Author: Gela Khmaladze, Research Fellow at Rondeli Foundation


On October 7, the terrorist attack by Hamas armed groups from the Gaza Strip on Israeli settlements, and the Israel retaliatory anti-terrorist operations, caused a broad reaction in the Russian Federation, especially in the North Caucasus republics populated by ethnic groups of Islamic faith. However, the anger and protest of the local community did not directly result from the terrorist attack by Hamas and the mass killing of civilians, but was instead a response to Israel’s retaliatory actions against the aforementioned group.

In the North Caucasus region, local Islamic religious leaders have been calling on citizens to periodically gather at mosques and offer collective prayers in support of their Palestinian co-religionists. In North Caucasus cities, groups of young believers have begun to publicly display the symbols of the Arab state of Palestine. Further, informal rallying points have been set up to mobilize religiously motivated individuals and compile lists of volunteers willing to travel to the Middle East region to fight in support of the Palestinian Muslims.

It should be noted here that similar religious ritual prayers, in support of the Muslims fighting against Ukraine, have been systematically held in the mosques of the North Caucasus since the first days of the Russian army’s invasion of Ukraine.

The public activity was somewhat encouraged by the calls of the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, to support the Palestinian Muslims, calls which accused the State of Israel, along with the United States of America and European countries, of so-called global anti-Islamism and the deliberate extermination of Palestinian Muslims. Since October 7, representatives of the Russian government and experts have been constantly engaged in propaganda against the State of Israel through the Russian federal media, portraying it as an outpost of Western civilization.

We can assume that Kadyrov’s open statements were driven not by purely religious, but more by political goals; a move intended to strengthen his authority and influence, targeting the domestic audience, that is, the Muslim population of the Russian Federation, as well as to show political solidarity with the Arab states of the Middle East.

This information campaign against Israel led by representatives of the Russian government has encouraged and given the green light to the intensification of anti-Semitic and anti-Western sentiments among the Muslim community living in the North Caucasus. The most Islamized and aggressive social groups of this society thought that the authorities would have no legal response to their possible active and destructive actions, however, the governmental structures of other republics of the North Caucasus handled the unrest of the local Muslim population with restraint and caution, and tried in every possible way to prevent the process from spilling over into street protests. The government representatives of the republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachay-Cherkessia made statements claiming that the Russian federal government supported the struggle of the Palestinian Muslims to create their own state, but warned their residents not to allow unauthorized street demonstrations in support of Palestine.

The visit of Hamas representatives to Moscow on October 26 may have played a certain provocative role in stirring up anti-Semitic sentiment in the Muslim community of the North Caucasus. During the talks with them, the Russian Foreign Ministry officially confirmed Russia’s support for the sovereign existence of the Palestinian Arab State within the 1967 borders, but it did not condone the terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians.

Obviously, the Russian authorities were trying to prevent excessive tension in society in light of the ongoing military confrontation in Ukraine, so as not to allow this process to turn into spontaneous public unrest and become uncontrollable. If the street protests had been allowed to kick off, it would have been much more difficult to manage the process, as, during such protests, all the accumulated contradictions and challenges in society may well spontaneously appear, seeing demonstrations easily developing that move in a direction undesirable for the government, all the more so in a region like the North Caucasus, where for many years people’s rights and the right to express an oppositional opinion have been consistently suppressed.

This is precisely what happened on the evening of October 29 in the Republic of Dagestan, when, according to reports, a group of about a thousand aggressive young people invaded the territory of the Makhachkala International Airport and attempted to locate and physically assault Jewish passengers in response to Israel’s anti-terrorist operations in the Gaza Strip. According to numerous authenticated sources, it was these aggressive people who had been actively gathering in mosques in Dagestan over the previous few weeks and were under the influence of anti-Semitic and anti-Western propaganda.

Regardless which political forces spread the provocative information about the arrival of ethnically Jewish passengers at the Makhachkala airport, or how they called for retaliation against them, the fact is that an ideologically conditioned and aggressive social group was easily provoked in a short period of time through social media. As a result, even under the repressive regime and total control in the North Caucasus region, the Russian law enforcement structures momentarily lost control over the destructive actions of this aggressive section of local society.

Some experts living in the North Caucasus region believe that it has been difficult for local law enforcement to control the aggression of youth groups, disoriented as these groups are for many years by propaganda and religious manipulation.


Why in the Republic of Dagestan?


The reasons why the uncontrolled aggressive act took place in Dagestan and not in other entities of the North Caucasus region, also populated by a Muslim majority, are interesting.

In Dagestan, compared to other republics of the region, the influence of Islam on the public’s consciousness and attitudes is much stronger. The Islamic tradition, more than any other social or political variable, determines the way of life of this society. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Islamic religion became one of the main components of the cultural identity of the Dagestan society. In many cases, social and civil relations are also regulated by Islamic religious laws.

Traditionally, in light of high birth rates and high youth unemployment, the system of structured Islamic educational institutions is widespread in the Republic of Dagestan. The vast majority of young people receive an Islamic education alongside general education. In recent decades, the quality of secondary education provided by the state has been very low, and this is being compensated precisely by Islamic schools. Due to the high level of corruption and the lack of social mobility, many young people give priority to religious education and often completely neglect seeking a general civic education. In fact, due to the corruption and nepotism of the state structures, Islamic education gives the youth a greater sense of justice and gives them equal opportunities for further development.

At the same time, there are no political or  public leaders in Dagestan whom society trusts: the Islamic religious clerics and scholars have taken their place. And it is these individuals, often under the control of the Russian government and the special services, who shape public opinion in Dagestan and represent the most influential figures for the majority of the population, especially for the young generation, which is free from the old Soviet values and way of life.

On October 29, the aggressive group of young people who stormed the Mahachkala airport had no public leader on the ground to manage their behavior and control their aggression: the religious and ideological conditioning of these people had already been carried out by the Islamic authorities over the years.

In the consciousness of the Muslim societies of both Dagestan and the North Caucasus as a whole, a sense of so-called Islamic solidarity has been firmly established. According to it, if there befalls any political or social conflict, regardless of the nature of conflict, its causes, the political context, or whose side international law is on, in all such situations, any true Muslim is obliged to unequivocally support the Muslims.


Religious faith or political manipulation?


In fact, the essence of this problem and its cause are more extensive. In the Russian Federation, especially after the rise of President V. Putin at the head of the government, a constituent part of the political and informational confrontation against the West has been the creation of a stereotype, according to which the United States of America and the countries of the European Union are political opponents not only of the Russian Federation, but also of Islamic civilization as a whole. Allegedly, the establishment of the State of Israel in the Middle East region, and the unresolved Palestinian conflict caused by it, are needed by the West to contain the Islamic influence in the world. Cultivation of this stereotype by the Russian authorities is primarily intended for internal Russian consumption, that is, for the ideological mobilization of the Russian Muslim population around the official Russian foreign policy course.

Moreover, the Russian government presents its citizens with an imagery of the Western countries simultaneously fighting the Russian state and Islam by spreading democratic and liberal values. It is as if Western civilization and modern democracy are in existential conflict with Russia’s sovereign development and, at the same time, with Islamic religious values.

These political narratives have been delivered to the Muslim communities of the North Caucasus for more than two decades through state propaganda, as well as through government-controlled Islamic religious structures and influential clerics.

Throughout 2012-2017, Islamist fighters from the North Caucasus region traveled to the “Islamic State” – the quasi-state formation in the territory of Syria and Iraq – with the attitude and conviction that it was the “Islamic State” that should confront the influences of Western civilization and stop the expansion against global Islam of the Western countries, first of all, in the USA.

Part of this policy is the fact that after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many North Caucasian clerics declared the war against Ukraine a “holy war” of Islam, and local Muslim believers are encouraged to join the Russian army and fight against Ukraine in the name of Islam.

President V. Putin’s comments after the October 29 Makhachkala airport incident speaks volumes. The Russian president, as usual, blamed the collective West for the incident. He did not really condemn the essence of these aggressive actions, and resented only the form of expression. In fact, the basis of this aggression was acceptable for Putin – the anti-Western and anti-Israeli nature of the aggressive protest. Paraphrasing his public comment, the best way to aid Palestine is to fight in Ukraine, where the fate of not only Russia, but also the Palestinian state, is now being decided.