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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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