JULY 1, 2015
Russia Sees a Threat in Its Converts to Islam
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
ERZURUM, Turkey -- As a teenager in St. Petersburg, Maksim Baidak hung out with neo-Nazis and right-wing nationalists, but the Russian security services mostly left him alone.
It was not until he abandoned white-Slavic supremacy and instead found God -- as a convert to Islam and leader of a group of ethnic Russian Muslims -- that he came under near-constant surveillance and was often forced into cars at gunpoint by security agents.
Then, one morning in 2013, masked commandos from a special counter-extremism unit busted into his apartment and arrested him. For two days, he was interrogated, at times with a black hood over his head -- "tortured," he said, by choking, electric shock and death threats.
"I was arrested like a terrorist," said Mr. Baidak, 28, who now lives in Erzurum, a university town in northeast Turkey, where he fled after a judge released him for lack of any criminal charges. "Look at me, I am a journalist. I am a blogger," he said. "I am a political activist, pro-democratic oriented, Sufi-oriented, but I was arrested like -- I don't know -- bin Laden."
While nations across Europe are grappling with the relatively recent peril of homegrown Islamic terrorists, Russia has long lived in fear of a jihadist uprising within its own borders, particularly in the Caucasus, where it fought two brutal wars to suppress Muslim separatists.
For President Vladimir V. Putin's Russia, Slavic, ethnic Russian converts to Islam like Mr. Baidak pose an especially subversive threat, not only by stoking Russia's deep paranoia over separatist extremism, but also by challenging the Orthodox Christian national identity that Mr. Putin has used to unite the country in place of Soviet Communism.
The government also worries that ethnic Russian Muslims have shown a willingness to link up with an array of other anti-Kremlin forces, including nationalists, pro-democracy groups and even gay rights organizations.
"I worked with the L.G.B.T. society; it's unbelievable for Muslims, yeah?" Mr. Baidak said, describing a group, Islamic Civil Charter, now banned in Russia.
"I don't support this orientation of men and women, but I cannot change them," he said in an interview. "If they are agents of freedom and we fight for freedom also, we fight for our common values. Let's fight together, not be divided."
Russia's security services, however, were not about to let that happen.
An aggressive crackdown that began before last year's Winter Olympics in Sochi never ended, leading to widespread arrests not just in the predominantly Muslim Caucasus but throughout European Russia and as far north as Novy Urengoi, just below the Arctic Circle, where the authorities this year demolished a building that had housed a mosque and an Islamic preschool.
The pressure by the security services, in the name of combating extremism, has set off a wave of refugees seeking safety and religious freedom, especially in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Muslim leaders and human rights advocates say that Russia's often brutal approach has also added to the appeal of the Islamic State, with the Russian authorities saying recently that hundreds of Russian Muslims have gone to Syria.
For moderate converts who have fled Russia, one obstacle to obtaining political asylum, or even more basic social service help, has been a lack of awareness among some officials that Slavic Muslims even exist.
"Lawyers who were to speak about our problem with the authorities, they said that the first thing to do was to explain to the Turkish government that there is a group of ethnic Russian Muslims, because no one has the slightest idea of this," said Dmitri I. Chernomorchenko, who was born to Christian parents in Cherkessk in the North Caucasus, but took the name Khamza when he converted and now lives in Istanbul.
"We know Tatars, Chechens; we know that Dagestanis of various ethnicities are killed, but that there are suppressed Russians and that you actually have a large ethnic group, we don't know about this," Mr. Chernomorchenko said, explaining the reaction he faced when he moved to Turkey.
The aggressive scrutiny by the Russian security services on converts to Islam is based partly on a belief, shared by some experts on religious fundamentalism, that they are more likely to embrace extremism and carry out terrorist attacks.
Many converts are adherents to the Salafist movement of Sunni Islam, which is often linked with extremism, if unfairly so, because it espouses more orthodox religious practices.
Still, human rights advocates say the Russian security services take a heavy-handed approach that often persecutes innocent people, including native-born Muslims and converts alike. "Statistically, the number of converts who turn to fundamentalist Islam, as opposed to traditional Islam, is disproportionately high, so it's not surprising that they draw the attention of the security services," said Tanya Lokshina, the Russian program director for Human Rights Watch.
Vyacheslav Ali Polosin, a former Russian Orthodox priest who converted to Islam in 1999, said that Christian Russians became Muslims for many reasons. Some women adopt the religion after marrying a Muslim man, and others are hoping to find a Muslim husband because of the religious prohibition on drinking alcohol.
"They know Muslims don't drink," said Mr. Polosin, noting Russian society's long struggle with alcoholism.
Others, he said, are drawn for political or financial reasons, preferring Islam's approach to money matters. And still others, he said, are drawn purely as a matter of faith.
In any event, Mr. Polosin said, converts encounter the same deeply entrenched discrimination that all Muslims do in Russia, including efforts to prevent the construction of new mosques even as the population swells.
Estimates of Russia's Muslim population now range from 16 million to 20 million, including more than two million in Moscow, where there are just four mosques.
"The Russian Orthodox believers are saying Moscow is our holy city, and we only want traditionally the cupolas of Russian churches," Mr. Polosin said. "In Stavropol, there is a mosque which was built in the czar's time, and they don't allow it to reopen. They say that Stavropol would cease to be Stavropol, because Stavropol means city of the cross."
Grigory A. Mavrov, 35, a corporate lawyer who converted to Islam, now lives with his wife in a tidy apartment complex in Istanbul, where there is a community swimming pool.
Mr. Mavrov, who helped found two Muslim groups now banned in Russia, has been arrested three times. The first time was at the center of the National Organization of Russian Muslims in Moscow. The second time was in St. Petersburg, where he and his wife were both arrested at the apartment where they lived with her aunt and grandmother.
After that, they decided to leave for Turkey.
Last year, Mr. Mavrov was arrested in Turkey at the request of Russia and ordered deported, although, he said, officials gave no reason. He is now fighting that decision and hoping to receive political asylum in Turkey or elsewhere.
"Our activity was very peaceful," Mr. Mavrov said in an interview in his kitchen. "We had no connection with anything which is extremist, terrorists, et cetera. We had not, and have not now, of course."
Still, he said, Moscow opposes any Islamic activity not affiliated with the Kremlin-sanctioned Council of Muftis, viewed by many Muslims as promoting a watered-down version of Islam.
"They don't want independent structures, independent organizations in Russia," Mr. Mavrov said of the Russian government. "They are afraid of them. They need to control everything. If they don't control it, they recognize it as an enemy."