Local Muslim Spiritual Leaders Excommunicate Head of Ingushetia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 91

Yunus-Bek Yevkurov (Source: Vestnik Kavkaza)

The Muslim Spiritual Center of Ingushetia (Dukhovniy Tsentr Musulman Respubliki Ingushetii, or the Muftiate) excommunicated the head of the Republic of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, on May 27, during a meeting between the clergy and elders from all over the republic. In other words, the spiritual leaders of Ingushetia will no longer consider Yevkurov a Muslim “until he ends the discrimination of spiritual leaders and discloses information regarding the expenditures of building a mosque in the capital of Magas.” According to the Muftiate, “excommunication for Muslims means no longer being able to participate in their wedding or funeral ceremonies” (Kommersant, May 28). The decision demonstrates the ongoing clash between Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and local Muslim leaders, while simultaneously highlighting broader jockeying for power in Russia’s restive North Caucasus region.

The conflict between Yevkurov and the leader of the Ingushetian Muftiate, Issa Khamkhoev, has already lasted almost a decade. Since his appointment as republic head in October 2008, Yevkurov, who has a military background, has curtailed the activities of local Islamist rebel groups by utilizing a combination of hardline counter-insurgency methods and “soft power” (RIA Novosti, September 8, 2013; Ekho Kavkaza, Mart 27, 2016). The first sign of discord between the two men occurred in July 2009, when Khamkhoev hastily launched his re-election bid for the position of mufti (religious leader) without any consultation with Yevkurov, who at that moment was in the hospital recuperating from a suicide bomb attack against him. The conflict accelerated after Yevkurov decided to legalize the republic’s Salafist community and include their mosques into the Muftiate. This was deemed unacceptable by Ingushetia’s official religious leaders, who traditionally follow the Qadiria and Naqshbandia schools of Sufism (the mystical branch of Sunni Islam) (Meduza.io, May 29, 2018; Novaya Gazeta, February 4, 2016). Non-violent Salafist groups, led by charismatic preachers such as Hamzat Chumakov and Issa Tsechoyev, emerged in Ingushetia in the early 2010s. And numbers of their followers among the younger generation increased rapidly, gradually replacing more traditionally widespread forms of Islam (Dagestanpost.ru, June 18, 2015; Onkavkaz.com, April 9, 2018).

Aside from Yevkurov’s willingness to engage in dialogue with Salafists—considered religious archenemies by the Sufi-dominated Muftiate—the Muslim leaders of Ingushetia were alarmed by his alleged attempt to abolish the republic’s Spiritual Center. Specifically, they rebuked Yevkurov for having closed down the religious radio station Angusht, having ordered systematic law enforcement raids on madrassahs, and for having deprived the Muftiate of land to build a new mosque in Magas (Kommersant, May 28). Furthermore, the Muftiate leadership decried Yevkurov’s decision to mandate that all sermons in the republic’s mosques be video recorded as an attempt to establish total control over the Muslim clergy of Ingushetia (Kommersant, February 2, 2018).

The ongoing confrontation in Ingushetia has a clear linkage to neighboring Chechnya, as an extension of the rivalry between Yevkurov and Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov has skillfully managed to form an alliance with the Ingushetian clergy against Yevkurov. It is worth noting that the muftiates of Chechnya and Ingushetia both belong to the same Sufi schools and share common efforts to confront the growing Salafist communities in their respective republics. This fact has enabled the Chechen clergy to influence their Ingush counterparts (Onkavkaz.com, February 2, 2016). Kadyrov, in turn, has repeatedly complained about Yevkurov’s tolerant position toward Salafist sheikhs Chumakov and Tsechoev, and for the Ingushetian leader’s “soft” counter-terrorism measures (Kavkazsky Uzel, August 4, 2012; February 4, 2016). Moreover, the Chechen head has, on several occasions, made territorial claims on Ingushetia (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 13, 2013). Overall, therefore, Kadyrov’s support for Ingushetia’s religious leaders stems from his willingness to more actively interfere in this neighboring republic.

Another important factor to this ongoing saga is the upcoming election of the head of Ingushetia, which will be held on September 9 (Vestnik Kavkaza, June 7). Experts believe the Ingushetian Muftiate is trying to undermine Yevkurov’s authority in the republic in order to influence the results of the vote. For instance, Ingushetia-based analyst Bagaudin Khautiyev notes that members of the republic’s Muslim Spiritual Center have burned all their bridges with Yevkurov and are unwilling to accept someone they consider a morally bankrupt political leader for another five years. On the other hand, there is an absence of a tangible alternative to Yevkurov. Ahmet Yarlikapov a Moscow-based scholar of Islam, assumes that, theoretically, wealthy local businessmen such as Musa Keligov or Mikhail Gutseriev could become leaders of Ingushetia; but their path is blocked by Moscow, which is not currently interested in replacing Yevkurov (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 3).

Taking into consideration the fact that none of the participants in this conflict are independent from Moscow, its position is crucial in this confrontation. First, the federal center is highly unlikely to grant Kadyrov carte blanche in Ingushetia. Instead, Moscow will probably try to maintain the current status quo between Chechnya and Ingushetia and not grant the unpredictable Chechen leader any additional political leverage in the North Caucasus. Second, Russian authorities can be expected to continue to rely on Ingushetia’s Muftiate as a counterweight to further proliferation of Salafism in the republic, which Russia considers a security threat (see EDM, June 11, 2015; April 7, 2016).

Assuming Yevkurov is reelected, he will face a challenging five years ahead in his next term. Despite the absence of any political opposition in the republic, local social grievances toward Yevkurov are likely to further grow. Combined with trying to tackle the high levels of corruption and poverty, one of the hardest tasks before the republican head will be to continue to navigate between the Ingushetian Muftiate and Salafist community. All these factors could create a social foundation for the revitalization of an Islamist insurgency in Ingushetia.

Yunus-Bek Yevkurov’s renunciation by the republic’s Muftiate is a clear illustration of ongoing rivalry inside Ingushetia as well as of the increased political appetites of Ramzan Kadyrov. However, at least for the foreseeable future, this conflict is unlikely to lead to Yevkurov’s replacement, as long as he can retain the Kremlin’s backing.