Vienna, January 12 – Not surprisingly, Russians have focused most of their attention on those Islamist groups which are seeking power through often violent jihad, but one Muslim group, known as the Nurjilar, is trying to come to power in the Muslim regions of Russia and the Turkic republics of Central Asia not by violence but by education.
While such actions may be less dramatic in the short term, according to a Daghestani commentator, they could result in just as radical a shift in the way in which these societies are organized and in the way in which they relate to other societies and other states as the actions of the jihadists threaten to do (www.riadagestan.ru/news/2009/12/24/90310).
Indeed, Magomed Gaziyev says, the Nurjilar precisely because they operate in ways that do not appear to be as radical and dangerous and consequently, often do not appear on the radar screen of those who are concerned about the spread of Islamist values may already represent an equally grave threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.
The Nursi International Religious Society was created a century ago in Turkey by Said Nursi, the author of a 14-volume work offering a reinterpretation of Islam. During his lifetime, the sect had approximately five million followers, and after his death, 40 of his students established 40 nominally independent groups.
“Despite certain not particularly important distinctions,” however, Gaziyev continues, “the goal of the society and the ideology [remain] to achieve real influence in the Turkic language and Muslim countries” through the inculcation of Nursi’s ideas among the young first and foremost through educational institutions.
“The most powerful in organizational and financial terms” of these groups now, the Daghestani analyst says, is made up of the so-called Fetullahchilar, the followers of Fetulla Gulen, a former imam in Izmir who, since his group was banned by the Turkish authorities in 2000 has been living in the United States from which he continues his work.
When Gulen applied for a special visa in June 2008, Gaziyev continues, among those offering letters of support were two former CIA officers, an indication according to the Daghestani analyst that Gulen and his movement which calls for “Islamization through education” are “a means” being used by the Central Intelligence Agency against Russia.
He suggests that this relationship will only go so far. While both the US and Turkey are interested in “the weakening and then the complete collapse of Russia,” Gaziyev continues, “it is difficult to imagine that the creation of some kind of ‘Great Turan’ fits in with the strategic plans of the United States.”
The danger at the present time, the Daghestani analyst continues, “consists in the strategy chosen by the Nursi-Gulenists for the achievement of their goals.” They are spending enormous sums on the creation of schools and lycees where they both promote their ideas among the young and select the most qualified for further training in Turkey or elsewhere.
Gulen has declared that “our task is not to enter into conflict with representatives of government power at the local level” but rather to “form among people and especially the young an Islamic worldview” and that “jihad is a serious mistake of the Islamists” because “it is an extreme form of struggle.”
But at the same time, he has made it clear that the intention of his movement is “to gradually seize power throughout Russia without any jihad” through missionary and educational work which will select and then prepare cadres who the Nursi can place in key business, government and security bodies.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Nursi opened 24 special schools, one university, one university division and three language training institutions in Russia, and by the end of the 1990s were sending numerous students to universities in Turkey for advanced training and recruitment.
In August 2002, recognizing the threat they posed, Gaziyev says, Makhachkala closed down a series of international Daghestani-Turkish colleges and lycees which had been operating in the republic “in violation of existing legislation.” But that did not so much end the Nursi threat, he says, but rather changed its shape.
On the one hand, some Nursi supporters created cells in Makhachkala, Derbent, hasavyurt, Izberbash and Kaspiisk. And on the other, they began organizing “tea parties” at which groups discussed the ideas of Nursi in much the same way that the instructors had done so in the now-closed lycees.
The “tea party” approach is associated with Mustafa Sungur, who has broken away from the Gulenists on this point. Sungur, not Gulen, currently dominates the Nursi scene in Daghestan, Gaziyev says, arguing that the differences between the two have more to do with tactics than they do with the final goal of the Islamization of Russia and the formation of a Turan state.
Because the Nursi are well-funded, they have remained active, purchasing property in the Daghestani capital and providing assistance to young people. They may not be as dramatic in their actions as the jihadists, Gaziyev concludes, but over time, they could matter more, and he urges the authorities there to take action before it is too late.