Staunton, June 3 – The emergence of a political party in Daghestan with close ties to the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of that republic is overturning the applecart there: taking votes away from the ruling United Russia Party, exacerbating relations between sufi and salafi Muslims, and raising new questions about whether officials still control “traditional” Islam.
In a commentary on the Regnum portal, Konstantin Kazenin, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service, not only traces the way things have reached their current point but considers the impact of this development not only in Daghestan and its elite but across the North Caucasus (regnum.ru/news/polit/2139786.html).
The current drama began when the federal party, People Against Corruption, announced that it would take part in elections for the Daghestan legislature, nominated Magomedrasul Saaduyev, the first deputy mufti of Daghestan, as on its candidates, and declared itself to be in opposition to the republic government.
A little later, the party announced that Zalimkhan Valiyev, the informal leader of the Kumyks, would be another of its candidates, and that Abdula Atsayev, the son of a well-known sufi sheikh, and Khasmurakhammad Abubakarov, the father of the mufti of Daghestan, were party members.
The Daghestani MSD has not publicly declared itself allied with the new party, Kazenin points out, but these appointments “cannot leave any doubt that the party views its electorate as close to the leadership of the Spiritual Directorate” and even sends a signal to those loyal to the MSD as far as how to vote.
Saaduyev’s role is especially interesting, the Moscow researcher continues. “Being the imam of the Central Mosque of Makhachkala, he has enjoyed authority both among supporters of sufism … and among Muslims of other trends, including many salafis who are opposed to the muftiate and consider sufism ‘an innovation’ not based on the Koran.”
Few Moscow media outlets have picked up on this because it does not fit paradigms they bring to the study of Islam in the North Caucasus, he says. Russian journalists “are accustomed to view the MSDs in the North Caucasus regions as defenders of ‘traditional’ Islam,’ a term [that in their minds is] a synonym for Islam totally loyal to the authorities and controlled by them.”
But the Daghestani media, which is aware that the Moscow model is far from adequate, have been discussing this development in detail, Kazenin says, and he points out that outlets in Makhachkala have raised four major questions, provisional answers to which he proposes to provide.
First, he says, people are asking whether any party close to the MSD can win seats in the republic assembly. Kazenin says there is “a chance” because of the support it can get from certain mountainous districts, from those who are followers of Saadayev personally, and from those who believe sufism is under attack by the salafis or who want to promote Islam as such.
Second, Kazenin says, Daghestanis are discussing whether the new party will be able to win enough seats to challenge United Russia. The chances of that are “not great,” he suggests, not only because the latter party will use its administrative resources but also because of the divisions within Daghestani Islam.
Within Daghestani Islam, he points out, the MSD is “one of the players,” not the arbiter among them. It is the chief supporter of sufism, but even among Sufis, it is not the only player: among the Kumyks, for example, there are other sufi authorities who are not allied with the Sufis of the MSD.
For that reason, Kazenin says, any party associated first and foremost with the MSD will gain votes in some quarters but lose them in others. And that party will also find it hard to attract support from those in Daghestani society – and there are some – who oppose any expansion in the influence of Muslim leaders in society and politics.
Third, he says, Daghestanis are speculating about the ways in which the rise of this party may intensify divisions among the Muslims of the republic and even spark conflicts among them and thus open the way for a return of more terrorist activity. That has been on the wane since 2010 but tensions between Sufis and salafis have in no way lessened.
There won’t be an explosion of such tensions during the election campaign, Kazenin continues. That is because most salafis are opposed to any participation in such elections believing that they should be focusing instead on the closing of their mosques and the arrests of their most influential imams.
But after the vote, tensions could escalate if the MSD pushes its influence in the parliament beyond a certain point. And this could arise in the first instance in villages now already divided between Sufis and salafis and having separate mosques for members of each trend to attend.
And finally, Daghestanis are asking how dangerous the rise of this new party may be for the authorities in Makhachkala. There are obvious dangers: the incumbents didn’t see this coming, and their standing with Moscow depends in important ways on keeping everything quiet and under control.
Moreover, it is fairly clear that if the new party gains votes, these will be at the expense of the party of power, which has gotten used to having overwhelming super majorities in Daghestan and the North Caucasus. That could change, and it is entirely possible that Moscow would react in some way.
This is exacerbated in turn by the fact that Daghestanis have a long history of taking elections seriously, especially in the real battles which now take place only at the regional and local levels. Mostly that has been in single-member districts, but the rise of this new party means that conflicts could arise among parties as well.
Summing up, Kazenin writes: “The politicization of North Caucasus Islam is not limited to Daghestan. And everywhere where it is occurring, it is destroying long held ideas about the Islam which is considered ‘traditional’ and controlled by the official Muslim structures and regional governments.” Now that very Islam appears be freeing itself with fateful results.