Sam Westrop, director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch Project, spoke to an April 11 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the complicated and contradictory views of Islamists regarding the Ukraine crisis.
According to Westrop, Islamists are "deeply divided" about blaming Russia for its war with Ukraine. In the 80's, Russia invaded Afghanistan, and during the '90s, she committed "acts of repression" against Islamists in Chechnya. In the last decade, Russian president Putin's alliance with the Assad regime brutally treated Muslim civilians of that country. Despite Russia's history as "a traditional ancient enemy of Muslims," Islamists have recently voiced support for Russia as "a crusading voice against the West" because of shared opposition to "Western democratic ideas."
In the '90s, Muslims like Moazzam Begg, a British-Pakistani and former inmate of Guantanamo Bay who worked with the Taliban, became radicalized over the Chechen issue. This jihadist asks why Western volunteers who fight for Ukraine against Russia are considered "heroes," but Western Muslims who volunteered to fight the Assad regime in Syria are considered terrorists. Westrop explained the "clear flaw in this equivalence" as the precise reason why "Islamists get it so wrong." He continued, "... [T]hey're failing to distinguish between joining a terror group that murders civilians as opposed to joining an international volunteer force trying to protect civilians." Nonetheless, Begg "has struck a chord with a lot of ... young Islamists."
Although several anti-Russian Western Islamists have voiced "pro-Ukrainian rhetoric," Westrop gave examples of those who do but "attach caveats" to their support. Tariq Ramadan, a "prominent French Islamist activist," takes a stance against Russia with the qualifier that because Ukrainian president Zelensky is a "Zionist ... a Jew ... [and] supports the state of Israel," Ramadan is "anti-Russian without being pro-Zelensky." Osama Abuirshaid, executive director of the Hamas-linked American Muslims for Palestine, accuses the West of "hypocrisy" for calling Russian aggression in Ukraine terrorism, while "ignoring the plight of the Palestinians" and justifying Israel's actions. Ahmad Rehab, the head of Chicago's Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), follows Abuirshaid's contradictory line of thinking: On one hand, Rehab voices support for Zelensky's standing up to Putin, but on the other, he accuses Zelensky "as a Ukrainian and as a Jew" of "whitewashing Israeli crimes." Within Ukraine, there are Muslims who are "deeply patriotic" and fight alongside their countrymen as part of the "proud Muslim population" in Ukraine.
Ukraine crisis and the diverse reactions to it among Islamists has also exposed "squabbles" within Western Islamist politics and ideology. Westrop said Western Islamism is "not ideologically monolithic" and described "a newer generation of Muslims" who ignore Russia's history in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria, and who express hostility towards Ukraine. Another popular online group "documenting oppression against Muslims" is parroting Russian "propaganda" that Ukraine is a "neo-Nazi state." Joram Van Klaveren, the former far-right member of the Dutch parliament and convert to Islam, repeats Russian "disinformation [and] propaganda" in his anti-Ukraine comments "denouncing" Ukrainians as "far-right Nazis." Westrop said that Russia has its own "jihadist and Islamist proxies." Ramzan Kadyrov, who heads the Chechen Republic, a "Sharia state within Russia," has sent Chechen jihadists into Ukraine to do Russia's bidding. An Islamist "puppet" of Putin, Kadyrov has inspired some Western Islamists.
In an effort to cultivate the far left in the West "as key allies in their fight to advance Islamism," many Islamists pretend to "sacrifice Sharia principles" over progressive positions, such as support for homosexuality. However, there are cracks forming between Islamists and the far left's "apologetic[s]" for Putin "over the question of Ukraine." Westrop attributed leftist support to either "Russian funding" that may have infiltrated its circles, or to sympathies that align with any group opposed to the U.S. and NATO. Regardless, "for some reason, these ... geopolitical questions expose ... these alliances to be nothing more than a façade, a sham to advance people's interest."
Sunni countries, such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Qatar, take different sides in the conflict. Turkey has become "increasingly antagonistic" towards Russia and has aligned with NATO, but Westrop said Ankara's support for the West is "one of opportunism," owing to its concern about Russian "expansion above the Black Sea." Turkish proxies in the West follow Ankara's line while leveraging the crisis as an opening to focus on the Palestinian cause. Westrop said that Western Islamists have tried to apply "media pressure and activism" to "exploit" Ukraine crisis and portray the Ukrainians as Palestinians and the Russians as Israel, but it is a "model [that] obviously doesn't work." However, he believes it represents a "new phase" in Islamist "tactics" against Israel.
Pakistan, "re-Islamiz[ing] itself" under its prime minister Imran Khan, sees itself as part of the "new Eastern bloc" and regards Russia as an "ally against India." Pakistan's proxies in the U.S. and Europe, initially confused by Pakistan's pro-Russian position because of Moscow's actions against Chechnya and Afghanistan, are now following Khan's lead. Westrop said that India has been "pretty soft" on Russia and surmises that New Delhi's stance may be part of the competition for "Russia's patronage" considering its energy and gas needs. Qatar, which funded militant groups that fought Russian troops in Syria, accuses Russia of "Islamophobia" and has targeted it through its Al Jazeera media. Qatar sees the crisis as an opportunity to side with the West, thereby earning the designation from the Biden administration as "a major non-NATO ally."
The alliance between Iran and Russia has been ongoing for years, given their joint venture in Syria, and "Shia networks and proxies in the West" serve as "apologists for Putin" through "conspiracy theories ... about NATO conspiring to force Russia into conflict." The Quincy Institute, linked to the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), "has been pushing rhetoric ... friendly" to Putin and is considered the key D.C. presence that "advance[s] the Iranian regime's interest[s]." Westrop anticipates that as the Russian war continues, it is increasingly likely that Iranian Shia militias, as well as Sunni Syrians, will volunteer to fight in Ukraine.
Given the contradictory and complicated reactions by Islamists to Ukraine's crisis, Westrop doesn't see one "homogeneous" view emerging. The varied positions among Islamists over a "non-Muslim issue like Ukraine and Russia" reveal a great deal about dissenting views among Western Islamists. "The world may have seemed to have moved on from the Islamist threat of the post-9/11 era, but Islamism still remains very much part of the conversation as soon as you dig a little bit below the surface."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.