Kremlin Annexation Drive Mobilizes Adygea’s Muslim Community

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 40

The situation in the republic of Adygeya became very tense at the end of 2004, following several statements by the governor of Krasnodarskii krai and his staff regarding the inevitability of Adygeya’s annexation into the krai as part of the current drive to enlarge Russia’s regions. Later, both the krai’s authorities and Dmitrii Kozak, the Presidential representative for the Southern Federal District, repeatedly sought to quash these rumors and countered their own previous statements. Nonetheless, this question has become the fulcrum upon which all of the political events in the republic have turned during the subsequent two years (EDM, April 6; April 10; May 4).

Political issues within the republic mobilize all citizens, including its Muslims, especially those for whom the mosque is not only a place of worship, but also the center of their social lives. During the past 10-15 years, the number of Muslims in Adygeya has increased, reaching 20,000 ethnic Adyg (with no data being available for other ethnic groups). The republic is also home to four to five thousand Chechens, as well as Tatars and members of the Dagestani ethnic groups. At the beginning of 2004, there were 30 mosques and 30 registered Muslim communities (these being roughly equivalent to an officially registered parish). The largest such communities are located in the capital of Maikop (with roughly 500 members) and the second-largest city of the republic, Adygeisk (roughly 150 members). The communities in the villages tend to be small, with 20-40 members each.

It should be noted that Islam has a very different history within Adygeya than in the eastern Caucasus. In the western part of the Northern Caucasus, the late spread of Mohammad’s teachings was triggered by the 18th-19th century Russian military push into the region. The resistance of the mountaineers’ societies to the imperial advance (which eventually triggered the Caucasus War) was the most significant factor in pushing western Caucasian groups towards embracing monotheism, though this was something that was already being approached in many local cultures. At this time, the idea of armed resistance also came to be underpinned by new ideological concepts, including the notion of jihad.

The Adyg had long built their society on the principles of the “adyge khabze,” that is their own codex of moral and ethical norms, and never accepted the messengers repeatedly sent to the Circassian lands by imam Shamil, the leader of the anti-Russian movement in the eastern half of the Northern Caucasus. Torturously and sometimes dramatically, often following their local pragmatic needs, the various Adyg sub-ethnic tribes sometimes accepted and sometimes rejected the social norms prescribed by Sharia law. The society of the mountaineers, built as it was on immutable social hierarchies, found it difficult to adapt itself to the notions found within Sharia, while the nature of the highlander, with its long-cultivated notion of personal freedom, was in conflict with the regularized and rule-oriented traditions of Islam. Because of these tensions, certain Islamic norms never materialized in Adygeya, with no real “class” of educated clergy created by Muslim education appearing the way it did in Dagestan or Chechnya. Certainly no written tradition or literature based on Arabic emerged.

The first Soviet decade (1917-1927) was very effective in advancing the atheist agenda and destroying the fragile Islamic traditions of the republic. The small numbers of Muslim intelligencia simply disappeared and by the end of the 1920’s, Adygeya had no system capable of propagating Islamic ideas. This history is very important to the current religious situation in Adygeya, since this vacant niche within the republic has been filled by persons from outside the Russian Federation. These have often been Adyg emigrants from Middle Eastern countries (the descendents of those Circassians who left their homeland during and after the Caucasus War), who starting in the early 1990’s, have appeared in Adygeya and have provided instruction in Islam, the Koran, and the Arabic language. These men became imams in many mosques, including the main mosque of Maikop, and brought with them a very different understanding of Islam to the North-West Caucasus.

There are notable differences in psychology and world-view between the Adyg of the Russian Federation and those Adyg who have lived for over a century under different social and political conditions. These differences are also evident in the dissimilar understanding of Islamic cultural norms. The “case of Ramadan Tsei,” a young émigré from Kosovo (former Republic of Yugoslavia) and a graduate of Amman University is a good example. Tsei lived in Adygeya for five years, had a small circle of young and educated followers, gave lessons on Islam in the main mosque of Maikop, and also published a newspaper with funds provided by one village community. During this time, he came into increasing conflict with the Muslim Spiritual Board of Adygeya and Krasnodarskii krai, with the official clergy and Tsei disagreeing on the proper way of organizing certain rituals. The conflict was not merely official, but also personal, and in the spring of 2004, it reached a critical level, leading to the involvement of local authorities. They resolved the situation by deporting Tsei to Turkey under the accusation of violating visa regulations. The Ramadan Tsei conflict soured the relations between the Muslim Spiritual Board and certain young Muslims, with religious and personal conflicts intertwining and exacerbating the tendency of young Muslims to separate themselves into a distinct group of believers. These young believers will probably and eventually be joined by those Adyg students who are currently studying in madrasas and Islamic universities in Syria and the UAE. Such individuals will probably come to strongly influence the religious situation in the republic in the next three to four years.

The raid of Kabardino-Balkar rebels on Nalchik in October 2005 has sharply divided the lives of Adyg Muslims into a “before” and an “after.” The “before” was a meandering attempt at creating a republic-wide Muslim community, with several councils of believers, none of them discussing anything except organizational issues and making vague statements about the need to “follow the Sharia path.” There was an unsuccessful attempt to publish a newspaper and issue a collection of hadiths in the Adyg language. The Tsei incident aside, they lived a quiet and peaceful life. The “after” means the active “interpretation” of the Nalchik incident and its possible analogies by the security services. Three examples should be sufficient to illustrate the reason for the recent mobilization of the active segment of the Muslim community and the emergence of a mood of protest.

In October 2005, following evening prayer, six men belonging to the community of the main mosque of Maikop were detained by the police. They were held at the police station for the whole night and tortured in an attempt to extract confessions of Wahhabism. The victims made an official complaint to the office of the Attorney General of the republic and a criminal investigation was opened. Shortly afterwards, Ruslan Khakirov (who lives outside of the republic today), the imam of main mosque of Maikop, was severely beaten by an officer of the Adyg Ministry of the Interior in the entranceway of his own apartment building. In April 2006, in the large village of Novaya Adygeya, policemen with dogs searched cars full of Muslims heading toward Friday prayer. They arrested the imam of the Adygeisk mosque, Abazi Nadzhmudin. An Adyg from Yugoslavia and resident of Adygeya for almost ten years, Nadzhmudin was accused of organizing an extremist society, the fomentation of religious hatred, and possession of extremist literature. His case is currently in the courts, but now under a new set of accusations.

A notable role in the growth of the conflict has been played by the publications of Professor M. Bedzhanov, and especially his interview in the local press. Bedzhanov provides his own definitions of wahhabism and describes the symptoms of this phenomenon. The professor actually discusses issues outside his field of expertise and shows a poor understanding of the situation, something that under different circumstances would have only elicited a bit of ironic condescension. Having reduced the host of issues associated with the renaissance of Islam in Adygeya to the question of headgear at funerals, the proper length of mourning, and the preparation of ritual meals, M. Bedzhanov has found himself thrust into the conflict between two views of Adyg Islam. Should it develop its own local, western Caucasus version, or should it be “cleansed” of previous traditions, as desired by the “new Muslims” inspired by those Adyg who have returned from the Middle East? During a time when the Muslims of Adygeya find themselves under the watchful eyes of the security and intelligence services, such publications became an ideological excuse for using punitive methods toward those Adyg from the Middle East who are active in the religious life of the republic, as well as the closure of the mosque in Adygeisk, and the investigation of several village mosques by the police. The Muslim Spiritual Board of Adygeya and Krasnodarskii krai is currently suing M. Bedzhanov for libel and defamation.

Adygeya is far from having self-governing dzhamaats that compete with the official authorities. But even here, one is able to see the expected outcome that comes from the inability of the Spiritual Board to influence younger believers. As Murat Berzegov, the leader of the “Cherkesskii Kongress” (the “Circassian Congress” – an NGO advocating the preservation of Adygeya’s administrative status) notes, part of the Muslim youth in Adygeya, being unable to advance in present day Russia’s corrupt society, is forced to form local, closed religious groups independent of the Spiritual Boards. The possibility of such groups transforming into radical organization does tend to increase under the current circumstances.

Having frightened Muslims with police repression in the mosques, the authorities have only themselves to blame for forcing believers into private apartments, student dormitories, and benches in the city parks, where hundreds of young people heatedly argue over the future of Islam in Adygeya, often having been inspired by visiting “Islamic gurus.” Their unclear conceptions do not have room for intellectual exploration, and a great Abrahamic tradition is reduced to the need to follow a few simple rules. But it is in these conversations that the future model of an Islamic Adygeya is being built. Personal ambitions and the appeal to the tragic history of the Adyg people in the Russian Empire intertwine in the creation of a personal Islamic vision. Under these circumstances, the drive to preserve Adygeya’s status can only unite the ethnic and religious protest movements. Among the many reasons given by young Muslims for the negative outcome of the republic becoming part of Krasnodarskii krai is the fact that there are no mosques in Krasnodar, making it impossible for them to fulfill their spiritual needs.

The North-West Caucasus is neither Chechnya, nor Dagestan. Different, albeit pan-Caucasus, cultural norms exist here and ethnic identity has always trumped religious affiliation. Today this is changing, as youthful dreams of a free and great Adygeya are being built on religious, rather than ethnic, underpinnings, thus making social dissolution possible. This is especially true since a new cause for problems is already present, with a celebration of the 450th anniversary of the “voluntary admission” of Adygeya into Russia being scheduled for 2007 (EDM, September 13). The events of 1557 can be understood and interpreted in a variety of ways and only have an ephemeral connection to Adygeya and will probably be the cause of further tensions in the North-West Caucasus. And it is quite possible that the Muslims of Adygeya will play an important role in this anticipated conflict