Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Bet on Traditional Islam in North Caucasus Backfires

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 5 – Moscow and its representatives are backing “traditional North Caucasus Islam” in the mistaken belief that this form of Islam is both tolerant and apolitical, when it fact it is not only “aggressive” but also itself “radical” in “practically all” republics of the North Caucasus, according to leading Russian academic specialist.
In a two-part article posted on a Moscow State University site today, Igor Dobayev, a professor at the Academy of Sciences Southern Academic Center in Rostov, argues that this Russian mistake carries with it “especially great” dangers in Daghestan where Sufi structures play an important role and in part control “’official Islam.’”
Indeed, he suggests, “in the post-Soviet period during the process of the struggle with radical Islam (‘Wahhabism’), traditional Islam [as embodied in the official structures} has become so politicized that this can lead to the total Islamization of the republic in the near term” (www.fondsk.ru/article.php?id=1520 and http://www.fondsk.ru/article.php?id=1521).
Dobayev begins his article by describing the complexity of religious life in Daghestan, a complexity that calls into question most if not all of the categories that Moscow academic specialists, religious leaders and government officials use when they attempt to describe what is going on and what the Russian state should do.
Religiosity varies by region, with the southern parts of Daghestan less religious than other segments of the republic, by residence, with rural people far more attached to the faith than urban ones, and by ethnicity, with Avars, Dargins, and Kumyks far more religious than Lezgins, Laks, Tabasarans and Rutuls.
These differences in term affect the 2240 religious organizations (overwhelmingly Sunni mosques) that exist in Daghestan, even though almost all of them are subordinate to the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Daghestan that supervises more than 2500 religious leaders and that has been subordinate to Mufti Akhmad Abdulayev since 1998.
The various trends have both their own domestically produced magazines and Internet sites and also rely on an enormous quantity of imported Islamic literature, much of which is difficult to categorize according to the traditional, fundamentalist, and Sufi categories that Russian officials insist on employing.
But more important than anything else among Muslims in Daghestan, Dobayev argues, are the Sufi orders. At present there are 19 sheikhs from the Naqshbandiya, Shaziliya, and Qadiriya orders, whose adepts include as many as 55,000 people, many of whom are within the government and take orders from their sheikhs.
The sheikhs, the Rostov scholar says, “are ever more insistently penetrating the political and economic structures of north Caucasus society.” And in Daghestan at present, he continues, “certain ministers and serious entrepreneurs are themselves murids [adepts] of the sheikhs” who can secure virtually any decision they deem necessary.
The sheikhs in Daghestan are so strong, he argues, that many Sufi leaders are shifting the center of their activities to Moscow, Siberia, Stavropol and Krasnodar, where their activities among Daghestani diasporas are both spreading the Daghestani arrangements and enhancing the influence of its followers among Muslims across the Russian Federation.
The interpenetration of traditionalist and Sufi Islam is so great that it is difficult if not impossible to separate them, at least in Daghestan, but together, their “main opponent and antagonist” includes those normally called “fundamentalists” who seek a return to the time of the Prophet.
These groups were radicalized during the course of the second Chechen war, Dobayev suggests, and now operate in underground networks. Their youth organizations – the so-called “’young jamaats’” – are especially active with many of their members having received training abroad.
The Russian government has adopted “an extremely tough approach” toward these groups, but this has not worked in a double sense. On the one hand, because they are better trained than their Islamic establishment counterparts, they thus are spreading their message more generally.
And on the other, by its obsessive focus on the fundamentalists and its assumption that the traditionalist Muslims are in its corner, Moscow and its local backers are ignoring the way in which Sufism is changing the traditionalist Muslims in ways that are already making them a more formidable challenge than the fundamentalists could ever pose.
But in his detailed essay, Dobayev may have ignored what is the most significant aspect of this situation: To be sure, the Russian government and its supporters may have made a bad bet but only because in the short term at least, the period for the modernization of Islam in the Caucasus, Moscow does not have any good one available.

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