Staunton, March 12 – A basic principle of Moscow’s approach to Islam in the North Caucasus since the 1990s has been that the Russian authorities cooperate with what they define as “traditional Islam” in the officially recognized mosques and Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) in exchange for the latter’s willingness to help the center combat extremist groups.
That cooperation has brought Moscow some advantages, but now, in what appears to reflect both concern that “the traditionalists” aren’t fully loyal and confidence that the Russian authorities can attack this ally without major risks, Moscow has changed course and began to move against this group of Muslims.
Such a shift is not without risks: It deprives the central government of a useful ally in the fight against extremism, and it increases the likelihood that at least some of the “traditionalists” will decide that they should make common cause with more radical groups against Russian state power.
In either case, what Moscow is doing now likely ensures that conflicts between the Russian government and its agents in place and the Muslim community in the North Caucasus are going to heat up, requiring either the use of more coercive measures or a change in Moscow’s course.
Amina Suleymanova of the OnKavkaz news agency says “Moscow has been frightened by the influence and political ambitions of the muftiates in the North Caucasus Federal District” and has decided to put the MSDs in their place by attacking and weakening them (onkavkaz.com/news/2155-moskva-ispugalas-vlijanija-i-politicheskih-ambicii-dum-kavkaza-nachinaetsja-operacija-reorganiz.html).
Over the last several months, she points out, siloviki in the North Caucasus have attacked institutions linked to local MSDs, something unheard of in the past. And to consider this development, she interviews Bagaudin Khautiyev, head of the Coordinating Council of Youth Organizations in Ingushetia, and a Daghestani journalist who spoke on conditions of anonymity.
Khautiyev says that “there are no doubts” that the moves by the siloviki have grown out of conflicts between the Ingush MSD and the republic government which resents its pretensions. But many in the republic are appalled that the republic leadership would attack institutions involving children as they just have.
The republic government wants to have the last say on MSD activities, but “personally,” he says, “the mufiate should not be subordinate to the authorities, as according to the constitution, religion is separate from the state.” But he goes on to suggest that more may be going on here than meets the eye.
“It is completely possible,” Khautiyev continues, “that the federal center doesn’t need centralized MSDs anymore. Earlier they were needed for a time for the struggle with so-called non-traditional trends of Islam in Russia but now that need has declined.”
The Daghestani journalist agrees that the authorities need the MSDs less than they did but sees the siloviki attacks on mosques and MSDs as reflecting less than then the pretensions of the muftiates for positions of power in the republics.
Suleymanova notes that radical Muslim groups have frequently suggested that “as soon as the authorities finish dealing with them, the siloviki will inevitably begin to pressure the official muftiates.” Khautiyev doesn’t think so, but the Daghestani journalist says that there is some truth in it because of the enormous power the MSD and its subordinates now have.
Their position, the Daghestani says, would make any government nervous; and the siloviki have an interest in finding someone new to attack. When there aren’t enough ISIS groups, then going after the “traditional” Muslims works just as well.
“Today,” he continues, “the muftiate of Daghestan has its own newspapers, its own television channel, an enormous network of stores, restaurants and various commercial structures. It continues to be involved in the organization of the haj;” and its influence in highland areas is “practically unlimited.”
The MSD is becoming increasingly politicized backing candidates and winning elections at the local and regional level and even nominating a candidate – the wife of the head of the MSD – for president of Russia. She was excluded; but Moscow is clearly worried about traditional Muslims having such a political position.
Khautiyev agrees that such activities – and they are occurring in Ingushetia as well – worry the local government and Moscow. It is important to recognize, he says, that “never, not in any circumstances will the federal center allow the politicization of Islam” even if it is traditional and loyal.
The latest moves by the authorities reflect an effort to block that possibility, he says, something with which the anonymous Daghestani journalist agrees. He suggests in turn that everyone will be able to see that Moscow has turned the corner if and when it moves against the traditional MSD’s economic activities.