We are more than halfway through 2016, and it is clear that this year will be remembered for almost constant terrorist attacks across the world – from Iraq to Turkey to France to Afghanistan and countless other places. Governments are taking security precautions, but some are more insidious than others. While France’s bizarre burkini ban as a so-called anti-terrorism measure fuels heated debate, the world media remains oblivious to Russia’s recently introduced anti-terrorist package. Signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 7 and named the ‘Yarovaya package’ after the United Russia deputy who proposed it, this new set of rulings is causing a major stir in various circles within Russian society.
The bill has been strongly criticised for making it a crime not to report information that could be relevant to terrorism and other, lesser crimes; increasing the prison sentence for anyone convicted of extremism to eight years, with children as young as 14 years old considered old enough to be locked up; and forcing telecoms companies to assist the authorities in any attempt to break into encrypted messages. But one largely overlooked aspect of the law is causing scrutiny and worry: tight restrictions on the activities of religious communities by criminalising all alleged proselytising, preaching, praying, or disseminating of religious materials outside of “specially designated places”. Mintimer Shaymiyev, former president of Tatarstan, criticised provisions of the law concerning activities that could be considered religious assertion. ‘It is suitable for some confessions, but for some it is not’ he stated during a session of the Council of state of Tatarstan ‘how do you hold iftar in your house? It is always followed by congregational prayer. Is somebody supposed to control it, if yes, how? What about nikah (marriage contract)?’ Let us remind ourselves that the Russian winter temperature can drop to -40 degrees Celsius. If religious gathering are supposed to be carried out only in special areas designated for those purposes, then it means that Russian Muslims will have to go to often far-flung cemeteries and mosques no matter what the weather conditions are, to just pray during a wedding celebratioin or an iftar.
Not only does ‘religious activity’ require state authorisation in daily life, but also on the internet. The question arises, who is supposed to control it on the internet? Is any religious post on social media now to be seen as religious assertion or unapproved propoganda? Does it mean that sharing a verse from the Qur’an or Bible on your Facebook page is now to be considered ‘a missionary activity’? Again, we see a contradiction within the Russian constitution, Article 28: ‘Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, including the right to profess individually or together with other any religion or to profess no religion at all, to freely choose, possess and disseminate religious and other views and act according to them’.
Confusion has also been created among Internet service providers and other telecommunication companies who will now be forced to make complex technical changes in their service. When the law will come into action, they will be required to store all the data that they transmit, every call, message, media for six months and all metadata for three years. Moreover, all the online services (social networks, texting services like Whatsapp and Telegram) will have to allow FSB (Federal Security Service) access to their encrypted data. Implementation of these measures seems like a heavy burden on telecom companies, both technically and financially.
"According to our estimates, one-time costs of the operators for the organization of voice traffic and data storage of personal data for six months amount to trillions of rubles", - stated MTS officials, one of Russia’s biggest network provider. None of the attempts by online services or telecoms to negotiate with the government were successful. It is also inevitable that prices for mobile services will rise by twice or three times as much as they are currently.
Another issue of concern that the new legislation raises is that of personal freedom and privacy. Edward Snowden, who claimed political asylum in Russia in 2013, stated on his social media that the “Big Brother law” is an “unworkable, unjustifiable violation of rights” that would “take money and liberty from every Russian without improving safety”. And it is hard to argue with him. The law is in direct contradiction with the Constitution of Russian Federation according to Article 23 which states ‘everyone shall have the right to the inviolability of private life, personal and family secrets, the protection of honor and good name’ and ‘everyone shall have the right to privacy of correspondence, of telephone conversations, postal, telegraph and other messages’. Do we really need to sacrifice our basic freedoms in return for protection from terrorism, when we cannot be sure that these measures will even be effective in combating terrorism?
It is clear that the law has been adopted in haste and many of its provisions seem inefficient and hard to apply. Even though the law has a noble purpose of protecting people from terrorism it seems that it will only create a more suspicious atmosphere in Russia, with those who seem ‘particularly religious’ likely to experience the negative impact and become increasingly marginalised. If your neighbour notices that occasional visitors to your home are people with hijabs or beards, the law may make them feel compelled to report you to the police. And, if it is proven that you have some religious posts on your social media, than you are in big trouble. Your neighbour or a person who follows you on social media knows that they will be punished if they do not report to the police anything that could be related to a planned terrorist attack.
Not only does this law create an atmosphere of suspicion, but it will also encourage people to hide their real intentions and opinions. Someone who really is intending to commit an atrocity will be more careful to hide it and there will be no opportunity to challenge extremist opinions or ideology in the public domain. As we are seeing with France’s burkini ban, knee-jerk responses are not only ridiculous, but an inefficient method to combat the scourge of extremism, serving only to marginalise and cast suspicion on faith communities.
Aysha Garaeva was born in Tatarstan in Russia. Since 2012 she has been based in Istanbul, Turkey, where she is an undergraduate student studying for a double major BA in International Relations and English Language and Literature. She is currently in London to complete an Erasmus summer internship at the Muslim Institute.