Islam's Civil War Comes To Russia: Shiites And Sunnis Battle In The Caucasus

Behind the walls: Qolşärif mosque in Tatarstan
Behind the walls: Qolşärif mosque in Tatarstan
Emil Pain

MOSCOW - Just this past August, there have been three attacks on Muslims in a small region of Dagestan - two attacks on Imams and one attack on a Shiite mosque.

The attack on the mosque was the first attack on Shiites in the Northern Caucasus. It appears that the fight between Sunnis and Shiites, which is so common in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, is coming to the North Caucasus. The Salafists, who are gaining power in the region, do not recognize the division of Islam into the two branches, nor do they recognize different religious schools of thought. It is likely that they are behind both the organization and the execution of the attacks.

If you consider the recent death of Said al-Chirkavi, one of the most authoritative representatives of traditional Islam in Dagestan, who was killed by a suicide bomber, in conjunction with the recent attacks on the Mufti of Tatarstan and the killing of his deputy, then it is clear that this rise in religious violence is not isolated to Dagestan, but has spread to other parts of Russia that are historically Muslim.

There is no doubt that the traditional Sufi and Hanafi branches of Islam have suffered. Roman Silantev, a specialist in Islamic studies, said, “The last several months have been the most difficult in recent history for the traditional Muslims of Russia. The killing of Valiulla Yakupov and Said al-Chirkavi, two spiritual leaders who stood against the Salafist-Wahhabi ideology, was the strongest blow to the country’s Muslim institutions, but it was not the only blow.”

According to Silantev, the “war for Dagestan is lost,” but there is still a chance to lead Dagestan away from the influence of radical Islam. That chance, he says, is the need to “stop the traitorous practice of talking with terrorists, and start a total war against them, with the goal of totally wiping them out. Otherwise Russia will become a second Iraq.” That particular vision for Dagestan’s rescue is substantially different from the ideas popular among the region’s ruling elite. All of them, including the head of the local government and the United Russia faction in the local parliament, fear that al-Chirkavi’s killing could interrupt peaceful dialogue in the republic.

Disappearances and extrajudicial killings

Silantev is the acting director of the All Russia People’s Assembly, a program that functions under the aegis of the Russian Orthodox Church. His views are often aligned with the most conservative elements in Orthodox leadership. Based on statistics from the police and military, conservative generals and officers who are leading the fight against terrorism in Dagestan need no encouragement from conservative religious figures. They have been fighting a total war against those related to Salafism for a while. In those cases where there is not enough evidence to take someone to court, the accused simply disappears without a trace. And the number of disappearances is rising. In the first six months of 2012, there were more than 50 disappearances, compared to 31 in all of 2011. Of course, the kidnapping or extrajudicial killing of people does not weaken terrorism; in fact, it motivates it.

The conservatives are leading based on wishes, not on reality. Nobody wants to recognize the increasing crisis in vertically managed religious organizations, which are traditional in Russia.

For more than two centuries there has been a centralized organization for both Russian Orthodox and Muslims, connected to the state. A centralized Muslim spiritual leadership was in place under the Tsars and during the Soviet Union, both of which were controlled by the state. This state-sponsored spiritual leadership continues to this day, only slightly less centralized than during Soviet days.

As a result, "traditional" Islam is poorly positioned to offer any protection, guidance or assistance for Muslims with complaints against the government - either in relationship to the extremely high levels of corruption, even for Russia, or when Muslims have run-ins with police engaging in " fighting terrorism.” Hence, more and more Muslims in Russia have grown dissatisfied with their spiritual leadership and are looking elsewhere for religion. They have found Salafism and Wahhabism. In 1999, Wahhabism was officially banned in Dagestan. This state involvement in religion has left the region teetering for years on the brink of civil war, with thousands of people killed, injured or disappeared without a trace.

So the official Muslim spiritual leadership, and other organizations associated with traditional Islam, are left in an exceptionally difficult situation. Many studies have shown that the rapid rise in the popularity of Salafism is connected to political and socio-economic grievances among the population in the North Caucasus. But at the same time, Dagestani fighters are much more likely to attack Imams than representatives of the government. Only the North Caucasian police suffer more casualties than imams of traditional mosques. As it turns out, not only average Muslims are left vulnerable by the centralized, vertical spiritual leadership, but also the spiritual leaders themselves.

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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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