Sunday, November 11, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Salafi Muslims in North Caucasus Deeply Divided, Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 11 – Russian and Western writers commonly present Salafi Islam as “a monolithic,” even totalitarian “organism,” but in fact, as the history of Daghestan over the past two decades proves, it is deeply split internally reflecting differences in personalities, policies, recruitment, and funding.

            In an article on the portal on Friday, Khanzhan Kurbanov surveys the split in the Salafi movement in Daghestan during the first ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and shows that there emerged three distinct trends within this trend, one radical, one moderate, and one almost entirely hermetic (

             The first and radical trend was led by Mukhammed Bagaudin and had as many as 2000 followers.  Its adepts were committed to the use of force to overthrow the existing order and to impose their point of view.  They were often well versed in Islamic doctrine, as Bagaudin was an Arabist who opened a large number of schools in Kizilyurt and neighboring areas.

            These radical Salafis, or “neo-Wahhabis” as they were often called, gained supporters among the young who wanted a “pure” Islam but equally offended older people who were told that their traditional practices such as the cult of the dead and visits to the graves of sufi sheikhs were anathema to Islam.

             The “Bagaudinovtsy” besides assuming a larger role in the mosques also organized “military-sports camps where the Daghestani young were provided with physical training and the strengthening of ‘the Islamic spirit.’” This sub-trend’s leaders knew they would have to fight because the regime and traditional Muslim leaders would seek to suppress them.

            As a result, these radical Salafis advanced the ideal of jihad as fundamental and defined it most often as “the jihad of the sword,” despite the many meanings of that concept within Islam.
This idea caught on with Dahestani intellectuals, and that development frightened the authorities in Makhachkala.

            The second trend within Salafi Islam in Daghestan consisted of the moderates led by Akhmad-Kadi Akhtayev, who also had approximately 2000 followers in the 1990s. This group pressed for modernization and reforms far beyond what classical Salafis had called for, and its leaders presented themselves as “Islamist pragmatists” capable of working with others.

            Unlike the radicals, the moderates did not call for unrestricted struggle against the current situation. They believed that it was necessary to promote the improvement of this society rather than its overthrow, to follow an evolutionary path and not engage in anti-constitutional or anti-societal activities.

            Indeed, the writer says, “the moderate Salafis considered the resturn to the pre-revolutionary status of Islam, when there was a certain parity of ideologies combined with legal pluralism as completely acceptable,” a position anathema to the radicals and also to the civil authorities.

            The third trend, “hermetic” Salafism, was headed by Angutayev Anguta, who was more well-known as Ayub Astrakkhansky because he lived in that southern Russian city and issued his homilies from there.  He and his followers focused on the self-improvement of the individual rather than the transformation or improvement of society as a whole.

            Despite these clear differences, Kurbanov continues, “the split in the Salafi movement was not conceptual.”  He suggests that “a not unimportant role” was played by finances. Those who received money from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE tended toward the radical, even though the leaders of all three trends had been part of the Islamic Rebirth Party in 1990.

            In addition to these financial considerations, the movement was split on the basis of the social groups on which each of the three drew.  The moderate Salafis, Kurbanov says, mostly consisted of students and the intelligentsia. The radicals included peasants and unemployed urban workers lacking higher education. And the hermetics included those in between.

            But perhaps equally important in the split were the personalities of the leaders and the absence of any system to impose the views of one or the other.  This split within the Salafis, Kurbanov writes, was “completely predictable and natural given the polarity and social gradations” which is reflected.

            Unfortunately, he concludes, those who have to deal with the Salafis in Daghestan and elsewhere do not appear to understand this reality “entirely adequately,” and that lack of understanding limits their ability to respond to the challenges these different aspects of Salafism present.

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