Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Sufi-Salafi War Breaking Out in North Caucasus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – The desecration of two tombs which the Sufis of Chechnya and Daghestan have long venerated by activists for the Salafis, who call for “pure” Islam and see such practices as manifestations of polytheism indicate that a full-scale war has now broken out between the two.

            The governments of these two republics and the official Muslim establishment there (the MSDs) are on the side of the Sufis, but the escalation of the conflict to this point underscores both the growing strength of the Salafis in the North Caucasus and the continuing inability of the authorities, secular or religious, to keep the situation under control.

            But perhaps even more disturbing for Moscow is that this new wave of violence appears to have been sparked by Russia’s intervention in Syria, an action the Chechen and Daghstani elites have supported but that the Salafis, many of whom identify with ISIS or have even gone to Syria to fight alongside, very much oppose.

            In the new issue of “NG-Religii,” Vladislav Maltsev describes the recent history of the Sufi-Salafi conflict and suggests some of the ways the authorities are trying, so far unsuccessfully, to suppress it and what they may try to do in the future (

            The current round of violence began “immediately after the start of Russia’s military operation in Syria,” the religious affairs specialist says. On October 9, unknown persons vandalized the mausoleum in Shali of Sheikh Durdi, a murid of Kunta Kishiyev who spread Islam in Chechnya in the 19th century.

            Then on the night of November 16-17, Maltsev continues, vandals firebombed the mausoleum of Sheikh Yangulbi Dokhtukayev near the Chechen village of Kurchala. “Thousands of residents of the district who had assembled in local mosques expressed their extreme anger” at those who had carried out this crime.

            Four young men were detained, and the local MSD posted their picture online with the legend: “These people are cursed by the All High and by the Chechen people.”  They told investigators that they had been influenced by the sermons of a Salafi imam in Daghestan that they had read online.

            As Salafis or Wahhabis and supporters of “’pure Islam,’” they said, they consider the erection of such mausoleums and piligrimages to them to be a violation of the principle of the oneness of God.

            Commenting on this case, Oleg Orlov of Memorial told Kavkazsky Uzel that “despite the desire of Ramzan Kadyrov to avoid such phenomena, the presence of Salafi Islam in the North Caucasus is an accomplished fact … [and] the persecutions [of its followers] represents a desire for revenge, especially among the religious young” (

            Another expert, Georgy Engelgardt, said that what was important about the case was not so much the angry reaction of the population but rather “the very fact” that the Salafis in Chechnya feel themselves sufficiently strong that they are prepared to “challenge the religious and what is the main thing, the political establishment of the region.”

            The problem is not confined to Chechnya, however. On November 20, interior ministry forces began a mass detention of Salafi activists in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan ( They were supported by the republic MSD, but that was not enough to prevent an exchange of gunfire between the Salafis and their opponents.

            A local publication, “Novoye delo,” may have added fuel to the fire by reporting that the decision to go after the Salafis and to replace a Salafi-affiliated imam at one mosque was dictated by “the geopolitical situation in the region,” an indication that the upsurge of violence in the Caucasus is linked to Russian actions in Syria (

            Maltsev asked Galina Khizriyeva, a researcher on ethnic and religious issues at the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISI), how effective the authorities had been in supporting the Sufis and suppressing the Salafis. Her answer was blunt: “the state is again acting irresponsibly,” creating more problems for itself because of its thoughtless approach.

            She suggested that the officials in the North Caucasus should remember that using force against the Salafis only encourages them to respond in kind and that as a result, the authorities themselves by their repressive moves are likely to spark even more violence by the Salafis and more conflicts between them and the Sufis.

            If that escalation continues, she implies, at least part of the North Caucasus could descend into a religious war and become ungovernable.

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