Key West, February 8 – The head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) in Volgograd has taken the unusual step of going public with his refusal to cooperate with the FSB after the organs approached him to help the powers that be combat “extremist Muslim doctrines.”
In an interview with the Volgograd edition of “Argumenty i fakty,” Mufti Ilyas Khamzat said that the FSB had approached him “several times” to help them in this regard but that he had responded that “as a spiritual leader I must not cooperate with the FSB or other law enforcement organizations. Otherwise, I will lose [my] authority” (vlg.aif.ru/society/article/9778).
He told the weekly’s Olga Poplavskaya that as a religious leader he has “another task: prevention. It is better to cure people spiritually than to pursue them with a gun.” And Khamzat continued by observing that using force will never be sufficient to catch all those who may be following the wrong path.
“When I studied at the medrassah,” he said, “our instructor told us; ‘Don‘t get into arguments with aggressively inclined people. Only by preaching, passages from the Koran and person example will you be able to show [to others] the correct Islam.’ It is necessary that an individual understand that aggressive actions and intentions contradict Islam.”
On the one hand, what Khamzat said is completely consistent with Islamic doctrine: people must be convinced of the truth rather than forced to obey. But on the other and more importantly, it challenges Moscow’s current insistence that everyone in authority, political or religious, must be willing to use force against those the powers that be define as extremist.
Khamzat’s statement is important for three other reasons as well. First, it shows that the FSB is still trying to recruit religious leaders just as the KGB did in Soviet times. Under communism, these recruitment efforts were usually successful: if someone did not agree, he was unlikely to rise in the religious hierarchy or even be allowed to function as a priest or mullah.
Second, his statement is an indication that at least some religious feel that they can refuse to cooperate and can gain some protection by going to the media. While Khamzat is clearly taking a big risk under the increasingly authoritarian conditions of Russian life, he is certainly laying down a challenge to others within Islam and more generally to behave as he has.
And third, the willingness of at least some parts of the media to report on such declarations may open the way for others to make similar comments or to reveal the FSB affiliations of some of their colleagues, a development that could undermine the confidence of many of the faithful in the religious hierarchies.
That is all the more likely in Islam, which being a non-clerical faith, does not have any canonical basis for hierarchies like those known as the MSDs that the Russian imperial, Soviet, and post-Russian state have created and supported as a means to assist in government control over Muslim religious life.
In the current context, when the various Muslim leaders of the Russian Federation are seeking to create a single MSD for the entire country, Khamzat’s declaration could prove especially explosive, given that at least one of the participants in the unity negotiations is widely thought to be an agent of the security organs.