Pressure on Salafists in Dagestan Could Have Unpredictable Results

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 16 Issue: 10

Mass arrests of Muslims in mosques have become a hallmark of the Dagestani head Ramazan Abdulatipov’s policies. While Abdulatipov’s predecessor Magomedsalam Magomedov engaged in a negotiating process and dialogue with the Salafist part of the Muslim community, this approach has been gradually scrapped during the past few years. Experts warn this could have serious repercussions for Dagestan’s long-term stability.

On May 8, residents of the city of Buinaksk reported that parishioners of a local mosque had been arrested. All 15 of those detained were subsequently released without charge. However, some experts say the mass arrests are part of a campaign of harassment against some categories of Muslims in Dagestan and a step backward in the dialogue between religious groups. In an interview with the Kavkazsky Uzel website, the prominent Russian expert on Islam Aleksei Malashenko said that Islamic opposition was bound to exist in Russia given the size of the Muslim community in the country. “The elimination of Salafism is impossible,” he said. “It is impossible to imprison everyone, but at the same time it is impossible for the police not to fight the Salafists, because the police have to report to the regional and federal authorities on how they are battling extremists. This is one of the cases in which the police are signaling that they are fighting Salafists. The adherents of non-official Islam, in turn, also need to show that they will resist and not back down” (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 13).

The security situation in Dagestan has improved during the past two years, but it is still far from stable. The mountainous republic still remains the hotbed of insurgency in the North Caucasus. Given that the economic outlook for the region is grim and dialogue with political opposition groups has been curbed, the situation in the republic is unlikely to stabilize. Despite some improvement in the security situation in the republic, it remains quite volatile. On May 7, three suspected militants were killed in yet another special operation in the capital Makhachkala (Chernovik, May 7).

Nor have the improvements in the security situation in Dagestan resulted in greater popularity for its governor, Ramazan Abdulatipov. In regular polls taken by the independent Dagestani newspaper Chernovik, Abdulatipov consistently lags in popularity behind several other figures. In the newspaper’s most recent telephone texting poll conducted, called Narodny President 4.0 (People’s President 4.0), Abdulatipov came in sixth. Politicians and public figures who came ahead of him included the former mayor of Makhachkala, Said Amirov; the mufti of Dagestan; and even former Dagestani president Magomedsalam Magomedov (Chernovik, May 15). Dagestan’s people either regard security issues as unimportant or Abdulatipov’s methods of dealing with them questionable.

According to Akhmet Yarlykapov, a Moscow-based expert of Dagestani origin, up to 50 percent of the republic’s Muslims do not subordinate to the official Spiritual Board of Muslims of Dagestan, which is dominated by the Sufi branch of Islam. According to Yarlykapov, government policies against the Salafis could drive them to become an underground movement, which would not be a positive development even though the Salafis would not necessarily turn to violence. The Dagestani Salafist organization Ahlu Sunna held an emergency meeting in response to the mass detentions in Buinaksk. According to an anonymous member of Ahlu Sunna, the Salafist Council would try to lobby the government to prevent negative developments in the Muslim communities across the republic. However, another member of the council said that the Salafists were becoming desperate to get their opinion across. “All these meetings are artificial,” a Salafist leader said. “I’m tired of sitting and listening to their empty talk. The law enforcers and the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Dagestan have shared the roles of bad and good cops, but they are working toward the same goal.” According to the experts, government pressure is so intense that the Salafists may be considering stopping practicing their faith in public (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 13).

According to Chernovik’s unofficial polling, Dagestan’s mufti Akhmad-Haji Abdulaev received more votes of support than all the other people on the list put together, including Abdulatipov and other politicians. If the poll reflects the real situation in the republic, it suggests the government cannot afford to ignore the opinion of Muslims. A large part of public support for the mufti may have come from Salafists who voted for him given that their own leader was not on the list. If the governor of Dagestan is pretending that nothing has changed in the republic since the Soviet period, reality will certainly remind him that the republic has changed and that Islam is an inalienable part of public life there (Chernovik, May 15).

If the Salafists really do go underground, it would signify not simply a sectarian split, but the alienation of up to half of Dagestan’s Muslims, which would certainly unsettle the republic. The government is almost certain to backtrack on putting pressure on the Salafists, but no other plan seems to be in place. This means that tensions will continue to rise along with the potential for a sectarian conflict in Dagestan.