Support for Salafists Among Dagestani Youth Reaches Record Level

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 227

Central Mosque in Makhachkala (Source: Caucasian Knot)

A survey in Dagestan has found that 20 percent of the republic’s youth consider themselves moderate Salafis. Only 10 percent of the respondents referred to themselves as Sufis – traditionally the main Muslim branch in Dagestan. The most educated among those who identified themselves as moderate Salafis said they were in favor of mimicking the experience of such countries as Brunei, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman in bringing norms of sharia into governance in Dagestan. The survey also found that 12 percent of the respondents favor the radical methods of struggle adopted by the North Caucasus militants. It is especially striking that young people openly stated support for rebels in the republic. According to a Dagestani expert on Islam, Ruslan Gereyev, the survey was conducted only in cities, and support for the rebels would have been even higher had the interviews been conducted in rural areas of the republic (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, December 9).

The survey was carried out in Dagestan’s largest cities – Makhachkala, Kaspiisk, Khasavyurt, Derbent, Izberbash and Kizilyurt – among 6,000 respondents, including high school teens and university students. All of those surveyed described themselves as religious believers. Gereyev told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website that a widening gap between rich and poor, rampant official corruption and discrimination against Muslims leave radicalization as the only attractive option for some young people. If two years ago the insurgency consisted mainly of people aged 25 to 40, today the insurgents range in age from 18 to 30 years old, although some independent experts say the age range is from 14 to 45, Gereyev asserted. “The time has come when we need to struggle for the youth,” he said. “In essence, there is an undeclared war going on for the young generation’s minds” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, December 9). One can understand why the government is losing this battle for young people’s minds if all it is doing is trying to scare them into submission without providing career and other life opportunities.

An expert with the Russian Muftis’ council, Rinat Mukhametov, pointed to the paradox that better religious education was likely to prevent the radicalization of young people. According to Mukhametov, although there is no direct link between education and radicalization, there are no people highly educated in Islam among the militants. “If in Ryazan [in central Russia] people under duress escape into their personal inner selves, as a rule starting to drink vodka, in the Caucasus people protest, sometimes including unruly protest beyond any thinkable limits,” Mukhametov said (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, December 9). In addition, increasingly there is a cultural dimension in the North Caucasus that tends to put the government at loggerheads with the people. As Moscow tries to keep the Russian Federation as unified as possible, developments on the ground and the rise of Islam contradict the central government’s efforts and a clash becomes inevitable if Moscow fails to adjust its policy.

In November 2010, the Dagestani state commission for the adaptation of militants to civilian life was created and by November 2011 it claimed to have won over 40 former militants who had surrendered (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, November 18). However, one of the commission’s members, Abbas Kebedov, noted: “It needs to be understood that not a single real militant from ‘the forest’ has gone through the commission. The problem is that we do not have the necessary power [to pardon rebels]. Today we simply ask the relevant authorities to take into account that a person went through our commission. That’s it. I don’t want to take every person’s case for the commission’s consideration, because I can’t be the guarantor of his safety and legal status. If a militant comes through the commission and tomorrow is killed, who will be held responsible for his death? In a republic where even its leader says he does not know who abducts people, no one can be worry-free” (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/197442/, December 11).

On December 13, the Russian National Anti-Terrorist Committee hailed the killing of a leader of the Khasavyurt rebels, 25-year-old Yusup Magomedov. He was killed along with two other rebels, 28-year-old Shamil Nutsalkhanov and 25-year-old Shamil Makhmudov, on December 12 during a counterterrorism operation near the village of Karlanyurt (http://ria.ru/defense_safety/20111213/515545095.html, December 13). The Russian security services regularly claim that slain militants are high-ranking figures in the insurgency but rarely substantiate their claims.

A cab driver named Gabibula Shabkhanov was kidnapped by police on December 7 and remains in custody. Shabkhanov’s lawyer said his client was badly beaten up and tortured with electric shocks applied to his fingertips. According to Kavkazsky Uzel, at least 28 kidnappings took place in Dagestan alone in January-November 2011. Earlier, the prosecutor general’s office in Dagestan said the agency received 29 complaints about kidnappings in January-October 2011. Thirteen of these cases were not confirmed, but 16 others are pending (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/197404/, December 11).

Given the situation in Dagestan, it sounded ironic that the Russian leadership came out in support of the Dagestani government’s application to host the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in the republic. Russia and Azerbaijan are expected to apply jointly to host the games in 2018 (http://dagestan.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/197505/, December 12). While it is still unclear whether the Sochi Olympics will take place as planned in 2014, due to project management issues and security concerns, it is hardly feasible to attract any significant international audience to Dagestan because of its persistent volatility. The government, it seems, remains intent to substitute substantive policy reforms in the North Caucasus with glistening shows in the hope of impressing the local population. However, without first doing their homework on the political and economic issues in Dagestan, the situation in that volatile republic is unlikely to improve tangibly, particularly when local support for Salafism continues to grow. It is rather ironic that more than a decade after the Russian intervention in its rebel republic of Chechnya, which was touted as an effort to subdue extremism in the North Caucasus, support for Salafist groups in neighboring Dagestan among the local population is now at an all time high and that this volatile republic is now the epicenter of a regional insurgency.