Since the conquest of the North Caucasus in the 19th century, Russian politicians have generally failed to understand the essence of Islam and repeatedly tried to create a pro-Russian Muslim clergy that would represent the Russian authorities among the country’s Muslim population instead of reflecting the opinion of Muslims.
More recently, conflicts have erupted between the authorities and the Muslim clergy they have appointed. For example, the Dagestani authorities unsuccessfully tried to replace Salafist imams with officially approved ones, and threats against the North Ossetian mufti caused a scandal. Another such conflict erupted between the government of Ingushetia and the republic’s mufti, Isa Khamkhoev, in the summer of 2015. On June 4, the republican authorities inspired a failed attempt to take over a mosque where Khamzat Chumakov, a well-known Salafist imam popular among youth, was preaching (see EDM, June 11, 2015).
This was an embarrassing defeat for Khamkhoev, who led the assault. Chumakov’s supporters drove Khamkhoev and his group out of the mosque. The republican government apparently saw the defeat of the official clergy as its own failure and decided to switch gears, demanding that the mufti take control of all mosques in the republic. This became known only in December 2015, when the conflict between mufti Khamkhoev and Ingushetia’s governor, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, resurfaced (YouTube, December 30, 2015).
On December 26, Yevkurov unveiled his demands that the republican mufti resign not in private talks, as he did in the summer, but publicly, at a meeting of the Spiritual Center of Muslims. The governor said the mufti was “tired, he reacts to criticism overly emotionally, he failed to control the work of alims (Muslim scholars), along with the mufti’s own apparatus. Given these circumstances I proposed that the mufti should resign and a new mufti should be appointed” (Muslim-info.com, December 28, 2015).
However, Khamkhoev disagreed with the governor, viewing the demand that he resign as a Salafist plot. The mufti also went public, stating that he would not resign voluntarily. Moreover, the mosque imams, who are appointed by the republican mufti, also came out against the mufti’s early resignation (RIA Novosti, December 28, 2015). Putting little trust in the republican imams’ support, Ingushetia’s mufti made a quick visit to Chechnya, where he unveiled a joint program with the Chechen mufti on fighting the ideology of terrorism (Newsru.com, December 29, 2015). Chechnya’s mufti, Salakh Mezhiev criticized two rivals of Ingushetia’s mufti—Chumakov and Isa Tsechoev. Apparently, Ingushetia’s governor, Yevkurov, wants to include both Chumakov and Tsechoev in the process of normalizing the situation in Ingushetia (Onkavkaz.com, December 29, 2015).
The Ingush mufti’s trip to Chechnya turned out to be a strategic mistake, because the Ingush public does not favor contacts with Chechnya and Ramzan Kadyrov’s government, and perceives those who seek help from the Chechens as traitors to the Ingush people (Ia-maximum.ru, December 31, 2015). The Chechen government bet on Ingushetia’s mufti because he is opposed to Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. The Ingush governor, meanwhile, did not stop at calls for the mufti’s resignation, but ordered the reorganization of the entire Spiritual Board of Ingushetia and the republic’s Council of Alims. Two weeks later, the republican government set up a Directorate for Religious Affairs under the republic’s governor. Solekh Khamkhoev, a member of the same clan as the mufti, was appointed head of the directorate—a move aimed at splitting the clan. Clan solidarity is quite strong in tiny Ingushetia. The new office will carry out the same set of duties as the mufti—oversee mosques, prepare imams, qadis (Muslim judges), organize hajj and other issues that until recently were under the exclusive control of the republican mufti. The government also established an advisory government body, the Hajj Committee, and is looking for an alternative tourist company for hajj-goers (Kavtoday.ru, December 29, 2015). This undercuts the republican mufti’s finances. It appears that Yunus-Bek Yevkurov found common ground with Ingushetia’s Salafist leaders.
The Ahlu Sunna imams, who are Salafists, accused the mufti of creating the conflict when he demanded that everyone should submit to the Qadiriyya Sufi order, which includes the Kunta-Haji, Batal-Haji and Mitai subgroups. First, the Naqshbandi Sufi order mosques revolted and rejected mufti control, and only then the Salafist imams followed suit (Alansar.ru, January 11). Thus, the Salafists pointed out that the republican mufti mistreated even his own Sufis.
The conflict in Ingushetia shows the changing religious landscape in the republic. Previously, the Sufi Qadiriyya, Naqshbandi and Shadhili tariqas fought among themselves. The Salafis are already playing an important role in the republic and, with the help of the government, have managed to neutralize the Sufi mufti. Thus, the conflict is not only over who will be the republic’s mufti, but between the two competing Islamic teachings, which may potentially cause bloody conflict in the republic. The two leaders of the republic—the secular one and the religious one—provoked the conflict, which may well provoke other types of conflicts, including between clans, tariqas and ethnic groups. This will invite greater involvement of the Russian security services in local affairs and heighten the risks of a response by the armed Islamist underground movement. The conflict between Ingushetia’s governor and mufti has revealed new problems in Ingush society whose origins can be traced back to the second Russian-Chechen war.