Our traditional understanding of Muslim communities assumes that when Islam arrives in an area, it becomes deeply rooted in the population and culture, producing powerful local variations. A Muslim community in the United Arab Emirates is very different from one in Nigeria, and both are very different from Islam in Indonesia. Recent developments in Russia, however, constitute a stark challenge to this understanding -- which explains President Vladimir Putin's bold decision to support the US-led war on terrorism following the Sept. 11th attacks.
The scenario is the same within Muslim communities throughout Russia. Young activists arrive in a particular area, typically from Arab countries. They know how to work with local law enforcement agencies, and initially their activities are limited to gathering information aimed at discrediting the current local religious leaders -- whose average age is over 70 -- and working skillfully with local media to ensure that this defamatory information is publicized. The religious community then convenes, removes its old leaders, with the young challengers taking over.
The new leaders proceed on the assumption that they need not -- and indeed should not -- adapt to national or cultural distinctions among Muslims, for their goal is Islamic unification, not differentiation. They send their most promising local supporters abroad -- not necessarily to Arab countries, but also to France, England, and the US -- to be trained to carry out the same work, whether it is in the Volga region (home to 40 percent of Russia's Muslims) or elsewhere. Participation in these networks convinces new recruits that they are part of a globally integrated organization.
Operating these networks costs money. Indeed, notwithstanding the conventional wisdom that the main post-Cold War division pits the poor South against the rich North, the ferment within Islam suggests a struggle between rich and rich. Elites in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states have the financial clout of the most advanced countries, yet not a single Arab state has a seat in the Security Council or is a member of the G-7. To the extent that such international councils of power exclude representatives of the Islamic world, a portion of this would-be Muslim counter-elite will seek to challenge the system, finding no shortage of ideologically committed proxies.
So efforts at Islamic unification are at most only indirectly the result of relative economic backwardness. Rather, greater mobility, enlarged markets, and increased access to information have made traditional borders increasingly porous, and a more globalized world has led to the emergence of political actors seeking to gain a greater say in international councils. The steady growth of network communities, linked together by a religious identity that transcends the hierarchical organization of nations and states, reflects this emerging new reality.
The theological and political implications of this integral thrust within Islam are very different from those associated with the emergence of Protestantism in Christianity. Yet there are some obvious similarities as well. For example, both share a religious concern with bringing the individual into direct contact with God, and both entail a radical challenge to foreign domination in the temporal world.