Russia generally doesn’t have a problem with Muslims as long as they aren’t ethnic Russians, then you are likely to be branded a terrorist and hounded by the state.
ERZURUM, Turkey — As a teenager in St. Petersburg, Maksim Baidak hung out with neo-Nazis and right-wing nationalists, but the Russian security services mostly left him alone.
It was not until he abandoned white-Slavic supremacy and instead found God — as a convert to Islam and leader of a group of ethnic Russian Muslims — that he came under near-constant surveillance and was often forced into cars at gunpoint by security agents.
Then, one morning in 2013, masked commandos from a special counter-extremism unit busted into his apartment and arrested him. For two days, he was interrogated, at times with a black hood over his head — “tortured,” he said, by choking, electric shock and death threats.
“I was arrested like a terrorist,” said Mr. Baidak, 28, who now lives in Erzurum, a university town in northeast Turkey, where he fled after a judge released him for lack of any criminal charges. “Look at me, I am a journalist. I am a blogger,” he said. “I am a political activist, pro-democratic oriented, Sufi-oriented, but I was arrested like — I don’t know — bin Laden.”
While nations across Europe are grappling with the relatively recent peril of homegrown Islamic terrorists, Russia has long lived in fear of a jihadist uprising within its own borders, particularly in the Caucasus, where it fought two brutal wars to suppress Muslim separatists.
For President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia, Slavic, ethnic Russian converts to Islam like Mr. Baidak pose an especially subversive threat, not only by stoking Russia’s deep paranoia over separatist extremism, but also by challenging the Orthodox Christian national identity that Mr. Putin has used to unite the country in place of Soviet Communism.
The government also worries that ethnic Russian Muslims have shown a willingness to link up with an array of other anti-Kremlin forces, including nationalists, pro-democracy groups and even gay rights organizations.
“I worked with the L.G.B.T. society; it’s unbelievable for Muslims, yeah?” Mr. Baidak said, describing a group, Islamic Civil Charter, now banned in Russia.
“I don’t support this orientation of men and women, but I cannot change them,” he said in an interview. “If they are agents of freedom and we fight for freedom also, we fight for our common values. Let’s fight together, not be divided.”
Russia’s security services, however, were not about to let that happen.
An aggressive crackdown that began before last year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi never ended, leading to widespread arrests not just in the predominantly Muslim Caucasus but throughout European Russia and as far north as Novy Urengoi, just below the Arctic Circle, where the authorities this year demolished a building that had housed a mosque and an Islamic preschool.
The pressure by the security services, in the name of combating extremism, has set off a wave of refugees seeking safety and religious freedom, especially in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.