Thursday, April 12, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Steps Up Support for ‘Traditional’ Islam in North Caucasus

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 12 – To counter a rising tide of Islamist extremism in the North Caucasus, Russian Federation officials there have engineered the return of that region’s Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD), announced plans to help pay for two new Islamic universities, and sought to tighten restrictions on religious publications there.
On Wednesday, Dmitriy Kozak, the activist Presidential representative to the Southern Federal District, met with the top leaders of the Coordinating Center for Muslims of the Northern Caucasus as well as with most of the other senior muftis from that region’s various republics.
Kozak “noted the major role of confessions in preserving the stabilization of society, positively assessed the activity of religious leaders in the spiritual training of Muslims in the republics of the northern Caucasus, and proposed that the muftis talk about the problems agitating them” (
But both the announcements that came followed and perhaps even more the fact that it was conducted behind closed doors after Kozak’s opening remarks suggest that he and other Russian officials are working hard to put a positive spin on a situation that has deteriorated.
First, Ismail Berdiyev, the head of the Coordinating Council, announced that his organization had finally secured the backing of both the government in Kabardino-Balkaria and the muftis of the other republics of the region to open an office in Nalchik, something that will eventually allow him and his small staff to return from Moscow.
Some regional leaders have opposed Berdiyev’s return lest their own power to deal with Muslims be limited, and some of his backers also have opposed it, viewing Berdiyev’s residence in Moscow as giving them and the Muslims of the North Caucasus more influence rather than less.
Unlike the Russian Orthodox Church and until very recently, virtually all major Muslim institutions – the MSDs – in tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet times have been located away from the Russian capital, a situation that has limited their ability to make contacts abroad and to influence the Russian government itself.
Second, Kozak declared that the Russian authorities would help fund two new Islamic universities that are to open in the region next year. These institutions, he said, will train mullahs and imams in “traditional” Islam so that they can combat “the Wahhabis” as Russians tend to refer to all Muslim radicals.
One of these institutions will be located in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan; the other is to open in Nalchik. Intriguingly, one report of the meeting says that these schools will provide instruction in both the Shafai and Hanafi legal schools of Sunni Islam (
Most Muslims in the Russian Federation follow the Hanafi trend, and what makes this announcement intriguing is that many Moscow commentators Muslim and non-Muslim alike have suggested that only it is truly “traditional” moderate Russian Islam. Clearly, in this case, Moscow has made a compromise.

And third, the Presidential representative said, Russian officials from now on will allow the muftis of the region to carry fire arms for self-defense, a longstanding demand by people many of whom have been attacked and some of whose predecessors have been killed (
Berdiyev himself has been violently attacked on several occasions as have most of his senior Muslim colleagues across the region. And at least some imams and mullahs have fled from rural areas where they were and presumably still are at risk of attack or even death at the hands of radicals and insurgents.
But even as this meeting between Kozak and the Muslim leaders was taking place, another official in the North Caucasus issued a statement that underscores just how dangerous the situation almost certainly now is for those who hope to promote moderate “traditional” Islam as a counter Islamist radicalism.
In Daghestan, Eduard Urazayev, the minister for nationality policy, information and external relations, announced that he has proposed forcing those who put out publications with print runs under 1,000 copies be forced to seek registration with the authorities (
Up to now, Russian law requires registration only for publications that are printed in more than a thousand copies each issue. Not surprisingly, some religious and political organizations have exploited this loophole, printing various appeals and newsletters in 999 or fewer copies.
Now, in the same of fighting “Wahhabism” and promoting traditional Islam, Russian officials are closing that legal loophole, possibly restricting the dissemination of ideas they do not approve of but equally likely forcing these publications underground where they may become even more politicized.

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