Tatarstan, a republic located in the heart of Russia, has seen increased Islamic militancy over the last year. Utilizing its vibrant economy and rich natural resources will be key to containing radical extremism. Below is my feature in the Summer 2013 edition of the World Policy Journal.
KAZAN, Tatarstan—Shelves of vodka line a shop wall in Kazan, the capital of the Tatarstan republic. Just opposite, Islamic prayer beads sit in heaps on a rack. In this Russian-ruled region with a Muslim majority, bars and mosques exist side by side. A nearby store advertises clothing for Muslim women, and inside, Zulfia, one of the two female owners, helps customers with traditional headscarves and brightly colored skirts. Since she opened the store nine years ago, Zulfia says demand is increasing as women embrace Muslim traditions with a modern twist. Outside, the Kazan Kremlin, a citadel home to Tatarstan’s president, stands elevated on the banks of the Kazanka River where its Islamic minarets and Orthodox domes overlook the city.
A federal republic within Russia located 500 miles east of Moscow, Tatarstan has long been a model region for religious and ethnic tolerance. Half the republic’s four million inhabitants are Tatars, an indigenous non-Slavic people, while ethnic Russians account for another 40 percent and small ethnic groups make up the rest. In recent years, oil wealth has transformed Kazan into a vibrant, multi-cultural city. Today, high-rise office complexes and modern residential developments dwarf the narrow European-style streets and large Soviet-era tower blocks. Kazan also boasts a metro system, one of Europe’s top soccer teams, and plans for the creation of two satellite cities to attract high-tech companies from abroad.
But 1,000 miles away, deep in the North Caucasus, a disturbing online video emerged in March 2011. It was from Doku Umarov, the self-proclaimed Emir of the Caucasus Emirate, a network of groups that aspire to form a conservative Islamic state in Russia’s southwestern tip that includes the turbulent republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. In the video, Umarov, a long-time Chechen militant, stands in a snowy woodland, dressed in military fatigues and flanked by two comrades sporting machine guns. A long, brown beard frames his pale, lined face. With one finger pointing toward the sky, Umarov launches into his speech with a quote from the Prophet Muhammad, “He who dies and has not fought and had no intention to fight, dies in one of the forms of hypocrisy.” Speaking briskly but directly, his introduction and tone mimic al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.