,'' Malashenko said at a recent press conference. ``But, by using force, Russia has pushed Chechnya into Islamic extremism.''

Magomedov, who frequently traveled to Chechnya during the first military campaign and knew some of the rebel leaders, said dubious media coverage of the conflict also played a role in transforming a secular confrontation into a religious war.

''Shamil Basayev learned that he was leading a jihad [a sacred war against infidels] from NTV television,'' he said. ``Only after being informed of this did he start reading religious books and making some progress in Islam.'' After Chechnya emerged from the conflict with de facto independence in 1996, hundreds of enthusiastic young men from the country's Muslim communities went there to learn more about Islam and jihad in militarized camps set up by warlords of Arab origin.

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