HOW DAGHESTAN IS OPPOSING RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM
Garun Kurbanov, D.Sc. (Philos.), professor, Department of Culturology, State University of Daghestan (Makhachkala, Russian Federation)
Anxiety is the best word that describes the state of the minds and souls in Daghestan. It is caused by the still very real danger of religious extremism in the republic. It was quite recently that we were all convinced that in the republic, which is home for many confessions and ethnic groups, religious and ethnic extremism was impossible. Life has proved otherwise. In summer 1999 we came very close to a civil war; the terrorist acts of 2001 and 2002 put us face to face with Islamic extremism.
What is Islamic extremism? What are its sources and specific features? Are Islamic extremist organizations a real force or are they a myth? How real is a possibility of their involvement in the republic’s political life? What should be done to oppose it? The last question is the most urgent one.
These are difficult and far from unambiguous questions since the problem itself is closely related to Islam as a complicated social phenomenon and to the social and political situation in the republic. Islamic extremism rejects, in a resolute way, the social norms and rules existing within the Muslim ideology. One should say that not all experts accept the term “Islamic extremism,” therefore I shall offer here several criteria that speak of the Islamic aspect of extremism. First, extremists use concepts directly related to Islam to describe themselves and express their ideas. By this I mean the words “Islam,” “Muslims,” “Islamic,” etc. Second, their activities are related to the Islamic political heritage centered on jihad. Third, they describe any extremist organization as a vehicle of Muslim interests entertained by groups and communities of any scope, from global to local.
In its most general meaning Islamic extremism is the behavior that the majority cannot allow and accept. In fact, the unacceptable nature of ideas, judgments, and actions of certain Islamic organizations that go against the norms and values cherished in Daghestan provide the ground to describe these ideas and actions as extremist. This description is mainly of an estimating nature while the law describes as extremist the ideas and actions of faithful Muslims if they contradict the constitution and the laws.
Islamic extremism has several specific features of its own: first, disdain for all those who profess different ideas and convictions; second, “he who is not with us is against us” position, and, third, a call to aggressive activities that do not rule out violence for the sake of promoting their confessional or political interests.
Islamic extremism was founded by Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian ideologist executed in Egypt in 1966. He presented his ideas of the Muslim society in the books Social Justice in Islam, Milestones, and In the Shadow of the Koran that offered the key propositions of Islamic extremism, as we know it today. According to him, all contemporary societies (including those that had accepted Islam as a state religion) returned to the pre-Islamic period while all his compatriots were regarded as apostates who deserved death. He believed that political struggle and violence were the only instruments of genuine Islamic power that could adjust society to the Islamic model. His logic was: power first, social justice according to the Shari‘a next.
Islamic extremists also rely on works by Ibn Taymiyyah and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab who resolutely opposed any novelties in Islam. They were convinced that a just Muslim rule should follow the letter of the “Divine project” as registered by the Koran and Sunnah, two sources that had taken shape in the Middle Ages.
The ideas of classics of Islamic extremism are neither new nor original—at best they sound like the Bolshevik ideology adjusted to meet their ends. One cannot but be amazed by what they say about society as a conflict-prone phenomenon brimming with contradictions—an idea alien to Islam—that should be changed by force.
These theories sound rather primitive, the corresponding philosophy looks oversimplified. To borrow a term from Soviet psychologist Vladimir Levi one can speak about “narrowed consciousness” in which the axiological system is completely dominated by a narrow range of religious ideas.
It was in the early 1970s that the first Islamic extremist structures came to the front pages of newspapers. They were the Muslim Brothers groups. In April 1974 members of Munazzamat at-Tahrir al-Islami staged an aborted coup in Egypt. Many of our contemporaries can remember what extremists from the Fighting Vanguard, Islamic Jihad, the League of Defense in Islam, the Holy War, the Allah Warriors, Hezbollah, etc. did to forcibly plant justice. Normally they are called Non-governmental Religious-Political Organizations (NGRPO). As a rule they work secretly, act from abroad and stand opposed to the state and official Islam.
All of them have a wide international network, which is another of their specific features. They exploit the ideology of Islamism, political movement that enjoys massive support in certain countries and is striving to channel social development along the norms and dogmas of Islam to emerge on the international arena.
Recently they turned their attention to the former Soviet Muslim regions with their swelling interest in religion to disseminate Islamic extremism there. The Russian Federation and Daghestan as its part were first confronted with the phenomenon late in the 1980s. It was at that time that we heard about “politization of Islam.” Sheikh Muhammad Nazim Mahdi, founder of the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, had the following to say in an interview to Nezavisimaia gazeta: “Islam is a political religion… Many people say that politics and religion should be separated. In case of Islam this would mean dismemberment with a sword. Non-political Islam would be dead and immobile.”1
Early in the 1990s Islam in Daghestan began its transformation into a political doctrine. Social life felt an impact of Islamist parties and movements (Jamiat ul-Muslimin headed by Kh. Khasbulatov, the Islamic Revival Party headed by A. Saitov, the Al-Islamiyya movement chaired by Ahmad-qadi Akhtaev, and others). They offered programs of social changes according to the Islamic principles, insisted that Islam could resolve all the problems that the Muslims and the rest of the world were facing by taking into account not only the interests of individual groups or Muslims but of entire mankind, the environment, and the future generations.2 The parliamentary elections of December 1995 in which two Islamic organizations, the Union of the Muslims of Russia and the NUR Movement, participated stimulated Muslim religious and political figures.
It should be said that the politization of Islam in the structurally fairly amorphous Islamist movement of Daghestan revealed two trends: traditionalism and radicalism. These terms are probably not quite exact, yet they will do as a compass in the local patchy Islamist environment. Those who supported the numerous reviving Tariqat brotherhoods and their sheikhs became traditionalists: they wanted to preserve the Islam of Daghestan, a product of many centuries of development. The radicals wanted to plant the norms of Islam as it exists abroad: they are striving to purify the religion of later local additions, to restore the Islamic morals and to build up an ideal Islamic state. Their social ideal is a “way of life” possible only in an Islamic state, hence their strict political demands.
Many experts tend to distinguish a moderate wing in the Islamic trend that is following the teaching of A. Akhtaev from Kudali and an extremist wing known as Wahhabism that goes after Bagautdin Magomedov and Mukhtar Akaev. At first they differed but little from each other but gradually they developed into two distinctly different systems. Akhtaev insists that the Muslims cannot be sectarians: “By living in this society we are changing it in an Islamic way, through education and instruction.”3 The radicals rejected this: they staked on jihad against those who do not accept their teaching.
The first extremist groups made themselves noticeable in Buinaksk, Makhachkala, and Kiziliurt. On 13 May, 1989 a group of Islamists from Kirghizia, Turkmenia, Kazakhstan and the North Caucasian republics held the so-called congress of Muslims in Buinaksk. The congress decided to capture the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of the Northern Caucasus. Later, they were active in the villages of Agvali (the Tsumadinskiy District), Erpeli (the Buinaksk District), Kaiakent (the Kaiakent District), in villages of the Buinaksk and Gunib districts and in the city of Khasaviurt. They also held several unsanctioned rallies of the believers in the center of Makhachkala.
Under the pretext of reviving Islam in the republic the Wahhabis publish Islamic literature that they give away free, they have set up a wide network of TV and radio centers and educational institutions. They categorically condemn the cult of Muslim saints and pilgrimages to their tombs, they reject the four Sunni madhabs, ban smoking and the use of rosary; they object to Muridism and Sufism, criticize the burial rites that are very popular in Daghestan, distribution of sadak and the reading of the Koran in the cemeteries.
It was obvious that there was an intention to set up an Islamic opposition in Daghestan that would address the following tasks: to undermine the authority of the Tariqat brotherhoods and push them to the margin; to educate the young people in the spirit of non-traditional Islamic canons; to build an Islamic state (on the basis of propaganda of the Islamic world unity). These plans were rejected by the traditionalists who had seized power in the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Daghestan (SAMD).
These irreconcilable contradictions caused large-scale clashes: in 1994 in Makhachkala near the Islamic University; in 1995 in the village of Karamakhi (the Buinaksk District) and in the town of Kiziliurt where the Wahhabi madrasahs were destroyed and teachers from Saudi Arabia driven out. One of such clashes in the village of Verkhnee Miatly (the Kiziliurt District) developed into a massive fight that cost one man his life. Religious schism could be seen in the villages of Agvali, Erpeli, and Kaiakent, and in villages of the Buinaksk and Gunib districts, in Khasaviurt, Kiziliurt, and Makhachkala. In one of the mosques of Makhachkala, at the Dachnoe stop, Friday prayer was nearly disrupted by Wahhabis who had arrived from Kiziliurt, Khasaviurt, Kizliar, and other places.
The media reported on all sorts of religious conflicts every day. Many newspapers wrote about “armed clashes among religious opponents,” about “the authorities that arranged the truce,” about “the religious roots of these conflicts that had not been destroyed,” and added that “the Wahhabis were ready to fight.”
The villages of Karamakhi, Kadar, Chabanmakhi, Vanashimakhi, and Chankurbe of the Buinaksk District were living amid religious and sociopolitical tension. On 8 September, 1996 a large-scale clash took place in Karamakhi. According to the Ministry of the Interior of Daghestan, additional militia units and riot police were moved there. The local administration and representatives of the Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Security Service eased the tension by doing a lot of explanation.
The extremists not only were hostile to the Sufi schools (ran by Said Chirkeiskiy, Magomed-Amin Paraulskiy, and Arslan-Ali Gamzatov) but also opposed many of the local burial, marriage, and prayer customs and rites. They insisted that maulids, zikrs, and high tombstones be banned. On 12 May, 1997 a massive fight in which weapon was used occurred in the Buinaksk District and lasted several hours. Two were killed and two wounded. The heads of the groups accused one another of sectarianism (Wahhabism and Sheikhism). On 14 May shooting resumed and massive fights began. On 15 May the people of Karamakhi at a rally of the jamaats adopted an address to the State Council and the government of Daghestan. They asked, in particular, to disarm all local people, ban the aggressive “Wahhabi” sect and appoint the local imams on recommendations of the local people. On 17-20 May, 1997 the faithful organized their rallies in Makhachkala, Buinaksk, Khasaviurt and in the villages of Gubden, Levashi, Botlikh, Akusha, and Gumbet. All speakers criticized the Ministry of the Interior that had failed to disarm all armed groups, the authorities for their failure to stem “Wahhabism” in Daghestan and the Spiritual Administration for its half-hearted propaganda efforts.
The Muslim clergy became completely divided. Its conformist part strengthened its positions in the SAMD and showed more resolution when pressing against the opponents. The opposition (the Wahhabis) became even more radical and extremist. This confrontation in the Muslim community was both of a direct and indirect nature. The sides were out to plant negative ideas about the opponent, they addressed the public and spoke about destruction of the traditions and the cultural and ethnic specifics of Daghestan that was allegedly going on. Quite often they enlisted the help of the state to squash the adversary. The numerous attempts to reach a compromise between the sides, to pacify the warring parties and to restore law and order invariably failed.
The book by M. Tagaev Nasha bor’ba, ili povstancheskaia armia imama (Our Struggle, or the Imam’s Army of Revolt) became the manifesto of Islamic extremism in Daghestan. The author did not invent the plot—it bears imprint of Qutb’s ideas.
On the whole, the Islamic extremists are guided by the following logic: Allah entrusted people with a task of creating and preserving a society based on His laws, therefore any society that does not rest on the Shari‘a is unnatural and is a crime against God. The extremists are very fond of the “hakimiyya” concept that says: “Nobody of those created by God can establish laws that differ from those established by Allah.” This statement has far-reaching aims that reject all forms of government except Muslim theocracy. No laws except the Shari‘a have any force—those who abide by them commit crimes. In Daghestan the Islamic extremists are preaching a theory of sociopolitical order that is based on Islam and Shari‘a’s unlimited nature. At the level of individual ideas they speak of an unlimited freedom as formulated in the Koran: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256) on the condition that every believer guides himself by the Shari‘a. This statement is obviously a demagogical one: there is no freedom of choice with the lack of freedom in the Shari‘a. They believe that the imamate is the best political system: “In Daghestan the Imam is the highest official. He is selected by all autochthonous peoples at a Daghestani Kurultai. The Imam is the embodiment of the state and the carrier of supreme executive power...”4
The extremists’ strategy and the methods of struggle have passed through three stages. At first they concentrated on education and charity; on the next they mostly worked to organize and train future mojahedin. In his book Tagaev has written: “Endurance, dexterity, skilful use of fire and sidearms are the most important types and forms of physical training.”5 At the third stage violence should be used. This means persistent fight for power and the Islamic order. The extremists tried to realize all the three stages in Daghestan. The first Islamic calls appeared in the Muslim newspapers Put’ islama, Khalif, Znamia islama, Shari‘a, Islamskaia istina that had had no trouble with registering in the republic. Then the Wahhabis started acting. They set up illegal armed units, seized power in Chabanmakhi, established the Shari‘a rule there and annulled all-Russia laws.
One should say that all this happened because of the worsened social and economic situation in the republic, with the help of certain Persian Gulf countries, and in the context of the unsettled Chechen problem. A wide approach will reveal other factors: deep-cutting social and political changes, lack of social stability, the widening property and financial gap, migration to cities, growing unemployment, inflation, non-existing legal protection, etc.
Among the factors that contributed to Islam’s further politization there was one of special importance. As the religious life in Daghestan was changing, certain Arab countries opened their embassies in Moscow. Their missions changed the tactics of the republican Islamic organizations, centers, and parties. The Islamic affairs departments that existed in some of the embassies helped Islamists establish contacts with Islamic centers abroad. The republic was flooded with free copies of the Koran and other religious publications. International Islamic organizations contracted to build mosques and Islamic centers, organize free pilgrimages, studies abroad and many other things. Having created a core group of like-minded people and by abusing the republic’s openness these embassies invited all sorts of Muslim foundations and organizations to Daghestan. The Islamic Solidarity Organization, Ahmed al Daghestani, The Shamil Society, the Nahdat Party, the Jamiat Muslimi and other organizations opened their branches in Makhachkala and other cities. Their main aim was to consolidate Arabic influence among the local people: missionaries from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait, Libya, Albania, the U.K., Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia arrived in the republic by chartered flights.
In fact, there were dignitaries among them such as Mufti of Albania Hafiz Sabri Kochi, Sheikh Muhammad bin Naser al-Oboudi from Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Nazim Adil Kibrisi from Turkey, and others. They came to visit the monuments of ancient Derbent and the Kyrkhlar cemetery where the forty early askhabs of the Prophet who had died for Islam in the 8th century were buried. But there was something else: they came to plant their ideas of social, economic, and political order and found those who shared their views. One should say that extremism in Daghestan was not totally imported. There are many problems under the pressure of which fundamentalism developed into extremism. The processes that were going on in the Caucasus and in Chechnia also played their part. In Chechnia Islam became the integral part of the political superstructure, it actively interfered in administration through the muftiat, the Council of the Ulemas and the Shari‘a courts. This greatly encouraged the Islamists in Daghestan. All sorts of religious-political organizations that were springing into existence there brought the Islamists in both republics closer. In 1992, the Supreme Religious Council of the Peoples of the Caucasus under sheikh-ul-Gaji Allakhshukiur Pasha-zadeh was set up in Grozny. In addition, there appeared the Administration of the Muslims of the Caucasus and the Consultative Council of the Caucasian House International Forum. Decline of the habitual way of life and the shortcomings of capitalism and the market played their role.
At the same time, uncontrolled dollar expansion through Wahhabi centers and emissaries from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Muslim countries is the main channel through the Wahhabi ideas spread in the Caucasus. This is confirmed by classified information that came from the counter-intelligence service of the Russian Federation dated November 1992: “The majority of the emissaries funded by the Islamic Renaissance Party are Wahhabis. Citizen of the UAE Servah Abed Saah who organized a Wahhabi publication in the Kiziliurt and Khasaviurt districts deserves special mention together with Algerian citizen Zarat Abdel Qadir who heads the branch of the International Islamic Organization Spasenie (Salvation) in the Northern Caucasus and in Azerbaijan.”6
According to special services, the Daghestani branch of this organization received $17 million from Saudi Arabia; the emissaries were actively using the structures of the Islamic Cultural Center in Makhachkala. Another Saudi organization, MIOS (Al Igasa), and its leader, a certain Abdel Khamid Jafar Daghistani also displayed activity. According to the Federal Security Service of Russia, while heading the Russian Department of Al Igasa in Saudi Arabia he was also the imam of a mosque in Medina. Since 1992, he had been fulfilling delicate missions in the Northern Caucasus for one of the Saudi special services. In 1994, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia was informed that he became persona non grata in Russia.
Ankara is also helping the Islamists: one of the Turkish agents Ishak Kasap was exposed in Russia. The Islamic organizations of Turkey, the Türkiye Diyanet Vakfi in particular, attach great importance to educating the youth. Every year the Ministry of National Education of Turkey allocates millions for this purpose.
I am not inclined to agree with certain political scientists who overestimate foreign influences. The main threat comes from domestic factors. They are the problems of “internal entropy” that are made worse by the faults, or rather imperfections, of the political system: corrupted high officials and prominent political figures, red tape, democratic “tricks” during elections, the judicial system that lacks independence, and concentration of political life on high levels, embezzlement and bribery. Demographic problems, unemployment, crime, considerable social tension, which is a product of weakened social guarantees, remain unresolved. One should take into account two important factors. First, the public looked at these problems as a “moral” crisis caused by declined religious feelings. Second, the already limited democracy is further limited by the mosque as the only place where political activity was possible. Dissatisfaction could be expressed only through Islam. There was another important factor: in this complicated situation the Department of Religious Affairs failed to create a public, clear, and integral model of state politics in the field of religion in the republic. Neither tactical nor strategic aims were identified in the struggle against the mounting wave of extremism.
Selfish politicians who exploited Islam for their purposes failed to realize that religion has always been connected with egotistical expectations of a reward after death. This dark side of Islam has attracted thousands upon thousands of people with slavish consciousness prepared either to destroy the world or to establish Islam worldwide. As many centuries ago Islam is still a refuge for those who are striving to use force to impose their own order on others. To ignore that any religion, including Islam, may develop in the most dangerous direction irrespective of incantations of those who say that extremism and terrorism have nothing to do with religion or Islam is a strategic miscalculation. This explains why prerequisites for Islamic extremism in Daghestan are still alive.
Islamism left its imprint not only on the philosophy, values and convictions of the majority of people in the republic—it also affected the way its political institutions are functioning and are structured. In Daghestan the religious symbolizes the national. There is a conviction that religion is a way toward “spiritual salvation” and welfare. Many people believe that Islamism has tapped the cultural heritage of the “golden age” of the Muslim community (umma) and the Shari‘a-prescribed moral values and presents the only possibility of preserving the republic’s inner integrity and organic unity. It turned out, however, that Islamism stands on the idea of a perfect society based on social justice as Islam sees it. This is the fundamental doctrine of Islamism. At the early period of Islamic resurrection a group of leaders suggested that Islam should be accepted as the state religion and that the state itself should move toward an Islamic state. Such people say that the republic is ready to embrace their ideas: the majority of its population (who are also voters) are Muslims; the social basis of all political organizations is Muslims while the Islamic organizations are obviously of a mobilizational nature and will be able to control the situation in the republic in case of emergency.
These plans were hard to realize because of different approaches. Some people staked on education and propaganda, and legal parliamentary methods. Others believed that force could create conditions conducive to the Muslim society—this was what the extremists preferred. They planned to seize power by force and plant Islam from above. This will hardly bring success: the extremists’ idea about the republic and their own place in it is absolutely wrong. In addition, the majority rejects the ideology of Islamism.
Today, Daghestan is living in a crisis and should look at other republics that left their crises behind for analogies. Today, anticlerical, anti-Wahhabi and anti-extremist sentiments are mounting, the level of religiosity has somewhat decreased. There is information that today the share of believers is 64.7 as against 73 percent in 1995. This should not breed complacency: there are still many people who think in Islamic terms and are trying to apply Islamic dogmas to the social problems in the republic. This is what sociological polls say. The question “Should the religious organizations participate in the republic’s political life?” drew 41 percent of positive answers. Another question: “Would you prefer to live in a secular or a theocratic state?” produced the following results: 50 percent were for a secular state; 26 percent, for a theocratic state, while 24.1 percent were undecided.7 From this it follows that a considerable part of Daghestanians are for a greater role of Islam in state and public life. Islam and Islamic organizations are becoming part of our political system.
Is this a dangerous trend? Yes. All Muslim countries can serve as an illustration of Islam’s efficiency: in an effort to preserve its political domination it has to embrace alien values thus causing conflicts and schisms inside the confession. An all-embracing, pan-Islamist system of convictions leaves little space for a dialog and a lot of space for intolerance and extremism. The latter is also associated with an inability to recognize the right of others to the truth.
According to many researchers, neither the nations nor the ruling parties or circles, nor society as a whole are prepared to sacrifice anything for the sake of a sub-ethnic pan-Islamic community that the Muslim extremists favor. This is very important for a continued secular nature of the state based on the formula “Religion is the faith of our fathers.”
I am convinced that the government of Daghestan should proceed from the need to de-politicize Islam. The republic cannot embrace Islam as an official ideology and cannot be guided by its prescriptions in its practical and legislative work. In full conformity with the constitutional principle of separation of religious organizations from the state, Islamic and other religious structures should not be allowed to substitute for the bodies of state power and local self-administration, to be involved in the activities of political parties and sit in elected bodies. These limitations are intended to remove conflicts from the religious environment and ensure absolute equality for all confessions. The main task is to neutralize, at least, all religious parties and movements and stem their desire to revive the old “partner” relations with the state when religious organizations served as a screen for all sorts of special services and the KGB and were rewarded with privileges.
It is very important to discard an illusion that the state should do nothing about religions: it should restore its regulatory role and its control over the situation as a whole. The situation when the expert council of the Spiritual Administration is invited to advise the state as religious experts should be ruled out. The Islamic system, like any other religious system, is based on norms, it claims universality and a monopoly on truth, therefore it cannot offer objective opinions about other religious organizations.
The religious organizations should seek state permission to set up religious educational establishments. We should move away from the situation in which loyalty to the powers that be is exchanged for certain state functions conferred on religious organizations. It is obviously convenient to have religious structures at the command to perform the functions of certain sluggish state agencies. This will deepen the conflict inside the confession, add fire to the extremists’ zeal and strengthen the religious organizations’ claims to power. The corresponding structures should take urgent measures to preserve equality of the confessions in the republic and to abide by two constitutions—those of Russia and Daghestan.
Time has come to study in depth the social, political, spiritual and moral landmarks of the Islamic clergy, to identify the nature of relations that tie religious organizations together and the nature of their contacts with the outside world, the secular authorities, and the social and cultural structures.
This information should not be borrowed from the studies produced within spiritual administrations and religious parties that look at the religion as a “sacred animal” not to be seen by the non-initiated. Scholarly works are the source of such information. They look at religion as a social phenomenon and study the way it realizes its functions in society and serves as a motive of human behavior.
1 NG-religia, 27 March, 1997.
2 See: Assalam, No. 16, 1997.
3 Znamia islama, No. 1, 1998.
4 M. Tagaev, Nasha bor’ba, ili povstancheskaia armia imama, Kiev, 1997, p. 15.
6 A. Chelnokov, “Vakhkhabity v Tobol’ske,” Sovershenno sekretno, No. 10, 1999, p. 8.
7 Sociological poll was conducted by the Institute of Religious Studies (see: M.R. Kurbanov, G.M. Kurbanov, Religii narodov Dagestana. Istoria i sovremennost’, Makhachkala, 2001, p. 248.)