Karachay Jamaat: History, Reality and Perspective, Part 1

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 22

The Karachays are the ones who have been more politically active in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and there are both objective and subjective aspects that explain this, which can be found in the contemporary state of affairs as well as in the history of this given ethnos. The seemingly endless standoff with the Cherkess over land rights is predicated on the fact that over the centuries, a situation evolved in which two Turkic peoples found themselves in the mountainous regions of the North Caucasus. Their living conditions worsened over time due to their desire to acquire lands occupied by the Adigs.

Even during the period in which Soviet power was taking root in the region, the Karachays were among those who offered the longest resistance, continuing until the 1920s and 1930s, when the popular uprisings led by Abdul Karim Khasanov engulfed the mountainous parts of Karachaevo-Cherkessia [1]. Khasanov and his supporters declared jihad against Soviet rule, which forced the Soviet authorities to use an armed response to quell the rebellious Karachays. However, the brutal suppression of the uprising, in which thousands upon thousands of Karachays were killed, did not create the necessary preconditions for mutual recognition. On the contrary, the Soviet authorities always considered Karachays to be a threat to stability in the region, and it was precisely for this reason that the Karachays (approximately 63,000 of them) were exiled to the Central Asian steppes on November 3, 1943.

Subsequently, upon returning from exile, the Karachays began the struggle to recover their territories, which were lost during the period of their deportation. The mass migration from the mountains to the plains also had an impact on the positions of the political and business elites. The redistribution of the spheres of influence by the titular nationality became one of the factors contributing to rising tensions in the republic. While they were a minority, the Cherkess used history to maintain their positions on par with those who were numerically superior (the Karachays and Russians). Concurrently, the Karachays used the size of their community to become entrenched in all of the power structures on par with the Russians, who had also competed for managerial and administrative positions in the republic.

The mass deportations of the Karachays to the steppes led to mounting inter-ethnic tensions, because they were resettling on lands occupied by the Adigs. Unable to defend their lands from the encroaching Cossack settlers out of a fear of conflict with the Russians (which implied provoking the official Soviet power structures), the Adigs nonetheless tried to protect themselves from being oppressed by other nationalities residing in the republic.

Mono-ethnic Jamaat

When one discusses the Karachaevo-Cherkessia jamaat, it is important to note that it is one of the two mono-ethnic jamaats in the North Caucasus organized on the nationality principle and is unlike other North Caucasian paramilitary formations. (The second such jamaat is Nogay, which is also of Turkic descent and was established solely on the principle of nationality affiliation in the northern regions of Chechnya and the southern districts of Stavropol Krai). Therefore, when the focus is on the Karachay jamaat, it is implied that this is an organization forged by individuals of the same nationality – the Karachays.

This is one of the few jamaats in the post-Soviet space established during the Soviet period – it was formed in the late 1980s by one of the active members of the Islamic Party of Revival, who was famous for his radical plans with regard to the revival of Islam in the regions of the Soviet Union populated by Muslims.

The Karachays are not only indigenous to this region, but they also represent a titular nationality. Moreover, there are more Karachays in the region than the representatives of other ethnic groups, with the exception of the Russians. Hence, the Karachays were more likely to become members of the ruling elite in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic.

Traditionally Karachays have resided in three districts of the republic – Karachay, Malokarachay and Ust-Jegutin, as well as in the city of Karachaevsk. On the other hand, the Zelenchuk and Urup districts are areas dominated by Russians, while the Khabez district is mainly populated by Cherkess and Abazins. The Adyge-Khabl district is split between Nogays and Cherkess, and the Prikuban and Ust-Jegutin districts have mixed populations.

Given that there is another titular nationality residing in the republic—the Cherkess—as well as the Abazins (related to the Cherkess) and the Nogays (who formed the other mono-ethnic jamaat), why is the Karachay jamaat mono-ethnic? Initially the aforementioned formations were oriented toward nationalist objectives, because at the time of the breakup of the USSR, all ethnic associations were trying to extract as many concessions from the federal center as they could. Despite their unequivocal pro-Salafi orientation, the leaders of the Karachay jamaat at the time were forced to take into account the prevalent popular attitudes, which placed a higher priority on the resolution of political issues rather than on religious matters.

The Karachay jamaat, of course, includes Cherkess as well, but they represent an insignificant percentage of its membership and thus, should still be considered a mono-ethnic jamaat.

Catalyst for the Activization of the Islamist Sentiments in the Region

A combination of external and internal factors contributed in the past to the activization of the Muslim population of the Soviet Union, and, overall, a certain degree of heightened political sensitivity had been an inherent characteristic of the Muslim-populated regions of the country.

Among such factors, the war in Afghanistan should be accorded a special role, because the news from the Afghan front served as stimuli for the activization of Islamist sentiments in the North Caucasus region. The defeat of the USSR convinced segments of the population that the Islamist forces were superior over the totalitarian and atheistic Soviet state apparatus. The demonstration of formidable combat capabilities by the mujahideen against the Soviet Army undoubtedly led to the rise in the Islamist sentiments among Muslims of the USSR.

Under the influence of the events in Afghanistan and taking advantage of the reforms in the country during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika period, local activists in the North Caucasus began to form groups. These groups were united by the common goal of reviving Islam on the basis of Salafi doctrines instead of the state-sanctioned version of Islam, which they considered to be distorted and under KGB control.

That it was the adherents of Salafi doctrine and not the traditionalists who were the first to launch the grassroots movements should be attributed to the newly acquired ability of the younger individuals to travel abroad, where the Soviet citizens at the time were always greeted warmly. Those who were dispatched abroad collected detailed information about the situation in the regions that were being visited.

It was during this period that the opportunity to perform the hajj first became a reality, and those who took advantage of it began to rethink the practice of Islam in the republic. Those who returned from the hajj found it difficult to see that the local alims and imams were unaware of the most basic tenets of the Muslim faith. This prompted those who traveled abroad to reassess the role of the official clergy in the society. Prior to the lifting of the travel ban, a mullah, who was able to carry out funerary rites, was automatically considered an expert in Islam.

Among the internal factors, one should include the colossal changes that took place in the USSR in the first half of the 1980s and defined the entire perestroika period. It was during this period that it became possible to debate, criticize and demand concessions from the former militantly atheistic state.

During the dissolution of the USSR, the role of Islam was rather insignificant in Karachaevo-Cherkessia because although religion was deemed a form of identity, it was not the primary one. Traditional Islam in the North Caucasus was adapted to the conditions of the local customary law or adat, which often came into conflict with the tenets of Islamic law. The adat was far more liberal and allowed for a broad interpretation of this or that injunction. On the other hand, Sharia discourages discussion and demands strict adherence to all tenets of Islamic law.

Initially, many saw the process of Islamic revival in the republic manifested in the reconstruction of mosques and public displays of Islamic rituals, as well as the increased activities of the Muslim clergy. Because of the population’s almost complete ignorance in the area of theology, the Muslim clergy was supposed to fill the gap and, in doing so, filled the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the Communist Party from society.

Emergence of a Salafi cell in Karachaevo-Cherkessia

In the second half of the 1980s, different groups began to emerge across the North Caucasus. These groups did not see themselves as part of a society, in which, according to their view, Islam was lost for good. These groups first began to organize into political associations and then started to look for allies in the neighboring regions. From the outset, they saw themselves in opposition to the authorities. For them the authorities were unacceptable in any form. Karachay representatives were among the activists who were the first to respond to the call to organize a unified opposition structure in the form of the Islamic Party of Revival. In this regard, it should be noted that Muhammad Bijiev (aka Biji-ulu or Muhammad Karachay) occupied two of the leading positions in the newly established organization – that of treasurer and party secretary. It was under his influence and at his initiative that the first convention of Karachay Muslims took place. The convention declared the formation of the Imamate of Karachay headed by Muhammad Bijiev. Under Bijiev’s active leadership, the influence of those considered by the people to be radicals and extremists soon began to spread in many regions of the republic.

While the jamaat clearly viewed obtaining power as its main objective, it believed in doing so through participation in elections. At the time, the jamaat members were not yet driven by the desire to seize power violently because they thought that they had an opportunity to influence the situation in the republic by explaining their platform positions to the people.

In 1991, the activities of the radicals were geographically concentrated in the Malokarachay district, where al Islamiya was registered as a religious-educational society.

Under the tutelage of another main figure in this radical wing – Imam R. Kh. Barlakov – a madrassa was opened in the village of Uchkeken, where, apart from the theology of Islam, the pupils had to take mandatory courses in physical education. Based on this madrassa, branches soon opened in Karachaevsk and the Karachaevsk district. The influence of the madrassa was felt less in the Ust-Jegutin and Khabez districts of the republic.

The characteristic trait of the jamaat activities in Karachaevo-Cherkessia was that on the eve of the dissolution of USSR in the northwestern part of the North Caucasus, Islam was of peripheral importance, particularly among the Cherkess (unlike in Chechnya and Dagestan, where the positions of Sufi practitioners were strong). That is why in this region, unlike in the northeastern part of the North Caucasus, the innovations were few, far more modest and less militant.

The bulk of the members of the Karachay jamaat were youth, who were only familiar with the version of Islam that they received from the newly self-appointed Salafi mullahs. The young people liked that the new imams promised them an abundant afterlife but could also offer them a comfortable life in the present due to the donors from abroad.

Another peculiar quality of the jamaats is that, from the perspective of social interaction, these entities are hermetically sealed. The jamaat leaders acted as missionaries who were particularly sensitive about criticism, which was considered a hostile act aimed against them and their ideology as a whole. This, in turn, prevented the Salafi ideas of “pure” Islam from being spread throughout the population of the republic.

The Leaders of Karachay Jamaat (in the 1990s)

Based on the ideas of the Islamic Party of Revival, one of its co-founders became the leader of the Karachay jamaat. The young and ambitious Muhammad Bijiev wanted not only to become the leader of the party or the jamaat, but also to become, at a minimum, the leader of all Muslims in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Stavropol Krai. Ultimately, he hoped to become the leader of Karachaevo-Cherkessia as well.

In the beginning, Bijiev directed all of his attention to the achievement of the minimum objective. With this in mind, he launched a propaganda campaign to discredit the official clergy – the Muftiyat – in order to force his rivals to retire voluntarily. In 1991, Bijiev organized a convention of Karachay Muslims during which the participants voted to declare the creation of the Karachay Imamate. By creating the aforementioned institution, Bijiev was also counting on the support of the nationalist forces that demanded for the separation of Karachay from Cherkessia. However, the authorities managed to neutralize Bijiev’s actions, and he was soon forced to leave the republic.

His supporters, however, did not give up, and they continued to create different types of structures that were, by and large, aimed at provoking a standoff with the official Muftiyat, as exemplified by the Council of Imams of Malokarachay District or the Organizing Committee for the Construction of the Mosque in the village of Uchkeken.

Yet unlike in the past, the Karachay jamaat began to flirt with the authorities and the Muftiyat was no longer openly berated. Moreover, the jamaat members began to seek support from those who were working for the official state power structures in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. This approach yielded more results than the open struggle and confrontational approach employed by Bijiev. In February 2005, Bijiev became a deputy to Ravil Gainutdin, the head of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the European Part of Russia, which gave Bijiev the opportunity to remain on the political scene without necessarily being at the very front of it (Kommersant, June 6, 2005)

At that moment, Ramzan Borlakov became the leader of the Karachay jamaat. He managed to establish close contacts with the Chechen leadership (www.starlightsite.co.uk/keston/encyclo/09%20Kavkaz.html). The aforementioned madrassa essentially turned into the legal center of the Karachay jamaat. Under the aegis of the center, the jamaat members became actively engaged in politics, took care of financial issues, and more importantly, constantly maintained the combat readiness of the radical jamaat members.

In the mid 1990s, Khizir Salpagarov assumed the leadership of the Karachay jamaats. Unlike his predecessors, Salpagarov established contacts only with the leaders of radical groups in Chechnya, who opposed the President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Aslan Maskhadov.

Pan-Turkist ideas

Movements oriented toward pan-Turkism or pan-Islamism emerged among the Muslims of the Russian Empire back in the 1880s [2]. These movements stemmed from the Tatar intelligentsia, who were worried about the level of education among the Turkic peoples and their role and place amid other nationalities constituting the commonwealth of the Russian Empire. The objective of these educated individuals was to unite all Turkic peoples in order to close the obvious gaps in living standards, education, culture and the understanding of Islamic ideas among the disparate peoples of Turkic nationality. The unification of the alphabet was also a key ingredient in this strategy. The main ideologist and creator of the ideas of pan-Turkism was a Tatar by the name of Ismail Gasprinsky. Alexandre Bennigsen wrote, “Gasprinsky summarized his ideas on the necessity of the unification of the Turkic Muslims of the Russian Empire in one phrase ‘Unity of language, of faith, of labor,’ or ‘Unity of language, of thought, of actions.’ The pan-Turkic and pan-Islamic unification represented the only vehicle that would help save not only his small Crimean Tatar people, but also all Turkic peoples of the Russian Empire” [3].

Subsequently everything related to pan-Turkism evolved by adjusting to the new societal conditions that emerged due to the changing political nature of society. That is, pan-Turkist ideas evolved from the era of the Russian Empire, were adjusted during the Soviet period and are now being molded to the reality of post-Soviet Russia.

Today, these ideas are more widespread among the part of the population that belongs to the intelligentsia because they are the successors to the ideas of Ismail Gasprinsky. They prove that these ideas are still relevant as the form of preserving the national affiliation of the Turkic peoples. The vector of propaganda has changed, however, because whereas the Russian intelligentsia served as the main propaganda vehicle in the past, today, it is done at the state level by the Turkish Republic. In Turkey, the highest levels of the state apparatus are engaged in the spread of the ideas of Turkism across the post-Soviet space. For instance, in most of the offices of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara, as well as in the Turkish Ministry of Internal Affairs, one can see maps that are clearly marked Great Turan, which incorporates the peoples of the North Caucasus – not only the Turkic peoples (Kumyks, Nogays, Karachays and Balkars), but also the Caucasian peoples (Chechens, Ingush, Dagestanis, Cherkess, and Kabardins). However, if such maps are in high demand among the Turkic peoples of the North Caucasus, the Caucasian peoples usually react negatively toward Turkey’s attempts to add them to the Greater Turkey project.

In nearly all of the North Caucasian republics, Turkish lyceums have been opened with financial support from the Turkish authorities. These lyceums have quickly become very popular, especially among the Turkic peoples, because they allow students to receive education in their mother tongue and have opened up the opportunity for higher education at universities and colleges in Turkey. Nonetheless, the ideas of pan-Islamism, capable of uniting different peoples based on one religion, are more acceptable among the Caucasian peoples than the pan-Turkist theory, which remains incomprehensible and alien.

During the events that unfolded in Chechnya in the early 1990s, when the Russian Federation completely lost control over Chechnya, the Turkish authorities came up with a proposal for the Chechen leadership to allow them to use the territory for the spread of pan-Turkist ideas in the entire region. In exchange, the Turks promised to finance the education program of the nascent Chechen state and to help with their transition from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. The Turkish side was ready to invest substantial sums of money for these purposes, and it was made clear that the targets were the Turkic peoples of the region. However, the lack of a clear understanding of the motives behind such a generous proposal led the Chechen leadership at the time to ignore the aforementioned offer, which was voiced repeatedly through special envoys as well as during meetings with Chechen officials in Turkey.

For the Turkic peoples, the Turkish authorities organized various educational programs and eased travel restrictions for as many Karachay, Balkar, Nogay, Kumyk and Crimean Tatar students as possible. It was through these students that the Turkish authorities tried to project their soft-power influence in the aforementioned societies. Later, during the democratization period, when the Russian authorities allowed for the registration of Turkish organizations, many entities took root, and it became easier for the Turkish authorities to channel their efforts based upon the overarching idea of pan-Turkism. For instance, the organization “Nurcular” carried out its activities not only in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, but also in other republics, including Dagestan and Bashkortostan. It was not until 2002 that the Russian authorities finally banned its activities (Severniy Kavkaz [North Caucasus], October 3, 2006). It should be noted that Turkey today sees pan-Turkist ideas exclusively in terms of its own interests. Thus, the very idea of pan-Turkism must elevate Turkey and advance Turkish interests as far from the borders of the Turkish Republic as possible.

The leaders of Russia’s special services believe that the Turkish authorities broadly use business contacts, as well as cultural and educational contacts, to harm the interests of Russia. Moreover, the dissemination of pan-Turkism is seen as a hostile ideology detrimental to Russian statehood.

Russia is worried about Turkey’s activities, especially against the backdrop Russia’s weakening position in the Black Sea, the military activities in the North Caucasus and the strengthening of Ankara’s positions in the areas adjacent to the borders of the former Soviet republics that also share a border with Russia. In some of these countries, Turkey’s influence can rival that of Russia’s (VPK, October 12-18, 2005).

Part 2 of this article will be published in the June 7 issue of Chechnya Weekly.


1. A.Kh.Uzdenov, O borbe karachayevtsev i balkartsev protiv Sovetskoy vlasti [On the struggle of Karachays and Balkars against the Soviet rule], https://www.camagat.com.

2. Svetlana Chernova, Pantyurkizm i panislamizm v rossiiskoy istorii [Pan-Turkism and Pan-Islamism in Russian History], Otechestvennie zapiski, No.5, 2005.

3. Alexander A. Bennigsen, Ismail Gasprinsky (Gasparaly) and the Origins of the Jadid Movement in Russia // Ismail-bey Gasprinsky. Russkoe musulmanstvo [Ismail-bey Gasprinsky. Russian Muslims] Oxford: Society for Central Asian Studies, 1985, p.12.

4. See the interview with the Deputy Head of the FSB Directorate for the Nizhegorod Oblast, Andrei Prokofiev, Novoe Delo, No.14, April 14, 2005.