POLITIZATION OF ISLAM IN DAGHESTAN: THE FACTORS BEHIND IT (1987-2002)

Amirkhan MAGOMEDDADAEV


Amirkhan Magomeddadaev, Ph.D. (Hist.), assistant professor, State University of Daghestan, head, Center of Oriental Studies, Institute of History, Archaeology, and Ethnography, Scientific Center of Daghestan, RAS (Makhachkala, Russia)


There is a widely shared opinion that the Islamic boom of the Northern Caucasus started in the early 1990s.1 Indeed, while in 1983 there had been 27 mosques in Daghestan, by 2001, there were 1,595 of theman increase of 59 times.2 In the latter half of 1987 and 1988 the republic was shaken by mass rallies of the faithful who demanded a permission to build mosques, open madrasahs, perform hajj, etc. It is common knowledge that Daghestan is the most Islamic of all the subjects of the Russian Federation. The share of the faithful in the total population is probably the greatest in the former Soviet Union.

It should be said that as soon as perestroika started all sorts of Arab, and not only Arab, missionaries flocked to the republic. At first it was hard to find out who they were and what aims they pursued in Daghestan. They brought huge amounts of Islamic literature of all sorts: the Koran, tafsirs, etc. In 1986 in the village of Orota (Khunzakh District) I personally saw how an Uzbek from Bukhara and a Pakistani student from Kiev were distributing books published in Saudi Arabia. The local Muslims who did not know the Arabic and could read only Adjam (the Avar language written in Arabic script) willingly snatched the books and reverently kissed them as published in the Prophets homeland. When I asked about the reason to distribute Arabic books among those who could not read them I got an answer that in 10 to 15 year time there would be enough people to read and understand the books.

The 70 years of building the shining future left Daghestan nearly without experts to assess the books. As a rule these people lived (or are living) high in the mountains and sympathized neither with the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims nor with the state power structures. On the whole, the antireligious policies the authorities were pursuing in the past deprived the republic of intellectual Islam. There are practically no Muslim theologians and faqihs left who would know both Islam and the Arabic language, two only keys to genuinely profound and competent judgment of the meaning of Islam. At the same time, one can agree with K. Khanbabaev who has written that despite repressions there were clandestine lessons of the Koran and the most necessary Islamic rites (janaz-namaz, makhara, etc.). This was especially widespread in Muslim schools in Avar, Darghinian, and Kumyk villages.

Some of the most talented and dedicated pupils from deeply religious families continued studies in other schools irrespective of their ethnic affiliation. (It should be added that the parents religious affiliation was of little importance: even the most confirmed atheists could not prevent their children from continuing religious education because of public opinion that is of great importance in the countryside.) Each of the teachers (sheikhs) knew all his colleagues and maintained contacts with them through loyal murids, personal meetings, letters in Arabic, etc. For example, having studied in an Avar village with a sheikh who specialized in fiqh the pupil (tilmiz) could continue his education, on the strength of a letter of recommendation, in a Kumyk or Darghinian village with a specialist in rhetoric, then move to another district to study tasawwuf, and to another teacher who taught grammar. Ethnic affiliation of the teacher and the pupil was of no importance: they spoke in Arabic; over time, the pupil learned the native tongue of his teacher. The binomial teacher/pupil or sheikh/murid never disappeared from Daghestan though at times (especially in the 1930s) their number dropped to the absolute minimum.

In Soviet times, Daghestani tilmizes could continue their education either in Astrakhan where there was a deeply religious Daghestani diaspora with the roots going deep into the past or in a village near the city of Frunze (now Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan) where Darghins and Avars had been extradited to in the 1930s.

Islamic radicalism was also brought into the republic by Arab students (the first group of them arrived in 1982-1983) who studied in the medical college (now academy) and the State University of Daghestan in Makhachkala. Students from Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and other Islamic states brought books, videos, badges, calendars, etc. in great numbers. At first they were greatly popular with the locals who willingly gave them fruit and vegetables in the markets, invited them to their homes; the faithful from mountain villages came to the capital to have a look at genuine Arabs and invite them to their homes.3

Descendants of Daghestani emigrants from Syria and Jordan who came to study in Makhachkala with the help of the Vatan (Homeland) organization caused a real stir: not only their relatives but also absolute strangers made much of them. The media joined in general adoration.

In August 1992, Makhachkala hosted the World Congress of Daghestanis that set up the World Association of Daghestani Compatriots (WADC). Some of the descendants were connected with religious organizations; there were also several communists.4

D. Makarov has written correctly: After the collapse of communist power in 1991 the republic started actively restoring old mosques and building new ones, local religious communities (jamaats) were registered, new religious schools opened, more religious books published. The Daghestani Muslims got a chance to freely communicate with Muslims in other countries.5

In the 1990s, the republican leaders and prominent politicians were caught in general religious enthusiasm (after all common Muslims were their voters) together with secular atheist intelligentsia. Newspapers, magazines, TV and radio offered a huge variety of materials and interviews on religious subjects very much in fashion at that time. Every prominent politician or businessman publicly demonstrated his respect for Islam and as publicly donated money to another mosque. Madrasahs were mushrooming in the mountains and on the valley, in cities and towns; the republican radio offered lessons of Arabic; Segals textbook of Arabic (30 thou copies of which were printed) illustrated with Koran texts and excerpts from other religious books became a bestseller.

The Foreign Languages Department of the State Pedagogical Institute (now Pedagogical University) of Daghestan was the first in Russia to open an Arabic language department followed by a department of the Turkish. Later an Oriental studies department that concentrated on the Arabic language was set up at the History Department of the State University. The Arabic language forms part of the curricula at the department of Daghestani philology and the Foreign Languages Department. In 2002, the State University received a Department of Oriental Studies where the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish languages are taught.

It was at the same time, in the 1990s that young Daghestanis started leaving the republic in great numbers either with the connivance of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Daghestan or because the Administration did not know that. This happened because many of the young people wishing to get higher education were too poor to pay for it at home. They were willingly accepted as non-paying students in religious centers and educational establishments in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, Jordan, Tunisia, etc. In this way the Islamic institutes of these countries received the poorest and embittered young menthere is no doubt that there was a certain number of children from deeply religious families and bad pupils who failed entrance exams at home among them. The majority, however, belonged to the class of have-nots. In other words, they were young men who could have got secular education at home had they enough money to pay for it. There was another reason behind an outflow of young menit postponed conscription for an indefinite period. It was hard time for the army because of hostilities in Chechnia and general social disarray of Yeltsins epoch. At the same time, it was easy to go abroad: one had to pay for a tourist visa to Turkey, apply there to any of numerous Muslim charities, and select an Islamic institute in any Islamic state. Fundamentalist madrasahs pay students considerable grants, from $20 to 100 a montha lot of money for boys from poor families.6

The republics religious life is not absolutely serene: the rapidly growing number of those who know the Arabic (graduates of madrasahs, secular institutes, and Islamic institutes in other countries) and not always agree with various Islamic trends (that, naturally, cannot but affect their studies) as well as those displeased with the fact that the Spiritual Administration (composed of Naqshbandiya murids7 and the most influential sheikhs) cannot extend its control to all madrasahs and mosques cause what can be mildly described as variety of opinions.

Those who left the country in the early or mid-1990s to study abroad are gradually coming back to find themselves at the roadside. All posts that they could have claimed (imams of mosques, teachers in Islamic educational establishments) as well as posts in the Spiritual Administration were filled with graduates of the local madrasahs controlled by the Naqshbandiya sheikh.

It should be said in all justice that those who studied in Arab countries have a much better command of the Arabic and more profound knowledge of Islamic disciplines yet the above-mentioned posts are filled not according to knowledge but according to the degree of personal loyalty to the sheikh and the Spiritual Administration. I can only add that not all graduates of Islamic schools in other countries are Wahhabis. In this way social outcasts of the 1990s remain outcasts in the 2000s. This may aggravate the situation a great deal: described as Wahhabis by the Spiritual Administration they serve as a center of attraction for those displeased with it as well as for neo-Wahhabis (who put aside machine-guns and are fighting against the authorities with all sorts of peaceful means).

One should take into account that today there is no agreement among those who until recently formed a united front against Wahhabism (the name reserved in the republic for radical Islam or fundamentalism). Certain anti-Wahhabis in Daghestan use the terms fundamentalist and Wahhabi interchangeably though the idea of fundamentalism is much wider than that of Wahhabism.8 The Wahhabi movement was never uniform: different trends united to oppose the threat of anti-Wahhabism. In fact there are three wings in it. The moderate wing operates under Akhmad-kadi Akhtaev from the village of Kudali (Gunib District) where he opened a madrasah for local young men and students from other republics. This structure also comprised the Al-Islamiya movement that published the Znamia islama (the Banner of Islam) newspaper. The centrists are headed by Bagautdin Kebedov (Baga ad-Din Muhammad) from the village of Santlada (Tsumadinskii District). It is supported by a foreign Al-Haramain (Two Sanctuaries) organization and publishes the Caliph newspaper. In 1996, it opened an Islamic structure called Kavkaz in Makhachkala and Kiziliurt. The extreme Wahhabi wing was headed by Anguta Omarov (Aiub of Astrakhan) born in the village of Kvanada (Tsumadinskii District) who studied under Bagautdin Kebedov.9

Branches of foreign Islamic organizations that until mid-1999 actively operated in the republic did a lot to politicize Islam and increase tension. They were: the International Al-Igasa (Salvation) Organization based in Saudi Arabia; the U.S.-based Saar Foundation and Al-Hairiya (Charity); Ibrahim al-Hairiya with headquarters in Egypt, etc.10 Their officials taught in the Islamic university in Makhachkala housed in the building previously used by a college of music. The brothers Karachaev, well-known Daghestani businessmen and politicians, organized the university and patronized it. After the stormy events of August-September 1999 all Arab teachers were deported yet the vacated posts were immediately filled by the universitys former graduates who continued the previous trend.

The Turkish language in the State Pedagogical University of Daghestan was taught by Turkish citizens hired by a Turkish college in Makhachkala. Nearly all of them graduated from private Islamic and state higher educational establishments and nearly all of them turned out to be murids of Sheikh Fethullah Gülen or members of the pan-Turkic Bozkurt Party headed by Alparslan Turkeş. Over time, the Gülen murids pushed the Bozkurt members out of the university and the college yet all of them were deported after the events of 1999. Today Daghestani teachers work in the college. The republican media insist from time to time that it should be closed.11 The students parents object to closing down the college (now called lyceum) and to deporting the Turkish teachers on the ground that they ensured an adequate level of teaching English and Turkish, etc.12

In his definitive work Islamskie orientiry Severnogo Kavkaza (Islamic Landmarks of the Northern Caucasus) Aleksey Malashenko has asked the question which all Russians want to ask: Does Islamic threat emanate from the Caucasus? He offers convincing arguments to demonstrate that these fears are unfounded and says: One can say that the threats to stability of the southern macroregion of the Russian Federation are being formed in the Northern Caucasus yet they are not rooted in religion. They are formed by purely material, social, economic, and political factors. It seems that more likely than not the politicians evoke the Islamic threat to cover up their own impotence in dealing with the key problems on which the regions prosperity hinges. At all times Islam has been, and remains, more than a religion. It is a factor that forms ethnic identity, social organization of the Muslim community and its political orientation. To prevent aggressiveness authorities should follow a reasonable strategy and tactics in the region.13 Z. Arukhov, an expert in Islamic extremism, has written: Each of the radical Islamic movements will try to develop a strategy and tactics of its own to fit each particular country.14

From time to time the federal and local mass media carry analytical articles about fundamentalists, Tarekat followers, atheists, etc. In August 2001, they estimated the number of fundamentalists as about 60 thou (3 percent of the total population).15 This is probably true if we lump together their three categories. The first is formed by the so-called individual fundamentalists who represent everyday fundamentalism. They strictly abide by the Koran and Sunnah. Their total number is unknown: these people avoid all contacts including contacts with sociologists and other researchers; they shun politics, and have moved away from the Tarekat followers and extreme radicals. Their number will depend on the social, economic, and political situation in Russia and Daghestan, the situation in their families and on the policy carried out in the region.

Extreme radicals comprise the second group: they are members of military-political (terrorist) sects prepared to use force to establish an anti-constitutional theocratic regime. Part of the jobless young men, the poorest peasants in the distant and backward regions pin their hopes on them. They are especially attracted by condemnation of luxury and avarice, corruption and the domination of clan and ethnic groups in certain financial, economic, and power structures and hail the ideas of equality and unity of all Muslims, of social harmony, etc. Let me remind the reader that these ideas were very popular in the good Brezhnev times that knew neither large-scale wars, nor lawlessness: this adds attraction to the ideas of radical extremists. The Wahhabis concentrate public attention on widespread corruption in the bodies of power, higher educational establishments, and the law enforcement structures; a wide social and property gap between various social and ethnic groups; hard life of those who make their own living, no rule of law, etc. This is readily accepted by the poorest sections.

At the same time, prospering members of certain large jamaats that used to live on transit trade between Iran, Azerbaijan, and the south of Russia (the Karamakha area) have also embraced the Wahhabi ideas.

Graduates of Islamic universities of the East (though not all of them) who have no respect for the local Sufi traditions form another Wahhabi group. They do not respect the republics state and social order, and the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims. A small section of secular intelligentsia that has acquired a new meaning of life and a possibility to show its worth sides with this Wahhabi group.

The West, the United States in the first place, has plunged into North Caucasian studies while the North Caucasian diaspora in the Near and Middle East is mainly interested in the situation of Imam Shamils descendants.16 The North Caucasian studio of Radio Liberty started broadcastings in the Avar, Adighe, and Chechen languages though its listeners in the republic are relatively few. In the first place TV has pushed radio to the background; second, not all people have short-wave radio sets, third, Russian TV supplies enough truthful information so people feel no need to seek it elsewhere as it was in Soviet times. Today the nature of broadcasts of Radio Liberty is moderate probably because of a more democratic character of Russias social and economic order yet nobody can predict what might happen in the future and how many people join (or leave) the radios audience. Today, its most faithful listeners belong to the diaspora in other countries who want to listen to their native tongue. They are deprived of Daghestani broadcasts that do not reach the far abroad and the ethnic Avars living in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and other states.

Future developments in the republic will depend on the social, economic, personnel, ethnic, and religious policies of the federal and republican authorities.


1 See: V. Bobrovnikov, Islam na postsovetskom Severnom Kavkaze (Daghestan): mify i realii, in: Islam na postsovetskom prostranstve: vzgliad iznutri, ed. by A. Malashenko and M.B. Olcott, Moscow Carnegie Center, Art-Biznes-Tsentr, Moscow, 2001, p. 72.
2 See: K.M. Khanbabaev, Islam v sisteme dukhovnykh tsennostei Dagestanskoy intelligentsii, Bolgaria, Daghestan, Turtsia, Issue VI, Makhachkala, 2001, p. 131.
3 I heard this from several Arabs of the first generation, i.e. who had arrived in the 1980s. Having graduated from the institute they remained in Makhachkala, worked in hospitals, and married Daghestani women.
4 In 1983-1984 in his interviews to Daghestani media Fasikh Baderkhan who studied at the Department of History of the State University of Daghestan said that he was a member of the Syrian Communist Party.
5 D.V. Makarov, Ofitsialniy i neofitsialniy islam v Daghestane, Moscow, 2000, p. 51.
6 See: I. Rotar, Pod zelenym znamenem. Islamskie radikaly v Rossii i SNG, Airo-XX Publishers, Moscow, p. 20.
7 For more detail, see: K.M. Khanbabaev, Sufism v sovremennom Daghestane, Bolgaria, Daghestan, Turtsia, Issue V, Makhachkala, 2000, pp. 70-75.
8 See: I. Rotar, op. cit., p. 17.
9 For more detail, see: V.O. Bobrovnikov, A.A. Iarlykapov, Wahhabity Severnogo Kavkaza, Islam na territorii byvshey Rossiiskoy imperii. Encyclopedic dictionary, Issue 2, Moscow, 1999, p. 20.
10 For more detail, see: K.M. Khanbabaev, Etapy rasprostranenia wahhabizma v Daghestane, Alimy i uchenye protiv wahhabizma, GUP Daghestanskoe knizhnoe izdatelstvo, Makhachkala, 2001, pp. 105-121.
11 See: R.I. Seferbekov, Kto zhe takoy Giulen (ili dlia chego Turtsia obuchaet nashikh detey), MK-Daghestan, 19-26 April, 2001.
12 See: B. Uzunaev, Ne nuzhen nam kolledzh turetskiy? (Sudebnaia drama v 3-kh chastiakh), Novoe Delo, No. 4, 25 January, 2002.
13 A.V. Malashenko, Islamskie orientiry Severnogo Kavkaza, Moscow Carnegie Center, Gendalf, Moscow, 2001, p. 169.
14 Z.S Arukhov, Kharakter i formy vneshnego vliania na islamskiy radikalizm v Daghestane, Gosudartsvo i religia v Daghestane. Informatsionno-analiticheskiy biulleten Komiteta Pravitelstva Respubliki Daghestan po delam religiy, Makhachkala, No. 1, 2002, p. 75.
15 See: Nezavisimaia gazeta, 8 August, 2001.
16 See: Vek, No. 26, 12 July, 2001.

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