Religious-driven conflicts in the North Caucasus are caused by the government’s interference in religious matters, according to Enver Kisriev, a Moscow-based expert of Dagestani origin. “I do not understand, why the political leadership of Russia thinks that it will be able to establish some sort of Russian Islamic organization that will, so to speak, faithfully serve the government, be loyal to the authorities and, at the same time, be highly popular among Muslims, who will sincerely believe that the leaders of this pseudo-church are indeed exceptional, devout Muslims,” he said. “These two things cannot be combined. Since this is a hopeless task, I have no idea why the government puts such immense effort into it, pushing the people out from the belief in God. People now are forced to join opposition forms of Islam, because they do not accept the policy of establishing a religious organization sponsored by the government” (dagestanpost.ru, October 11).
The government in Dagestan, as elsewhere in the North Caucasus and across the Russian Federation, designated a strand of Islam that is officially approved and financed by the state. Normally, its public bodies are called Spiritual Boards of Muslims, which strive to represent all Muslims even though many are suspicious of the connections these organizations have with the government. Many of the officials in the approved Muslim organizations lack an Islamic education and are regularly embarrassed by the younger generation of Muslim leaders that have received instruction in Islamic institutions abroad. In 2013, Dagestan’s governor, Ramazan Abdulatipov, proposed his own way of combating the diversity among Muslim scholars in the republic, declaring that all people who studied Islam abroad must return to Dagestan or face automatic inclusion on the lists of militants. As experts point out, however, people who receive Islamic education abroad have long been automatically entered into the police databases anyway, so Abdulatipov’s proposal actually added little new to the existing police practices, apart from making them more explicit (kavpolit.com, November 7, 2013).
Government interference in religious affairs is highly controversial and has a direct impact on the expansion of instability, according to Kisriev. “If the government has the intention of enlisting the Muslim population as members of a government-sponsored organization, which is impossible in Islam, naturally, all those who resist this intention will be seen as criminals in one way or another,” he said. Instead, Kisriev suggested that the government should allow people to practice their beliefs the way they want and stop interfering in religious affairs. He explained why association with the government is such a losing point: “For the truly believing people, government sponsorship is an abomination, because the contemporary [Russian] state has no respect among the people [in Dagestan]. At best, the state is a mechanism that more or less copes with the fulfillment of its social responsibilities” (dagestanpost.ru, October 11). As if to illustrate the academic’s point about dividing Muslims into bad and good, on October 8, the government accused a well-known Muslim Salafi preacher, Abu Khalid (Nadir Medetov), of illegal arms possession and put him under house arrest (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 14).
Hajimurad Damada, a journalist with the independent Dagestani newspaper Chernovik, has pointed to more mundane destabilizing factors in Dagestan. According to an investigation by Damada, police have arrested and tortured young people in the village of Tidib in Dagestan’s remote Shamilsky district. The police allegedly regularly declare a counter-terrorist operation regime and then frame young men and beat them into confessing they are part of the insurgency’s support base. Such incidents are not unique to Dagestan or other republics in the North Caucasus. What Damada did, however, was to connect the arrests and confessions in Tidib to a conflict over the economic interests of the district authorities and head of the village’s administration. The journalist alleged that after the head of the village and the district authorities sparred over land and other assets of a local agricultural enterprise, the district authorities organized a series of counter-terrorist operations that resulted in detention of the relatives of the village head. The author of the piece identifies several actors in this conflict, including activists in the village fighting for what they believe is the land of their ancestors, the village head who supports them, the district authorities, the official religious authorities and the police, who receive benefits for conducting special operations (chernovik.net, October 10).
It appears that the ongoing insurgency and counter-insurgency campaigns in Dagestan have created complex relationships involving the economic and political interests of various groups in Dagestan. Since Moscow has blocked the normal political process in the republic, politics has migrated to the semi-legal space of special operations, insurgencies and a fight over economic resources. Religion has partly channeled social protest, but even religion is no longer an acceptable form of protest for the state. The Russian government is, in essence, attempting to establish a totalitarian society on part of its territory and targeting the adherents of one religion.