Thursday, May 14, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Conflict between ‘Official’ and ‘Unofficial’ Islam Arose after 1991, Russian Orientalist Says

Paul Goble

Baku, May 14 – The conflict between “official” Islam – which includes those institutions supported and sometimes controlled by Moscow – and “unofficial” or underground Islam – which opposes those institutions in the name of the true faith -- did not begin in Soviet times but rather after the collapse of the USSR, according to a leading Russian orientalist.
In part, this is a game of definitions – what people mean or have meant by these two categories has changed over time – but in another, Vladimir Bobrovnikov’s point, made in comments to the Regnum news agency, strikes at a fundamental set of assumptions long made by Western and Russian researchers (
Perhaps more important, Bobrovnikov, an expert on Islam in the North Caucasus at the Academy of Sciences Institute of Oriental Studies, is a member of the Russian justice ministry’s Expert Council on State Religious Expertise. And consequently, his views merit particular attention because they may inform Moscow’s policies toward Islam.
There are several possible approaches to Islamic structures that Bobrovnikov’s comments suggest. On the one hand, much of his argument implies that he would favor a sharp reduction in the number of MSDs and even of mosques so that there would be a clear “power vertical” within Islam in the North Caucasus.
But on the other, his words indicate that he favors either providing even more support for the MSDs in order to ensure that they are in a better position to control the situation or, more speculatively, eliminating state support for them lest they be tarred by association with a secular state.
These two strategies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is entirely possible that in his new position, Bobrovnikov may argue for the adoption of a regionally variegated one. But regardless of what he supports and Moscow does, his remarks suggest that the official-unofficial divide is going to get deeper before it might be resolved.
The antagonism between “official” Muslim spiritual administrations (MSDs) in the North Caucasus and “official” (or “parallel”) Islam did not exist in Soviet times in the North Caucasus but rather arose after 1991 when the number of MSDs multiplied, their independence from the state increased, and Muslims returning from abroad challenged them.
In Soviet times, Bobrovnikov points out, “official Muslim structures in essence had no rights, but on the other hand,” in his view, they were never opposed by any Muslims outside these structures as many Muslims now stand in opposition to the MSDs during the last decade or so.
The basic preconditions for the split, the Moscow orientalist argues, “arose in the first half of the 1990s when it became possible to create an unlimited number of Muslim structures which bean to compete with one another” and who found themselves sometimes allied with and sometimes opposed by young Muslims who had received their Islamic training abroad.
“Among part of the young” who studied abroad, “the view arose that ‘the old men’ were teaching Islam incorrectly.” This was especially marked in the Northwestern Caucasus where, unlike in Daghestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia, there was no institution of sheikhs” whose authority was based on spiritual descent” rather than on expertise, often not high.
The post-Soviet conflict between official and unofficial Islam, Bobrovnikov says, “was exacerbated by yet another circumstance: Over the last 150 years, internal migration has been taking place at various levels of intensity.” Many areas, he says, are thus “mixed,” and “often there is not a single juma mosque,” but rather several, something that helps divide Muslims.
“The decisive stimulus” for the appearance of the conflict between “official” and “unofficial” Islam, Bobrovnikov argues, “became the events of 1999-2002 when the authorities returned de facto to the spiritual administrations the status of official Islamic structures which receive state support, including the backing of the siloviki.”
Many in Moscow saw this as a way of establishing tighter control over the Muslim communities, but in many parts of the North Caucasus, Bobrovnikov suggests, this re-officialization of the MSDs had the effect of triggering a dispute, with some of the MSDs compromised and marginalized as a result.
That opened the way for the young, often trained abroad or affected by literature from or contacts with militants in Daghestan and Chechnya to step up their campaign for alternatives to the official structures. Indeed, the Moscow orientalist strongly implies, the support Moscow gave to the MSDs at that time was just enough to make this split almost inevitable.


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