Playing with fire

By stoking the embers of anti-Semitism since the Hamas massacre, Russia may have sent sparks into a tinderbox in its own backyard

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Playing with fire

"Uytash" airport in Makhachkala. October 30, 2023 Photo: social media

On Sunday, an anti-Semitic mob angry at the arrival of a flight from Israel seized the main airport in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan — reminding many Jews of the government-sanctioned pogroms that prompted waves of emigration in the late 1800s.

Joseph Epstein

D.C.-based analyst covering the Middle East and Post-Soviet Space

The airport attack in Russia’s majority Muslim North Caucasus region comes amid a sharp increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes in the weeks since the deadly Hamas raid that left nearly 1,400 civilians dead in Israel.

Earlier this month, reports of landlords in Dagestan refusing to rent to Jews flooded Telegram channels. In the city of Nalchik in the nearby republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, a Jewish cultural centre that had been under construction was set on fire and “Death to the Jews” was spray painted onto the side of the charred building.

Yet even as some, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, blamed Russia’s institutional racism and anti-Semitism for Sunday’s attack, there is more at work here.

The dominant cause of the pogrom in Dagestan was the radicalising effect of the Palestinian issue on Muslim populations. This is something to which Dagestan, where the strict Salafist interpretation of Islam has become increasingly popular in recent years, is particularly susceptible. Salafism is a fundamentalist, ultraconservative version of Islam that seeks to replicate the lifestyle of the first Muslims. By stoking the fires of anti-Semitism since the Hamas massacre, Russia may have sent sparks into a tinderbox in its own backyard.

The Israel-Palestine issue is an incredibly powerful mobilising and radicalising force in the Muslim world.

The governments of countries including Turkey and Qatar have attempted to utilise the issue for their own benefit, but powerful emotions are hard to control, and chaos and mass rioting in the streets sometimes ensue.

The head of Dagestan Sergei Melikov inspects the airport after the pogroms. Photo: Government of the Republic of Dagestan

The head of Dagestan Sergei Melikov inspects the airport after the pogroms. Photo: Government of the Republic of Dagestan

Since the start of the war many Middle Eastern countries have seen the mass outbreak of violent protests, some of which have turned against the government. Similarly, Russia’s promotion of the Palestinian cause could radicalise its Muslim majority regions.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Putin and his ministers have made multiple anti-Semitic comments. Following the Hamas massacre on October 7, Russia’s long tradition of anti-Semitism poorly disguised as anti-Zionism flourished in its media, especially in predominantly Muslim regions.

Russia is home to an estimated 14 to 20 million Muslims, and while the situation in the North Caucasus is now largely peaceful, Moscow has for years seen separatism and jihadism in the region as an existential threat. The two wars fought by Moscow to suppress the secessionist movements in Chechnya are well-known, but Dagestan has been under similar pressures since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Dagestan, the most religious of Russia’s Muslim republics, where many practise the strict Wahhabist interpretation of Islam, experienced Moscow’s continuous, low-intensity war against separatists and jihadists in the North Caucasus. At the height of the conflict in 2011, over 400 Dagestani insurgents were killed in confrontations with the security forces — more than the figure that year for the rest of the North Caucasus combined. Over time, the situation stabilised due to a combination of a harsh government crackdown and a compromise that allowed the practice of non-political Salafism.

In 2016, 5,000 Salafists marched through Dagestan’s second largest city to protest the forced closure of their mosque. The authorities responded by reopening it the next day, but they also arrested one of the protest’s leaders, a Salafist imam who was reportedly tortured and sent to a penal colony. The message was clear: the Russian authorities would tolerate Salafism to avoid unrest, but not anti-government protest.

Now, by allowing such a strict version of Islam to prosper, Russia has created an environment that is especially susceptible to extremist mobilisation.

Neighbouring Chechnya and its leader Ramzan Kadyrov have also influenced the situation in Dagestan. Kadyrov has promoted his own pseudo-Salafist, macho, cultist version of Islam and has vied to position himself as a global Muslim leader.

Russian leaders and propagandists may have now realised the mistake they made in using the Palestinian cause to rile their Muslim populations. RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, who has herself made numerous anti-Semitic statements in the past, described the pogrom unfolding in Dagestan as “very, very bad”. A deputy in the State Duma, Yevgeny Popov, called on Russians “not to refer to pogromists as protestors” and said that “every one of them will be punished.” Even Kadyrov called the pogrom “unacceptable” and suggested that anyone publicly supporting the Palestinian cause should be jailed or even shot by police.

The Russian government likely did not understand that anti-Semitism is far more powerful and corrosive than the hatred they normally peddle. By promoting it, they have woken a sleeping dog with a fierce and indiscriminate bite.

Like the Prigozhin mutiny, the attempted pogrom at Makhachkala airport has shown how vulnerable and unstable Russia is when faced with direct threats from within. For although the pogromists were riled up against Jews over the war in Gaza, Russia and its citizens also suffered. Despite its distance from Dagestan, the war caused thousands of Dagestani men to storm their own airport, to terrorise unarmed civilians, to smash and loot everything in sight and to clash violently with the police.

When massive anti-Semitic mobs don’t find any Jews to lynch, they may well select another target for their hatred and anger. Very often, they turn on the government.

Views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of Novaya Gazeta Europe.

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