How Russian Propaganda Weaponizes Islamophobia

February 20, 2024
Russian propaganda has been known to exploit and weaponize Islamophobia to achieve its geopolitical goals.

On October 25, during a meeting with representatives of Russian religious associations in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin blamed the West for "trying to prevent the formation of multipolarity in the world, using Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and Russophobia." This statement illustrates one of the most common anti-Western narratives of Russian propaganda: blaming Western countries for "thriving Islamophobia." Contrasting the "Islamophobic West" with "multicultural and multireligious Russia," Moscow demonstrates attempts to strengthen its position in the so-called Global South, but is Russia itself free from Islamophobic prejudices?

Paradoxicality remains one of the most prominent features of Russian propaganda, so it miraculously manages to condemn the West for "radical Islamization" as the marker of the "weakness" of European governments and promote narratives about "Western Islamophobia" at the same time.

The thesis about "Islamisation" is commonly used to demonstrate the following binary opposition: the West ( is turning more and more Islamic, and therefore, "degrading") vs. Russia (a strong state that remains the last stronghold of Orthodoxy).

As of 2018, there were about 25 million Muslims in Russia (approximately 18% of the population), according to Sheikh Rawil Gaynetdin, the Grand Mufti of Russia. Since then, this figure has continued to rise, reflecting the steady influx of immigrants from Central Asia, the majority of whom are mostly Muslims. This ranks Islam as Russia's second most popular religion.

Nevertheless, Russian history demonstrates diverse examples of anti-Islam policies: from the periodical bans of Hajj in the Russian Empire to the bans of religious education and official pilgrimages to Sunni and Shia sites, the closure of mosques, and the prohibition of Arabic in Central Asia within the anti-religious campaign of the Soviets. The banning era was later changed by constructing the image of the USSR as an Islam-tolerant state in order to improve relations with the Middle East.

Today, Russia resorts to the same strategy by presenting solidarity with Palestine while strengthening its position in the so-called Global South. But how does this image correlate with Russian domestic policies?

Russia's imperialist wars in Chechnya in the 1990s sparked a wave of demonization of Muslims as "terrorists" and "extremists", which was also reflected in the media by the use of discriminatory cliches such as "people of Caucasian nationality" to refer to the natives of North Caucasus and Transcaucasia as "potentially dangerous."

The "anti-terrorist operation Fatima," initiated by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs in 2003, became a response to a terrorist attack on Tushyno airfield, which, according to MFA, was conducted by two female suicide bombers, one of whom was of Chechen origin.

The operation became  part of a general tendency to tighten passport control, increase surveillance activities, and increase more evasive security checks for the "people of Caucasian nationality in major Russian cities. The stated aim of the operation was to "identifying female suicide bombers and militants" while it prescribed searching all hijab-wearing women as possible terrorists.

While playing the "multireligious" card on the international level, modern Russia seems to cherish the "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality" ideological triad, which was created in the times of the government of Nicholas I (1825-1855).

The idea of Russian exclusivity was also developed by Patriarch Kirill, who focused on "Russia's migration problem," criticizing the massive influx of people who "do not speak Russian and have no idea about the cultural history of our country" for the negative impact on Russian cities, which "leads to the deformation of the single legal, cultural, and linguistic space" of Russia.

Another example of Russian state-sponsored Islamophobia concerns Ukraine's temporarily occupied territories. After the Russian invasion and occupation of the Crimea region in Ukraine in 2014, Crimean Muslim Tatars have also faced disproportionate discrimination from Russian authorities, with hundreds of Crimean Tatars being arrested and sentenced to prison on terrorism charges, i.a., for simply possessing a Qur'an or being a member of Islamic political parties under Ukrainian administration.

As a result, in 2016, after two years of Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula, the so-called "Supreme Court of Crimea" recognized the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People as an "extremist" organization and banned its activities in the territory of Russia on the grounds of "extremism" and "terrorism." This organization is also recorded on the Federal List of Extremist Organizations or the Federal List of Terrorist Organizations.

The Mufti of Crimea and Chairman of the Religious Administration of Muslims in Crimea Aider Rustemov also stated that Russia is "slowly killing the Crimean Tatar people" in the temporarily occupied peninsula.

He highlighted the prevailing atmosphere of fear in Crimea due to constant raids of the homes and mosques of Crimean Tatars, surveillance of the mosques, forced collection of data, imprisonment on fabricated charges, and mockery of Muslims' faith. He revealed that approximately 5,000 Crimean Tatars were forced to leave the peninsula after February 24, 2022. Those men who remained in Crimea were subject to forced mobilization into the ranks of the Russian occupation army.

Islamophobic theses are also systematically expressed by Russian officials criticizing modern Russia for "masses of immigrants from the countries of Central Asia and Transcaucasia," as well as the concept of National Unity Day for "usual and traditional food products massively receiving halal status," "duplication of Russian names in public transport into the official languages ​​of Central Asian states continues," and the "removal" of Orthodox crosses from the images of Russian churches."

Here is the example of a statement made by Kirill Kabanov, Russia's Chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, who claims that "non-existent sins like "migrantophobia," "Islamophobia" or "Russian nationalism" are just attempts to defend Russian true values:

"All this, like many other things, happens under the guise of tolerance and the fight against migrant phobia. However, in fact, the goal of all this is not to calm society but to force us to confrontthe gradual loss of our unique national-cultural identity, [...] our spiritual values. [...] This is a covert, but well-prepared strategy to blur Russian national self-identification, most likely for better integration of people from Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Perhaps, according to the planned scenario, Russians from a state-forming people will gradually turn into "Ivans who do not remember kinship," into one of the many people inhabiting the territory of the Russian Federation, along with the millions who moved to us from the countries of Central Asia and Transcaucasia."

Such rhetoric shows that xenophobia is commonly used in Russian political discourse as an instrument of consolidation for Russian society, and Islamophobia is used as a regular component of the broader policy of discrimination and inciting hatred towards 'the Other.'

As the revival of state-incorporated Orthodox Christianity remains one of the pillars of Russian national identity, discrimination against other religions is systematically portrayed as the "protection of traditional values" while orthodox Russians are portrayed as the "dominant ethnicity" in the Russian Federation, which is reflected in the Putin's program statement: "Without Russians as an ethnic group, there is and cannot be Russia and the Russian world."

The article was originally published on the Kremlin's Voice platform.

Inna Polianska
Analyst and Journalist at Internews Ukraine