The History of Islam in Kabardino-Balkaria

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 46

The bloody events in Nalchik on October 13-14 this year not only indicated the radicalization of Muslim youth in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria (KBR), but also cast light on the drama of the relationships between the authorities and Muslims that has been developing in the republic in recent years. Accidentally or not, the Nalchik events occurred a month after the resignation of Valery Kokov, the republic’s long-serving president. It is obvious, however, that the crisis had been steadily developing during his tenure.

To understand the situation in Kabardino-Balkaria, it is necessary to learn about the peculiarities of the republic’s Islamicization. The mass conversion of Kabardinians and Balkars to Islam started at the end of the first half of the 19th century. In the second half of the 19th century, mostly in the years 1858–1865, a considerable number of Kabardinian and Balkar Muslims—approximately 27,000 people—moved to the Ottoman empire (see Nadezhda Emelianova, The Muslims of Kabarda, 1999, p. 50). However, at that time the Soviet authorities became established in the republic, a majority of its population was officially practicing Islam, and Sharia courts were active on its territory, as well as in other North Caucasian republics. In fact, a dual-faith system was in place, as the republic also preserved traditional (pagan) beliefs and many people adhered to the mountaineers’ code in their daily family and economic life. Kabardinians continued to worship great God Tkha—which, in their opinion, merged with the image of Allah. Stalin’s repressions in the years 1920 – 1930 undercut local Islam, which at that time had not yet established deep roots in Kabardinian-Balkarian society. By 1961, only 13 active mosques remained in the KBR. They were all in the republic’s Baksan district, populated predominantly by ethnic Balkars. There were 14 unregistered Muslim communities.

During perestroika, the number of officially recognized mosques started to grow quickly, reaching 22 by 1990. Still the number was much lower than in Dagestan (240 mosques) and the Chechen-Ingush Republic (162 mosques), which at the time was not yet divided.

The renaissance of Islam took place in the KBR at the beginning of 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. From the beginning however, the process was very “Arabized” and the newly-emerging interpretation of Islam differed substantially from the Islam that existed there in the 1920s. In the first half of 1990, over 100 students from the KBR went to study in Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Jordan). Charitable Muslim organizations began to operate actively in the republic, such as the “Salvation” international organization, the All-world Assembly of Islamic Youth “An Nadva,” and others. With the help of Saudi Arabia, an Islamic youth center was set up, and a branch of the international Muslim missionary movement “Da’wa,” with a staff of over 50 people assigned to different towns and villages, was organized. The Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of the KBR coordinated the work of international Islamic structures in the republic, which by then was home to more than 130 Muslim communities. (Hadjimurat Eziev, a representative of the KBR Ministry of Culture for religious affairs, confirmed this to the author in a February 2001 interview.)

Work on a project to build in Nalchik a large public religious center—which was supposed to house the Spiritual Directorate, a prayer hall for 1,500 people, a marriage hall, a conference hall, a library and a printing press—was started in 1992. In 1994, a significant amount of money was raised for the construction of the center through a telethon. Soon after the telethon, the money disappeared without a trace. In the words of the head of the Spiritual Directorate, “it burned in the bank.” That, beyond any doubt, undermined the reputation of the official Islamic structures among local population. Muslims started to establish their own organizations, which, in turn, were a source of discontent for the official clergy and authorities.

At the end of the 1990s, the authorities suspected the Islamic Institute in Nalchik of being a center for teaching Wahhabism, and it was closed down for “re-examination.” The republic’s authorities decided that there was no need in having a large Islamic center in Nalchik and made a former movie theater on the outskirts of the city in Valony Aul into a mosque (see Islam in Kabardino–Balkaria – Modern religious life in Russia, edited by Michael Burdo and Sergei Filatov,. Vol. 3, 2005, pp. 183 – 185).

Starting in the mid-1990s, Valery Kokov tried to limit the political activity of Muslims in the republic. His apprehensions were caused by the international Muslim organizations authorized to operate in KBR. In 2000, all Islamic centers in the republic, except Islamic computer classes, were closed down on the orders of the authorities. In January 2004, Nezavisimaya gazeta quoted Spiritual Directorate of Muslims’ mufti Anas Pshikhachev as saying that on the verbal orders of the republic’s Interior Minister, police sealed mosques, prohibited people who came to the republic from other places to visit mosques and kept tabs on people who went to the mosques to pray. “The police have reported many times finding weapons, bullet-proof vests and shooting targets in our mosques, but thus far have not presented any evidence of that,” Pshikhachev said. “Scores of mosques have been suspected of promoting extremism, young people are arrested without any reason, beaten up and intimidated.”

Starting in 2000, the KBR became a region in which the rights of believers have been constantly violated and their right to freedom of conscience, guaranteed by the Russian constitution, has been ignored. All of that led to a formation of an informal opposition structure of Muslim youth. Musa Mukhozhev, imam of the mosque in Volny Aul, and Anzor Astemirov, the director of the Institute for the Study of Islam who now heads the underground armed group “Yarmuk” and led the armed assault of fighters on Nalchik, became leaders of that informal opposition Muslim youth group. They were both students of the late Ahmad-Kadi Akhtaev, a famous Dagestani preacher of moderate Wahhabi views who was poisoned in 1998. Followers of Musa Mukhozhev and Anzor Astemirov believed that Islam in the KBR must start with a clean slate. They believed that any traditions in the republic related to mountaineer ethics should not contradict pure Islam. For them, the ideal of an Islamic community was the community established by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina.

In 1996, Musa Mukhozhev became one of the leaders of the Congress of the People of Chechnya and Dagestan, headed up by Shamil Basaev, and created a structure that was ready to replace the administrative system in place in the KBR. However, he planned to come to power through peaceful means and was not known to be involved in organizing and planning any violent actions. As he told this author in February 2001, the Muslims of the KBR “need at least 20 years for serious progress.” At the same time, he stressed that “although the people of the KBR are patient, they could eventually explode.”

After the attack by fighters on the Department of Drug Control in Nalchik in December 2004, police started to conduct regular police operations against Muslims, and mosques have virtually fell under the Interior Ministry’s control and were available to believers only for performing Muslim prayer. Musa Mukhozhev had to emigrate to one of the Arab states, and in September of this year over 400 KBR Muslims appealed to the president of Russia in an open letter to allow them to emigrate to a country that would not infringe upon the rights of believers. Unfortunately, the KBR authorities did not take that signal into consideration, which, in the long run, triggered the Muslim uprising in Nalchik on October 13-14.