Staunton, February 5 – “Tectonic changes” are taking place in the North Caucasus and other Muslim regions of the Russian Federation, Olga Bobrova says; changes that call into question traditional understandings of Islam and its relationship to the secular authorities and that must be understood if Russia is to remain “one country.”
The “Novaya gazeta” journalist writes that a recent mejlis of representatives of the Kadyria and Nakshbandiya tariqats” of traditional Sufi Islam in Chechnya was marked by violent attacks on Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov for his support of what speakers, including Ramzan Kadyrov, called “pseudo-salafites” (novayagazeta.ru/columns/71705.html).
“There were threats against specific religious leaders whose heads, as was said, ‘should fly from their shoulders,’ and other equally horrible metaphors,” and that alone should have been enough to attract the attention of Russian society as a whole. But even more, it represented “a signal about tectonic processes” quite possibly in the Russian umma as a whole.
As Bobrova says, Islam came to Chechnya and Ingushetia relatively recently with many in those republics converted only in the nineteenth century. It was promoted by the Sufi orders divided into tariqats and subdivided into wirds, “communities which formed about the figure of a sheikh” or other spiritual leader.
There, “the wird became not simply a religious institution; it became a unit of the administrative and economic division;” and as a result, it came to be called by Russian observers, “’popular Islam,’” and remains so to this day. But it is no longer the only religious trend among Muslims in Russia.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, “Russians, including people from the Caucasus began to travel abroad to study and study Islam.” And many of those who did so returned with the conviction that the traditional Islam their forefathers practices was at variance with true Islam or and that there should not be tariqats, wirds, or spiritual leaders.
For someone in the Caucasus “accustomed to respect his elders and tradition, this was a very painful understanding,” and it broke the community apart, with new mosques and closed prayer houses opening to serve those who accepted the imported faith. They were described and denounced as “Wahhabis” although they had little relationship to that trend.
Russians and others noted that there was a close relationship between those who took part in these new mosques and those who participated in the armed underground there. “However,” she writes, “this correlation was not 100 percent. Indeed, it was far from that; and they killed without much selectivity all ‘the new faithful.’”
By the early years of this decade, the Russian security services had largely defeated the Wahhabi underground in the Caucasus. “But the communities of the ‘new’ believers remained. In Daghestan, they even were given completely legal status;” and elsewhere as in Ingushetia, they were not given as much attention as had been the case earlier.
But if the Salafis as fighters in the underground had lost, they as representatives of a new and different brand of Islam were winning: In Ingushetia, for example, they violently opposed the use of alcohol; and they pressed women to wear the hijab. As a result, “’popular Islam’ has been quietly surrendering its positions to the ‘new’ Islam.”
Relations between the traditional Muslim communities and the new ones appeared stable until very recently, “but in the last year, disagreements have appeared and a real war has taken place,” Bobrova says, one that started over theological issues but that has quickly spread to others and that has divided the political elites.
The traditional mufti of Ingushetia demanded the ouster of a “new” Muslim leader who was attracting thousands of faithful to his mosque. The police had to be called to keep the two groups apart and the conflict seemed to have receded. But in fact it took on a new and potentially more ominous form.
The leaders of the “new” Muslims in Ingushetia have been opponents of Yevkurov, but now Yevkurov has shifted sides. As one of the “new” Muslim leaders put it, he “has recognized that ‘the persecution of Salafis’ is incorrect” and should be ended, something that will allow the Salafis to spread their influence.
That put Yevkurov at odds with Kadyrov who has remained a champion of traditional “popular” Sufi Islam, and one of the consequences of their increasing hatred of one another is that some proponents of Sufi Islam in Ingushetia have fled to Chechnya where they have received government support.
That development changes the situation because it means that, unlike in the recent past, some nominally civic governments are now lining up with the “new” Muslims against the traditional ones while others are backing the tradition “popular” Islam. But in both cases, Bobrova says, they are basing their policies “not on secular norms but on the dogma of Islam.”
A similar set of developments involving the realignment of the “secular” authorities and the “new” Muslims is occurring in Daghestan; and in both cases, Chechnya’s Kadyrov has pledged to fight it (kavpolit.com/articles/situatsija_v_religioznoj_sfere_vstupaet_v_ochen_sl-23200/). And that in turn adds another complexity to his survival in office.
If Kadyrov remains, so too will likely remain his policy and that of most in Moscow of supporting traditional Islam and attacking “Wahhabis,” even if this radicalizes the latter. But if he is removed, other republic leaders may very well realign with the “new” Muslims and contribute to an even more thorough radical Islamization of the populations in their regions.
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