Tatarstan – Russia’s New Hot Spot?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 142

Mufti of Tatarstan, Ildus-khazrat Faizov (Source: tatar-inform.ru)

A high-profile crime against the official Islamic hierarchy of the republic of Tatarstan took place in this relatively quiet Russian region on July 19, when the chief of the instructional division of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Tatarstan, Valiulla-khazrat Yakupov, was gunned down at the entrance to his home. A half hour after the shooting, a powerful explosion destroyed the car of the Mufti of Tatarstan, Ildus-khazrat Faizov. He survived the attempt on his life, but was seriously injured in the incident (www.newsru.com/russia/19jul2012/muft.html). The investigators quickly announced their primary version of the motive for the crime – “financial operations undertaken by the Islamic board.” However, some experts, such as Alexei Grishin, a member of the Russian Public Chamber and the head of a think tank on religion, rejected this theory and tried to add a political coloring to the crime (www.interfax-russia.ru/Povoljie/view.asp?id=330554). The attack was blamed on the Wahhabis, as the followers of Salafi Islam are commonly called in Russia. The Wahhabis were supposedly against the mufti’s opposition to radical Islam (www.ntv.ru/novosti/313637/).

Another well-known expert, Roman Silantyev, stated that the attack was the first attempt to wipe out the entire leadership of the largest Islamic board in Russia. Silantyev suggested that the incident would finally allow Russia to ban Wahhabism across the country (www.gazeta.ru/social/2012/07/19/4686061.shtml?incut1). It was noteworthy that all those people who blamed the attack on Wahhabis linked it to the North Caucasus (http://lenta.ru/articles/2012/07/19/muftiy/). Claims that the crime in Tatarstan was connected to the North Caucasus armed resistance are just as outrageous as the crime itself (www.ng.ru/regions/2012-07-19/1_tatarstan.html). In fact, it is hard to talk about any substantial ethnic Tatar element in the North Caucasus armed resistance. Even if there were some Tatars in the resistance, their number is so small that they can be entirely discounted.

In examining the incident in Kazan, the focus should be put on the whole Muslim community of Russia, which comprises 15-25 million Muslims, according to various estimates (www.newsru.com/religy/29jul2008/moslems.html). The authorities have placed multiple restrictions on official Muslim leaders. Muftis are popularly seen as government puppets by the local population. It is not surprising, therefore, that the official Muslim clergy’s authority is not very high, to put it mildly (www.bbc.co.uk/russian/russia/2012/07/120720_tatarstan_extremism.shtml).

In the North Caucasus, the murders of high-ranking official religious figures have long ceased to be rare events. From 2010-2012, over two dozen religious figures were killed in the North Caucasus. To name a few, Kabardino-Balkaria’s mufti, Anas Pshikhachev, was killed in Nalchik on December 15, 2010 (http://ria.ru/spravka/20120719/703493628.html); Maksud Sadykov, a scholar in theology and international affairs, was killed in Makhachkala, Dagestan in 2011; Sufi sheikh Sirazhuddin Khuriksky a Muslim leader in southern Dagestan was killed on October 28, 2011. Earlier this year the deputy mufti of Stavropol region, Kurman Ismailov, was killed on February 13. Magomedkhabib Zaurbekov, a well-known Islamic scholar, was killed by a sniper in Kirovaul village of Dagestan’s Kizilyurt district on June 28. These are just the high-profile religious leaders killed recently; numerous village imams also have been slain. So being a mufti, sheikh or the imam of a mosque in the North Caucasus are profoundly dangerous occupations.

North Caucasian religious leaders and politicians reacted to the attack in Tatarstan immediately. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov proposed that the government provide personal protection to religious figures (http://vz.ru/news/2012/7/19/589304.html). At the same time, Kadyrov accused the Salafis of being behind the terror attack (www.checheninfo.ru/13521-v-terraktah-v-kazani-kadyrov-obvinil-vahhabitov.html).

If the anger against Salafism crystallizes across Russia and the authorities eventually outlaw this Islamic teaching officially, this will have an impact on the North Caucasus, where a mechanism of co-existence of Salafis and other Islamic teachings has recently been in progress. For example, at the end of April, Salafi and Sufi leaders and theologians met in Dagestan and reached their first public agreement, which included commitments to rescind mutual accusations and co-exist peacefully. This was the first real step toward serious dialogue (http://mahachkala.bezformata.ru/listnews/islamskoe-primirenie-i-budushee-dagestana/5232190/). The continuation of a process that would engage Sufis and Salafis could lower the tensions in a society in which Salafis are regarded as deadly enemies of Sufism. The Salafis in Dagestan are officially represented by a scholarly association, Ahl-Sunna. Since the rebels also criticize Sufism, the government automatically equates the Salafis, who are a political wing of the radicals, with the radicals themselves. And therefore, the police and the FSB (Federal Security Service) persecute the Salafis.

It should be noted that the same kind of dialogue that has taken place in Dagestan recently was proposed in Kabardino-Balkaria, where Salafi ideologues participated in scholarly conferences and organized seminars in 2002-2004, trying to put forward their position in a legal way. However, Moscow’s policy did not imply a dialogue with those who did not accept Moscow’s will. As a result, Salafi leaders in Kabardino-Balkaria were forced to go underground and revert to armed activities (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/104855/). The authorities at that time missed a chance to find a peaceful solution to the problem, and they could miss the same opportunity in Dagestan if Salafism is officially outlawed in Russia (www.bbc.co.uk/russian/russia/2012/07/120720_tatarstan_extremism.shtml).

Consequently, Russian government circles are trying to use the crime in Kazan to justify striking down Salafism across the country, which will yield a result opposite to the one expected – namely, the social base of the Islamic radicals will increase. As long as Islam is regulated by incompetent people in Moscow, then their puppet representatives in the region are doomed to be estranged from the local populations because of their close affiliation with the Russian government. Moscow faces a choice of making the crisis in its relations with the Muslim community more acute or simply try to find people to negotiate with among the radicals. If the crisis deepens, the conflict will become more severe and spread to other places across Russia where Salafis live.