Russia fears anti-Islam backlash

2010-03-30 20:09

Moscow - Her only fault was she looked different.

Nargiza, a 17-year old daughter of a half-Armenian janitor mother, was beaten up by enraged Muscovites as their anger over Monday's metro bombings linked to Caucasus militants boiled over into blind prejudice.

"She was beaten up in the street, her hair torn, face injured, her clothes torn," said Galina Kozhevnikova of Moscow-based Sova Centre, a rights centre that tracks hate crimes, citing an acquaintance who witnessed the incident.

The girl - assumed to be Muslim because of her darkish skin - became an unfortunate victim of a spike in anti-Islamic sentiments stirred up by the twin bombings that claimed the lives of 39 people, Kozhevnikova told AFP.

"They stood there, recorded on phones and yelled: go on, finish off a shahid," said the account posted by the witness, who was not named, on LiveJournal, one of Russia's top online communities.

Many Russians refer to suicide bombers as "shahids," the word meaning "martyrs" throughout the Muslim world.

The country's FSB security service has linked the attacks to residents of Russia's volatile North Caucasus, a largely Muslim region.


Kozhevnikova said the girl has temporarily left the city and was out of reach. "Everyone is in shock," she said.

In a similar incident, several men and women beat up two headscarved women on the metro Monday afternoon, yanking them off their seats and throwing them out of the train, popular radio Ekho of Moscow reported, citing an unidentified witness.

The witness said no-one had called police and other passengers just looked on. A spokesperson for the Moscow metro police told AFP no such incident had been registered.

In a country where anti-immigrant sentiments are already running high, such incidents are to be feared after the attacks, the deadliest since 2004 when similar metro blasts killed 41, say hate crime experts.

Kozhevnikova, whose centre has recorded several separate incidents since Monday, estimated that there could have been at least 10 such attacks in Moscow as more went unrecorded.

But they will remain isolated incidents unless authorities and media choose to whip up anti-immigrant hysteria, analysts say.

"As I see it, the real danger is that such incidents could be used by politicians," said Leokadia Drobizheva, head of the Research Centre for Inter ethnic Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

With around 2.5 million migrant workers, Russia has the second largest migrant worker population after the United States.


After the blasts law enforcement officials pledged to beef up security and President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday urged officials to improve anti-terror laws.

Immigrant leaders said those measures would almost inevitably make life harder for thousands of workers living in Moscow where they can now expect tougher immigration rules.

"I have a feeling of foreboding," Alisher Madanbekov, a leader of Moscow's Kyrgyz diaspora told AFP.

"When terror attacks hit before, labour migrants were the first to suffer," added Usmon Baratov, a leader of Moscow-based Uzbek community.

Human rights activists say officials have long turned a blind eye to nationalism and xenophobia in a country where racially-motivated acts of vandalism and attacks have become a regular occurrence.

According to the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, between January and mid-March of this year there were 31 xenophobic attacks that killed 10 and injured 28 in Russia

But while diaspora leaders say the authorities will tighten the screws they do not expect mass violent attacks from ordinary Russians.

"People of non-Slavic appearance will for the next several days be afraid to get out on the street," said Sova's Kozhevnikova.

"But Russians gradually realize that people from the Caucasus and terrorists are not the same."