Extremist Islamic Attacks In Russia Target Moderate Muslims

Women in traditional dress in Makhachkala
Women in traditional dress in Makhachkala
Yulia Ryibina, Nikolai Sergeev, Ivan Saforonov

MOSCOW - It has been another rough few weeks for religious understanding in Russia.

Last week in the North Caucasian region of Dagestan, an influential Islamic cleric was killed in a suicide bomb attack at his home. In addition to Said Afandi Al-Chirkavi, 74, the bomb killed seven others, including the suicide bomber, and the victim's wife and a 12-year-old boy who was there with his parents, both of whom also died.

The people assembled in Al-Chirkavi's home were all religious pilgrims, and the older woman who entered his home and sat near him in the afternoon last Tuesday claimed to be a pilgrim as well. But she had come with a bomb hidden under her clothes, and the explosion killed Al-Chirkavi immediately.

Although female suicide bombers are not particularly rare in Russia’s war-torn North Caucasus, this one was unusual, because she was ethnically Russian and a convert to Islam.

This is the second attack on moderate Muslim leaders in Russia in the past several weeks, signs that more extremist factions are gaining inroads -- and becoming more violent.

In fact, just as the attack in Dagestan was taking place, Russian President Vladimir Putin was visiting Tatarstan, one of the predominately Muslim areas of Russia that unlike the North Caucasus has been relatively peaceful. But Putin’s visit was in response to an attack on the Mufti, or Islamic leader, in Kazan, and the assassination-style killing of his deputy.

Putin intervenes

Ildus Faisov, the Mufti, managed to survive a bomb that went off in his car on July 19 with only a broken leg, but his deputy was shot at point-blank range in his home just an hour before three bombs went off in Faisov’s car. Although it is still not clear who was behind the attacks, it is well known that Faisov had enemies among Salafist extremists.

The similarities with Al-Chirkavi are hard to ignore. Al-Chirkavi was a Sufi leader, following the type of Islam that is considered “traditional” in the area, in contrast to the Salafists, also known as Wahabis, a movement that has been introduced in the past 20 years, mostly as a result of influence from Saudi Arabia.

Tatarstan has been reeling from the attacks. Observers are worried that the region may be pushed into civil war, with tensions mounting even before Al-Chirkavi’s death. Some think that war may in fact have been the goal of the attack, and that groups behind Al-Chirkavi’s death actually wanted his supporters to pick up arms in an attempt at revenge. Al-Chirkavi had been a major supporter of reconciliation attempts among the different Muslim factions in the region.

Meanwhile, Putin did his best to calm waters in Tatarstan, visiting the largest Koran in the world, a 800-kilogram mammoth tome prepared with the help of Italian masters, and meeting with the wounded Faisov. Putin officially presented the cleric with the Order of Friendship, a national medal, and posthumously gave his deputy the Order of Courage.

During the presentation, Putin, speaking about extremism in Russia, said that religious extremists have no future, and that “they will not get anywhere in any region of Russia.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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