Saturday, December 23, 2017

Putin’s Man in Makhachkala Now Going After Sufi Establishment

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 22 – Having arrived in Daghestan as an ethnic outsider and declared that he would not follow the ethnic quota system that has been the basis of stability there (, republic head Vladimir Vasilyev has now decided to take on the Sufi establishment.

            According to Artur Priymak of Nezavisimaya gazeta, Vasilyev has concluded that the Sufi hierarchy in Daghestan is insufficiently committed to the fight against jihadism and thus not a reliable defender of what Moscow has always referred to as “traditional” Sunni Islam (

            Given the strength of Sufism in Daghestan’s numerous ethnic groups and its control of the chief Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) there, that sets the stage for a serious conflict, one that could tear that republic apart even more than the ethnically blind approach Vasiliyev has adopted and increase rather than decrease the still powerful and violent Islamist movement there. 

             After being appointed republic head by Vladimir Putin, Vasiliyev did what any Daghestani leader might have been expected to do: he named one of the streets in Makhachkala after a Sufi sheikh who was killed by terrorists in 2011. That sent a message that he would defer to the Sufis who have long dominated Daghestan.

            But then, Ravil Gaynutdin, the head of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR), apparently convinced him that the Sufis were not a reliable ideological ally in the war against jihadism and that he, Gaynutdin, would set up special courses to help bring the mullahs and imams of the republic up to snuff because “one can’t fight an ideology only with guns.”

            “In other words,” Priumak continues, “the SMR leader criticized the level of theological education of the Sufi imams of Daghestan and also how these imams in their homilies are fighting against jihadist ideology.” By all accounts, Vasiliyev agrees with this assessment and is now ready to go after the Sufi establishment.

            The main problem from Vasiliyev’s point of view, the journalist suggests, is that Sufism in its Daghestani variant has traditionally maintained respectful relations with Salafism. Daghestani Sufis challenge the Salafis but do not treat them as the enemies of “traditional” Islam as Moscow prefers to do.

            “There is no basis to link the exodus of ordinary Daghestanis into the Salafis and the relatively peaceful Salafis into the ‘forest’ bandits” with the relatively neutral attitude of the Sufi establishment to them, but “in a region where jihadist terror is the norm, people do idealize Salafi theory and practice” and some leaders, religious and secular, view them as a problem.

            According to Priymak, some believe that Vasiliyev has accepted Gaynutdin’s view because he views “Daghestani Sufism as well as the Caucasus mentality through the prism of professional distrust,” a distrust he developed in 1999-2001 when working in the Russian Security Council overseeing Chechnya.

            But Sufism both as an ideology and as an organized structure is extremely strong in Daghestan; and as a result, if Vasiliyev moves against it head on, he may generate even more resistance to himself and to Moscow than his “ethnicity blind” policies have up to now. Those in almost all cases have run into a brick wall of resistance.

             Indeed, it may even be that the resistance he has encountered in that sector is the reason Vasilyev has decided to attack in another direction.

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