Shifting sands – Russia, Islam and West


SHOULD the West co-operate with Russia to counter the threat of militant Islam? A proposal that both Russia and China should be allies in the battle for Muslim hearts and minds was the most provocative part of this week’s sweeping theo-geo-political peroration by Tony Blair. As Bagehot has pointed out, Mr Blair’s diagnosis of a serious problem—Islamist extremism—was not very original, and his proposals were not very helpful. But his implied call for a soft-pedalling of confrontation with Russia, so as to form a common front against the jihadists, needs discussing further—not least because there are other figures in Western Europe, especially on the far right, who would broadly agree.

Since Mr Blair was brushing with broad historical strokes, let’s do likewise. Over time, the triangular relationship between the Western powers, Russia and the world of Islam has been configured in many shapes. Far from collaboration to deal with Islam, the general pattern has been Russian-Western competition to carve up the Islamic spoils. In the 19th century, Britain propped up a weak Ottoman empire as a counter-weight to the Tsar; Queen Victoria was determined to keep Istanbul Muslim. In the 1920s, Soviet Russia played on Turkish resentment of Anglo-French meddling to establish cordial ties with the Turkish republic. Jumping to the cold war, when American-Soviet rivalry dominated world affairs, the Americans used their Muslim allies to rally fighters to the anti-Soviet cause in Afghanistan. That didn’t stop the Soviet Union having friends in Muslim countries, albeit mainly the ones under secular rule.

For a couple of years after 9/11, a different triangle seemed to emerge. Vladimir Putin’s reaction to the attack on America was to say something like: “This is all your fault, these Sunni fanatics are a Frankenstein that you Americans created, now let’s go and fight them together.” And for a short time, the West half-accepted the proposal; it gave Mr Putin a slightly freer hand in crushing the Chechens, and worked with him in driving the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan. But Russia expected things in return (like renewed hegemony over Muslim Central Asia) which the West was not willing to grant, and the honeymoon turned very sour.

In any case, how stable a partner could today’s Russia be in dealing with the Muslim world? Over the years, Mr Putin has offered wildly conflicting views about Islam. When a French journalist challenged him over Chechnya, the president replied with a smutty offer to have the questioner Islamically circumcised. But he once observed that in many people’s view (although he wasn’t qualified to decide himself) eastern Christianity was closer to Islam than to Catholicism: a revealing remark because it suggests the influence of strains of Russian nationalism that regard Islam as a potential ally against an over-mighty West. In the hardest-line Russian nationalist circles, there have always been individuals of Muslim background who endorse this view.

At the moment, the old pattern of Russian-Western competition within the Muslim world is re-emerging. Syria, among many other things, has become a proxy for Russian-Western rivalry as well as the standoff between Shias and Sunnis. It’s only a slight over-simplification to say that the West has been drawn into the conflict on the side of the militant Sunnis, while Russia is lined up with the Shias of Iran in defence of the Syrian regime.

Where does all this leave Mr Blair’s proposal for a Russian-Western front against fundamentalism? The evidence of history suggests that Russia and the West are unlikely to co-operate in good faith to bring about some desired result in the world of Islam. To be frank, both sides have a record of advancing their own ends by pitting different Muslim factions against one another. But let’s suppose that the West were to rethink all its past mistakes in dealing with Islam; would it then find Vladimir Putin a good person to work with? It seems very improbable at a time when Russian power is on the march and prepared to use almost any slogan, from pro-Muslim to anti-Muslim, to expand its influence.

But there is at least a negative point that is worth making. At the height of the cold war, the West was so single-minded in its contest with the Soviet Union that it never stopped to consider what baby alligators it might be nurturing in the Islamic world, especially in the anti-Soviet coalition in Afghanistan. That was clearly a mistake; think how some anti-Soviet jihadists morphed into al-Qaeda. These days, the West may not have much scope, with or without Russian assistance, to achieve constructive goals in the Muslim world, which more than ever before has a mind of its own. But it should at least be careful to avoid doing any more gratuitous harm, to itself or the Muslims.

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