Moscow’s underground mosques: Russia’s intolerance toward Muslims may be breeding a more radical brand of Islam.

Is Moscow Breeding a More Radical Brand of Islam?

Is Moscow Breeding a More Radical Brand of Islam?

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Aug. 2 2013 5:28 AM

Underground Islam

Moscow’s intolerance is forcing Russian Muslims to take shelter. Is the city breeding a more radical brand of Islam?

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A man takes pictures using his mobile phone of Russian muslims slaughtering a sheep to mark the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha (Kurban-Bayram), outside the main Mosque in Moscow.
Moscow Muslims slaughtering a sheep to mark the feast of Eid al-Adha (Kurban-Bayram).

Photo by Dmitry Kosryukov/AFP/Getty Images

To the American ear, this may sound like the kind of bigotry that would force a politician to resign, or at least apologize for "misspeaking." But American ears are tuned to a different wavelength, one where the word tolerance (tolerantnost) does not make people cringe the way it does in Russia. Russia never had a civil rights movement. It had 200 years of sporadic warfare with the Muslims of the North Caucasus, a strip of highlands it conquered in the 19th century and still fights wars to control, most recently in Chechnya in the 1990s. These wars play out today through a full-scale insurgency in the North Caucasus as well as terrorist attacks across Russia; the most recent one in Moscow—a suicide bombing at Domodedovo Airport in 2011—killed at least 37 people and was traced back to Dagestan. Combine that with cultural irritants like the rams of Kurban Bayram and it should not be surprising that distrust, if not outright hatred, of Muslims tends to be the default position among Muscovites. (Russians sometimes call this bytovoy racism, meaning racism that is "commonplace" or "household," a qualifier that makes it seem almost quaint.)

So the mayor's public position on mosques is as much a product of populism as it is small-mindedness. The mayor has an election coming up in September, and his closest rival, the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, has also made strident remarks about the need to stem Moscow's Islamization. Both of them realize that the Moscow electorate does not want any more mosques in their city; many of them do not even want to live in the same city as practicing Muslims. My Russian friends often argue with me about this, and I have found that all of them—even feminists, yuppies, political activists, leftie journalists—tend to sound like Bible Belt conservatives when the topic turns to Islam. (One common complaint concerns the dancing of lezginka, the traditional dance of the Caucasus, on Red Square. Muslim kids like to do this sometimes, not just for fun but to express the fact that their culture is also part of this multiethnic city and its heritage. It drives the Russians absolutely mad.)

The problem, of course, is that Moscow’s Muslims have no safe enclave, nowhere to retreat. And as long as they have to come to their nation's capital to find work or to study, Muslims—and especially Salafis—will be forced to practice their religion at underground mosques. These are usually called "prayer rooms," and although no official count is possible there are estimated to be hundreds of them around the city. More radical interpretations of Islam are common there, and a lot of them lean toward Salafism, which is effectively banned in Russia. Down in the North Caucasus, a few Salafi mosques have been allowed, mostly to ease the surveillance efforts of the Russian security services, who find it convenient to have Salafis congregate in places where they can be easily watched. (Not that this surveillance always prevents terrorism: The biggest Salafi mosque in Russia is on Kotrova Street in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. That is where Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the suspected bomber of the Boston Marathon, went for services last year, when he spent six months in Dagestan visiting family and meeting with local Islamists.)


On Fridays, thousands of Salafis descend on the underground mosques of Moscow, one of the biggest of which is called Darul Arkam. It is a single-story building, about the size of a one-bedroom house, that stands in the middle of a grimy industrial neighborhood surrounded by junkyards, auto-repair shops, and clusters of rusty sheet-metal garages. The mosque is blocked from the street with a bare concrete wall crowned with barbed wire, and the only way in or out is through a narrow metal door. There are no signs outside to distinguish it from the surrounding lots, no minarets or crescent moons. An outsider would have trouble finding it even with the address marked off on a map.

But on the Friday I went there it was made conspicuous by the clusters of Muslim men arriving to take in the sermon, trickling in from the bus stops and side streets in groups of a dozen or so. Eventually, a couple thousand of them assembled, mostly between the ages of 25 and 35. Many wore track pants and T-shirts—including one that read in English, "Islam Is the Way of Life," and another that read, also in English, "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

About half of the congregants wore the facial hair typical of Salafis, who like to trim their mustaches close but let their beards grow long, sort of like the Amish. They started to gather around noon, just as a group of volunteers began inflating the large white tent in the courtyard to accommodate the growing crowd. The tent’s scuffed white exterior was badly in need of a wash, and its wooden floor was lined with simple woven plastic prayer rugs. Just beside it a kind of field kitchen had been set up, where volunteers prepared a vat of steaming plov, the staple dish of rice and meat served in every Muslim part of the former Soviet Union.

The sermon that day was delivered by a visiting cleric named Sheikh Idris—full name Idris abu Abdurakhman ash-Shishani—who talked about the emptiness of knowing the Quran by heart without trying to act and live like the Prophet Mohammed. (This is a mainstay of Salafism, which puts particular emphasis on the need for Muslims to emulate the prophet in every way they can.) Hundreds of men were packed into the room all around him, their numbers spilling out into the courtyard and nearly filling the tent outside. The sermon concluded with a word of practical advice: "When coming to our mosque—I mean, to our prayer room,” Sheikh Idris said, quickly correcting himself, “please do not forget to bring your identity papers. We all know what can happen."

He was referring to an incident on April 26 when several busloads of Russian troops raided Darul Arkam. For hours, they kept a couple thousand worshippers inside the mosque and its courtyard as police checked everyone's documents. According to a statement released by the FSB (the agency formerly known as the KGB), 140 of the congregants were arrested on suspicion of involvement in radical Islamist groups.

Among the mosque's past congregants, the FSB said, were four men convicted of attempting to bomb a passenger train between Moscow and St. Petersburg in July 2011. (The FSB found and defused that bomb before it was detonated, and the alleged perpetrators are now serving sentences of between 15 and 18 years.) After the raid on Darul Arkam, state-run television channels and news agencies ran reports claiming that a group of "Islamic extremists" had been apprehended in Moscow. For the head of the mosque, a young imam named Mukhammad-Basyr Gasanov, the press coverage of the raid was the most painful part. "It was Islamophobia, which is a political trump card in Russia," he told me. "We have no way of fighting it." So the mosque closed down for a couple of weeks after the raid, while its leaders sought guarantees of protection. That meant reaching out to the Council of Muftis, the state sanctioned organization meant to represent all of Russia’s Muslims.