Islamic State and Christian State are kins but no twins

In september Alexander Kalinin, the leader of the fundamentalist Russian-orthodox organisation 'Christian State - Holy Russia' was arrested. His organisation physically attacks movietheaters who plan to show the 'blasphemous' film 'Matilda', on the Polish misstress of the last tsar Nicholas II, who for them is a saint. What is Christian State and can you compare it to Islamic State? Islam-expert Alexey Malashenko elaborates.

aleksandr kalinin leider christelijke staat Alexander Kalinin. leader of religious fundo's Christian State - Holy Russia, was arrested after threats to cinema's programming 'Matilda'

by Alexey Malashenko

What are the similarities and the differences between the 'Islamic State' (IS), banned by law in Russia, and the fundamentalist action group 'Christian State - Holy Russia' (CS), that is not banned in Russia?

First the similarities. IS and CS are logical phenomena that emerged when a part of the religious community became unsatisfied with the state, with a society that, in their eyes, developed negative tendencies. In both cases, this dissatisfaction is linked to the perception that state and society drift away from the principles and norms of an ideal 'pure religion', and that state and society incorporate foreign elements - naturally, from the West. Both IS and CS offer their models of how society and state should be organized, the one model is Islamic and the other Christian.

The idea of a religious state utopia is not new. It is typical for traditional and semi-traditional societies that lack an effective development model; the ruling elites are egoistic, corrupt, and lack the capacity to offer the optimal way out of what is seen as a permanent situation of crisis. Under these circumstances, many residents believe in the possibility of a religious alternative, and are ready to fight for it.

We know that this alternative is utopian, and that it cannot be implemented. Still, people who follow this line of thinking have to be taken seriously, and in some cases even with respect; their position is based on the belief in their own rightfulness, which is based on a sincere belief in God. (Here I leave aside that a substantial number of bandits and scoundrels - be it outright criminals or secret services - like parasites jump on the bandwagon of the idea of a religious state; they exploit both the idea of a religious state and the believers for their own interests.)

I believe that both conceptions, the Islamic and the Christian one, do have a future, and they will continue to be a factor in the future.

Xenophobia and aggression

Put aside all similarities in their ideas we also observe many differences in how their concepts are implemented in various 'civilizational landscapes'. In terms of their ideas, their xenophobia, and their aggression they are close to each other, but they also differ in many respects.

The first difference is the scope of their activities. Cells of IS probably exist in the whole Muslim world. CS - Holy Russia, by contrast, is limited to one country - the Russian Federation, and it does not have any equivalents in the rest of the Christian world. Consequently, CS has to be seen as a national or national-religious group.

In 1988 catholics actively opposed the screening of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (and in general, the Vatican 'banned' quite a number of films). This raises parallels with CS's struggle against the film Matilda [by Alexey Uchitel, 2017] in contemporary Russia. But the protests of the catholics were not extremist - they were not connected to any call for establishing a 'Christian state'.

There is another peculiarity. Nobody knows exactly how many people are active supporters of Islamic State or of Christian State. IS has in any case tens of thousands of militants, and maybe several tens or even hundreds of millions of sympathizers. How many active supporters CS can muster, and how many sympathizers it has, we simply do not know.

No Russian-orthodox Taliban

CS is a protest group with a clear profile. In Russia the protest mood is growing and it can develop into a religious (or, if you wish, religious-fundamentalist) form. I would not be surprised if at some point CS will count hundreds of thousands or even millions of supporters. Just like IS, they are already organising their 'sleeping cells'. We also know that many Russian 'national fundamentalists' respect Islamic extremists.

It should equally be kept in mind that Russian Orthodoxy is getting more and more politicized; responsible for this process is the leadership of the church. Of course, the Russian-orthodox church does not support CS, but this jinn has been let out of the bottle by the passivity of the church, and possibly even with its connivance. Some Orthodox priests found themselves in the ranks of CS.

Interesting is also to compare how the two groups came into being. Russia's propaganda usually emphasizes that IS was created by Western secret services. When I hear such claims I somehow pity IS, for it emerged from very complex processes that developed over decades in the very heart of Muslim societies. I agree that secret services, Western but also others, closely monitored these processes and even tried to influence them, but IS is born out of the Muslim world, and not some kind of artificial 'surrogate'.

There are various rumors as to how our Russian CS came into being. In my view, the emergence of CS is logical, and results from the inner evolution of Russian society. If we take into consideration that the state tries to achieve full control over society, and to suppress any social and political initiatives that it does not like, then CS must have emerged with the silent consent of the power-holders, or even with some kind of endorsement that expressed consent. One version is even more ominous: some belief that representatives of the political power-holders were directly involved in CS's formation (and this would somehow be in line with the position of the Russian-orthodox church).

IS is an enemy of any government (for they are never 'truly Islamic') and it fights against the ruling powers. CS, by contrast, does not fight against the power-holders, although it is not always satisfied with them. Yet this dissatisfaction does not prevent CS from 'agreeing' ideologically with the power-holders, especially when it comes to the rejection of liberal alternative thinking that they see as an insult to national-religious feelings.

Trailer of the film Matilda

The film Matilda is a very welcome pretext for this agreement. For the regime CS therefore is an instrument that it can exploit as it pleases - for instance to scare off people with different opinions - while at the same time remaining in the background. Sometimes the power-holders can even punish the extremists, to demonstrate that they themselves are in line with the feelings of the masses. This is what they did when they arrested CS activist Alexander Kalinin, who was considered extremist.

To summarize: CS 'is not an Orthodox Taliban movement, as analyst Alexander Verkhovsky correctly observed in Nezavisimaya Gazeta  (20 september 2017).

But please note the following: while defending Nicholas II against film maker Alexey Uchitel, CS completely ignores that the perpetrator of the Tsar's death was Vladimir Ilich Lenin. It would have been more logical had they called to remove Lenin's corpse from the mausoleum on Red Square. But such a call could have easily infuriated the regime, and this is not in the interest of Christian State.

Wherever Islamic State appears, it acts as an independent force. CS does not openly challenge the Russian state. Some analysts argue that CS could start acting against the ruling class, but this is difficult to agree with. A move against the government is only possible in a situation of extreme political escalation, in a crisis that could lead to a deep split in society, and that would pose a threat to the very existence of the Russian Federation.

If this occurs, then CS might indeed 'go the Taliban way' and act as it deems fit. But, first, the apocalypse of the Russian Federation is still far away, and second, we do not know whether CS, in its present form, will survive until that day. But once there is a niche it will be filled by someone else, as we have seen from the experience with Islamist extremists.

The Nazi comparison

The Russian journalist Leonid Mlechin identified the CSers with Hitler's shock-troops. Yes, Goebbels did all he could to ban the film All Quite on the Western Front, based on Erich Maria Remarque's famous novel. And later organized the burning of 'harmful books' on Berlin's Opera Square. The comparison is intriguing. But the Nazis were striving to establish their political power, whereas 'Christian State' does not show such ambitions. And what kind of shock-trooper is Kalinin! Indeed, the whole circle around CS is comprised of weaklings. And Putin, you know, is not some kind of old and tired Hindenburg who would easily pass power on to CS.

It is our fortune that neither IS nor CS have a clear and able leader at the moment. Charismatic figures like Osama Bin Laden have died in the extremist movements. The head of the 'global Caliphate', Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has not demonstrated any ambitions of becoming a global Islamic leader. And CS has no authoritative leader at all.

One can hate the Islamic and Christian State or be indifferent. But in our age both groups are a fact of life, a feature of society, characterizing our political and religious reality. It is not only necessary to fight them, but also to come to terms with their very existence; we have to study them, and to find ways how to oppose them. From this we cannot run away.

Translation from the Russian by Michael Kemper (European Studies, UvA). The article was first published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta of 4 Oct. 2017.