ISLAM IN THE STAVROPOL TERRITORY

Pavel KRAYNIUCHENKO


Pavel Krayniuchenko, Ph.D. (Hist.), associate professor at the Northern Caucasus Civil Service Academy Piatigorsk affiliate (Piatigorsk, Russian Federation)


The Stavropol Territory, with an area of 66,200 square kilometers, comprises 26 administrative districts, two cities under territorial jurisdiction, and 267 rural councils. The uniqueness of its geographic position consists in that, located in the central part of the Northern Caucasus, it borders eight RF components, including Daghestan, Chechnia, North Ossetia-Alania, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, which are part of the Caucasian Muslim belt. Hence the political importance of the Stavropol Territory as a kind of Russias shield against the penetration of Islamic extremism, as will be shown below.

As of 1 January, 2002, the territory had a population of 2,654,200, including 83 percent of ethnic Russians and 4 percent of other ethnic Slavs; in all, there are more than 100 ethnic groups living here, which makes Stavropol a politically and ethnically diverse territory. It is also a multi-faith territory. The majority of its ethnic Russian and other Slavic population is nominally Russian Orthodox Christians, but there are also Old Believers, Protestants, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovahs Witnesses, and others. Ethnic Armenians in the Stavropol Territory are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church. A number of ethnic groups traditionally practice Islam (approximately 6 percent of the population), the second most important religion in the territory. The largest ethnic groups practicing Islam are Darghins, Nogais, Chechens, Karachays, Turkmen, and Tatars (see Table). The majority of Muslims living in the Stavropol Territory speak Turkic languages: Azeris, Balkars, Karachays, Kumyks, Nogais, Tatars, Turkmen, and Meskhetian Turks. As of now, there are 16 registered Islamic (Hanafi Madhab Sunni) communities, under the jurisdiction of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Karachaevo-Cherkessia and the Stavropol Territory (SAMKCS), based in Cherkessk (the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia), and 24 religious groups.

Table

Ethnic Breakdown of Muslims in the Stavropol Territory

Ethnicity

Number (in thousands of people)

1 January, 1990

1 January, 1995

1 January, 2000

Abazins

2.9

2.9

3.0

Avars

6.25

5.9

6.4

Azeris

9.45

9.9

10.3

Darghins

32.74

38.3

37.2

Ingushes

1.28

1.2

1.3

Kabardins

5.45

5.4

5.5

Karachays

13.41

13.2

13.4

Kumyks

6.1

6.0

5.6

Lakhs

2.63

2.7

2.6

Lezghians

5.18

5.3

6.6

Nogais

15.56

18.2

19.8

Tabasarans

3.72

3.8

3.9

Tatars

10.45

10.9

13.7

Meskhetian Turks

1.62

1.7

1.8

Turkmen

11.34

12.5

13.2

Circassians

2.06

2.1

2.2

Chechens

15.0

14.1

14.2

TOTAL

145.4

154.1

160.7

It should be noted that the impact of Islam on the sociopolitical activity of various diasporas of ethnic Muslims varies considerably. Thus, to Chechens and Daghestanis, business interests come first, so they do not support ethnic or religious extremists so as not to jeopardize their economic interests. Furthermore, these two diasporas appeared in the Stavropol Territory much later than others (they are still in the formation process, unlike, say, Nogais, who are in effect an indigenous people), as a result of which religion-wise, they are oriented more toward their respective republics. Neither do the Kabardins or Circassians show much religious activism, which, experts note, is generally typical of Adighe mentality.

Southwest areas, bordering Karachaevo-Cherkessia, are populated by Karachays, who in the early 1990s took an active part in an Islamic revival movement in the territory, which reflected corresponding processes in said republic. Jumping ahead a little, it will be noted that attempts by Karachay national separatists to get them involved in forming a Karachay Imamate were a factor in the activism of people who were born in Karachaevo-Cherkessia.

Over the past 15 years, the status of Islam in the territory has undergone considerable evolution, which could be divided into several stages. We will now consider them in relation to the principal players in this process. These include the state as represented by governing authorities relying on a legislative base and a network of executive and other structures; communities of traditionalist Hanafi Madhab Muslims; and Salafi groups (North Caucasian Wahhabi local chapters). Although the activism of these players varied at each particular stage, just as were the methods and means that they used, analysis of their activity is key to understanding the processes that unfolded in the territory as well as in the south of Russia as a whole.

At Stage 1 (1988-1991), great changes were occurring in the ideological sphere in the Soviet Union, related to the disintegration of the Communist ideology as well as of the state itself. This stage was marked by democratization and liberalization of the status of religious communities in the U.S.S.R. with religious groups and institutions actively reviving (and new ones emerging) in the country. Religious ideology seeks to fill a moral vacuum. The population turns to core values, including traditional religions. On 25 October, 1990, the R.S.F.S.R. Supreme Soviet passed the Law on Freedom of Religion that reinstated civil rights to believers. Thus Art 8, in defining the term disestablishment of Church, stressed the impermissibility of trading on religious feelings in politics, enshrining the right of religious organizations to participate in public life, which was earlier prohibited. The law provided for registration of all religious associations that ask for registration, in a form and structure as deemed expedient and appropriate by believers themselves, proceeding from the norms and regulations of their particular faith. Art 26 specified the right of religious organizations to own property, including property transferred by the state, which created a legal framework for returning to those organizations property that had earlier been taken away from them. Furthermore, religious organizations were granted the right to create their own educational institutions, enterprises, publishing houses, and media outlets, and establish direct international contacts without mediation by the State.

By liberalizing religious life in the country, the law started the revival of religious confessions, including Islam. At the same time, reflecting the general rejection of the Communist past, the aforementioned Art 8 incorporated a provision expressly forbidding the executive to set up agencies on religious matters. With the adoption of the 1993 RF Constitution, this provision resulted in the destruction of the entire system of expert appraisal (Art 11) and state supervision over this sphere (Art 12), leading to chaos in relations between the State and Churcha situation that various extremist groups took advantage of to legalize themselves.

The adoption of the law precipitated the revival of Islam in the country with the ruling authorities not interfering in any way. In reviewing this process in the Stavropol Territory, it should be noted that it was not actually a revival but a second birth of Islam: There were no corresponding religious institutions in the territory, including an acute shortage of clergy and religious literature. Along with reviving Islam, Muslim leaders also fought with each other for power and influence within the community. As a result of that, consolidated Muslim administrations, including in the Northern Caucasus, began to split into separate rival organizations. Thus, on 13 July, 1989, at an emergency session of the North Caucasian Council of Alims, in Makhachkala, Stavropol Territory Kady I. Berdiev announced the creation of a separate spiritual administration. Later on, other Muslim leaders pulled out of the North Caucasian Muslim Administration.

In January 1990, the SAMKCS was formed; I. Berdiev became its chairman and A. Kurdzhiev, imam-khatyb of the Kislovodsk mosque, his deputy in charge of all mosques in the territory. Conditions were being put in place for meeting the Muslims growing spiritual needs: Mosques were built, and it became possible to study at madrasahs. After 70 years of de-facto prohibition, all those wishing could make the hajj.

The lifting of restrictions and the dismantling of the iron curtain enabled young believers to enter Islamic educational establishments in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, and other countries. Nonetheless, territorial capacity was clearly insufficient to meet all spiritual needs, so foreign religious organizations and Muslim states came to the aid, sending missionaries and opening their offices in republics of the territory.

Stage 2 (1991-1994) is marked by penetration of radical Salafi ideology from abroad and the appearance of first Salafi cells. The state completely pulls out of the religious sphere, confining itself to mere registration of new religious organizations. The authorities periodically woo Islamic leaders, inviting them to participate in peacemaking forums and expressing gratitude to them for helping revive traditional religious values. Meanwhile, missionaries from outside the country, who as a rule act on behalf of foreign intelligence services or nongovernmental religious and political organizations (NRPOs), disseminate fundamentalist ideas. Initially, foreign emissaries do not encroach on the authority of local religious leaders, courting them. Only a handful of Muslim traditionalist leaders realize the imminent danger, trying to get the public and the ruling authorities to face up to it. Their voices, however, drown in the general chorus of gratitude to foreign benefactors. Missionaries, tapping the extensive financial resources of foreign NRPOs, work hard to put in place fundamentalist groups, relying on an extremely reactionary Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and the experience of such organizations as Muslim Brothers and Islamic Jihad. Extremist religious literature is brought into the territory while local young men meeting a certain set of requirements are sent to study abroad, primarily to Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and other Middle and Near East countries. Furthermore, Islamic religious-political propaganda centers appear also on RF territory: in the Astrakhan Region, Chechnia, and Daghestan. Semi-legal madrasahs are created where students are also subjected to political brainwashing in the spirit of extremism and religious intolerance. Nonetheless, fundamentalist leaders do not as yet put forward any anti-state slogans.

The specifics of this stage manifested themselves markedly in the Stavropol Territory, frequented by foreign missionaries as of the early 1990s. In 1993, the territory was visited by Muhammad Abdel Rahman, a Jordanian member of the international organization Islamic Revival and founder of Wahhabi communities in the Daghestani villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi. In 1994, Servah Abid Saad, an Egyptian alumnus of the al Azkhar University School of Medicine, attended the opening of a mosque in the village of Kaiasula, Neftekumsk District. In 1992, he arrived in Daghestan as director of the Russian program of the international charity organization Iqraa (Jidda, Saudi Arabia), settling in Kiziliurt, patronized by B. Magomedov (Bagauddin Muhammed), the leader of Daghestani Wahhabis, and getting closely involved in building Islamic fundamentalist structures in the region. As a result of his missionary activity, Servah Abid Saad was charged under the provisions of Art 208 of the RF Criminal Law Code and put on a federal and, through Interpol, international wanted list.1

It was not only foreign missionaries who sought to help Muslims in the territory. In the early 1990s, T. Davliatov, a native of the town of Kulob (Tajikistan), actively spread Islamic ideology in the Neftekumsk and Stepnovsk districts of the Stavropol Territory. Although he did not stay there for very long, religious leaders in the eastern part of the territorythe villages of Kaiasula, Irgakly, Tukuy-mekteb, Kara-Tiube, and otherswho had been subjected to ideological brainwashing and indoctrination, created Salafi cells and established contacts with extremists in Daghestan and Chechnia. Virtually all of them were educated at Wahhabi centers both in Russia (including at the Kiziliurt madrasah, by, among others, Servah Abid Saad2 and B. Magomedov) and abroad. A little later, when the number of Wahhabi jamaats had increased, Islamic leaders started sending their followers to study in Chechnia, to Khattab training camps, also urging them to join the so-called Nogai punitive battalion.

In the early 1990s, N. Kariev, a citizen of Tajikistan and member of the Islamic Party of the Revival of Uzbekistan, appeared in the village of Krasniy Kurgan, Karachaevo-Cherkessia. He got a number of religious authorities in Caucasus Mineralnye Vody involved in propagating extremist Islamic ideas. One outcome of his activity was the division of Muslim communities in several villages into Hanafi traditionalists and Islamic fundamentalists. Furthermore, local Islamists created underground madrasahs in the village of Mirniy, where instruction was provided by Arab teachers, and in the village of Kangly, Mineralnye Vody, employing Daghestani instructors.

Thus, at Stage 2, Islamic missionaries succeeded in creating Salafi cells, primarily in eastern and southwestern parts of the Stavropol Territory, along the border with Karachaevo-Cherkessia.

Stage 3 (1995-1997) is characterized by a sharp politicization and radicalization of Islam in the south of Russia, brought about by, on the one hand, the first campaign in Chechnia and falling living standards in the Northern Caucasus, and the ongoing propaganda of the need to return to Islamic roots, on the other. Young men who have been trained in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other Muslim countries appear in the territory. Having received a theological education there, they replace foreigners, getting closely involved in the Islamic revival movement and even beginning to compete with the old religious elite. Furthermore, some of them send their followers to terrorist training camps in Chechnia. It is important to mention a course that Stavropol Wahhabis were offered at Chechnias Islamic institute: lectures by visiting Arabs and the memorization of the Koran as interpreted by teachers from Saudi Arabia, followed by classes in military training: The study of small arms and light weapons, topography, combat technique, in particular, attacking military convoys, and finally, explosive demolition. In the admission of amnestied militants, explosive demolition experts received especially thorough training: Only those who were completely trusted were selected for the course.3

Foreign missionaries transfer control of the groups that they established to Islamist leaders who have received appropriate training, but continue to perform oversight functions as Islamic slogans get increasingly radical.

In 1996-1998, groups of missionaries from Syria, functionaries of the international Islamic organization Jamaat-i Tablig (Tablig-e Jamaat), financed by the Pakistani intelligence service, frequently visited the territory, spreading extremist ideology among the local Muslims. In the course of public sermons in concentrated ethnic Muslim settlements, those missionaries urged a campaign for the purity of Islam. During private, one on one conversations with believers, they talked about the need for a forcible eviction of infidels from the village, saying that killing a Russian is not a sin, stressing the importance of increasing Islamic influence in local government, and urging young people to dodge service in the Russian military.

Meanwhile, Turkey deployed a lot of effort to get large Turkic-speaking ethnic groups in the territory closely involved in the program of building the so-called Great Turan. One result of that effort was reorientation of the inter-district organization Birlik from cultural revival of the Nogai people to creation of a Nogai autonomy with a special thrust being placed on the inseparability of ethnic and Islamic consciousness. Creation of their own muftiate was seen as an ideological prerequisite to ethnic sovereignty. It is noteworthy that militants from the Khattab-organized Salam and Jihad Nogai battalions acted under the slogan of creating a Nogai statehood, independent of Russia. Turkish intelligence services also tried to use other Turkic-speaking ethnic groups living in the territory for their subversive purposes: Turkmen, Karachays, etc.

Theological literaturepublished locally or brought in from abroad, mainly from Azerbaijanwas used to propagate Salafi ideas undermining the foundations of statehood and fomenting ethnic and religious hatred. Anti-Russian propaganda under religious slogans was conducted by the following periodicals in the Stavropol Territory: the Svobodniy Kavkaz, Chechenets, and Al-Kaf (Grozny) dailies; the Islamskiy poriadok and Zov predkov newspapers; and the Vozrozhdenie (Daghestan) and Malika (Finland) journals.

Muslim traditionalist leaders come up against increasing difficulties in getting along with the Salafis. Their authority plummets. Financial flow, which was originally funneled by foreign NRPOs to official Muslim structuresMuslim spiritual administrationsends up going to young imams. Having neither resources nor energy to put up resistance and feeling abandoned by the ruling authorities, traditionalists try to set up dialog with Salafis, sometimes winding under their total influence.

During Stage 3, the ruling authorities gradually wake up to the seriousness of threats coming from Islamists and other religious subversive groups. There is growing realization that this sphere needs to be given special priority. There is an intensive search for other ways and approaches in relations with religious organizations. On 1 October, 1997, the RF Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, tightening registration rules for new religious organizations, enters into force. In particular, it forbids foreign missionaries to engage in religious activity in RF territory and empowers the state to demand that religious organizations seeking registration present samples of their religious literature. The law helped considerably improve the situation in the religious sphere, making for a weakening of Salafi positions. Nonetheless, Art 27.3 enabled religious groups to avoid state registration and control by formally affiliating with any centralized organization of their co-thinkers or sympathizers that was registered on the basis of the old law.

Attempts to stand up to Islamic radicals are also made on the local level (the Immigration Code of the Stavropol Territory, the Law on Freedom of Conscience in Daghestan, etc.). Yet despite their common sense and pragmatic value, these official documents come into conflict with the RF Constitution and other federal laws, so they are repealed.

Stage 4 (1998-2001) sees exacerbation of the confrontation between the ruling authorities and traditionalist Muslims, on the one hand, and Islamists, on the other. Having increased their membership considerably and inspired by Russias de-facto defeat in the first Chechen campaign, Islamists switch to jihad against the state. Their opponents are, among others, traditionalist mullahs who urge Muslims to resist radicals. Local Islamists resort to terrorist acts, hostage taking, and abductions. In the Stavropol Territory, Islamists start a real war with traditionalists, on the one hand, and the governing authority and the peoples of Russia, on the other.

By 1998, the situation in concentrated Karachay settlements in Caucasus Mineralnye Vody (Mirniy, Narzanniy, and Industrialniy, and the city of Kislovodsk) aggravated as a result of the activity by M. Bidzhiev, the self-styled imam of Karachay. Elected head of a madrasah attached to a mosque in the village of Mirniy, in the Predgorniy District, he started using his official position as a cover for activity precipitating ethnic and intercommunal conflicts, his ultimate goal being to have the Predgorniy District and the city of Kislovodsk incorporated into independent Karachay. Bidzhiev brought under the banners of Islamism and national separatism a number of local residents, forming a group of 35 to 40 people, ages 19 through 35. Those fighters for the purity of the faith took over the village mosque, forcing local traditionalists to travel to Kislovodsk to perform their religious rites.

In December 1998-January 1999, a group of Wahhabis from Daghestan and Chechnia visited a number of remote auls populated predominantly by TurkmenYusup Kulakskiy, Saban Antusta, and Barkhanchak, while extremists from Karachaevo-Cherkessia went to Kulikovy Kopani, Chur, Sharakhalsun, Meshtak Kulak, and Kendzhe Kulak (Ipatovskiy and Turkmenskiy districts). In the course of meetings with members of local Muslim communities, the missionaries made anti-Russian comments. As a result, on 7 through 10 January, 1999, there were clashes between ethnic Turkmen and Russians in the village of Kendzhe Kulak while on 19 January, an ethnic conflict flared up in the village, subsequently growing into a street fight involving approximately 60 people, including residents from the neighboring village of Sharakhalsun.

Members of Wahhabi jamaats in eastern parts of the territory were prosecuted (some of them convicted) on serious crime charges: banditry, participation in illegal armed formations, kidnappings, etc. Furthermore, Wahhabis from RF components bordering the Stavropol Territory committed a number of terrorist acts in the territory in 2000-2001 (as established in court), which, given the traditionally close links between Islamic communities, cannot but arouse particular concern.

Meanwhile, the Stavropol Territory Muslim centerthe SAMKCSweakened by the confrontation with Islamists in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, took a wait-and-see position. While censuring the Salafis for their extremism, Mufti Ismail-khadzhi Berdiev could do little in practice to stop even the most odious figures. Considering the muftis views (say, the mufti effectively stayed out of the process of screening Muslims for the hajj) and in a bid to protect believers against the influence of Salafis in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, whose positions in the republic were rather strong, a number of local religious leaders came up with the proposal to create a territorial Muslim administration. On 20 May, 1999, a meeting of imams, in the village of Kangly, the Mineralovodskiy District, set up a steering group to address the matter. It has yet to be resolved, howevermainly owing to a lack of consensus and unity among the Muslim leaders and their reluctance to sacrifice ethnic interests, which manifested itself especially in the dispute over the election of a mufti. Each proposed candidates only from his own ethnic group, as a result of which the territorys Muslim community remains under the jurisdiction of the SAMKCS.

Stavropol Territory law enforcement agencies implemented a series of measures to curb terrorist and other subversive activities by Islamists, regularly conducting operations Granitsa-zaslon, Vikhr-Antiterror, Modzhakhed, Uragan, Gost, Kurort, Inostranets, etc. Criminal charges began to be pressed under the provisions of Arts 282 and 208 of the RF Criminal Law Code. Yet the imperfection of the current legislation, which lags behind the dictates of the time, proved counterproductive. Furthermore, as international experience shows, policing does not fully resolve the problem of extremism or terrorism as law enforcement oftentimes acts clumsily.

At Stage 5 (2001 up to now), the ruling authorities continue to crack down on Islamists, using a wide array of measuresfrom military to ideological, smashing paramilitary structures of North Caucasian Wahhabis and strengthening the rejection of their ideology among the broad sections of the population that see Wahhabi as a synonym to terror and religious fanaticism.

Nonetheless, action by the authorities does not always take into account Salafi reaction, which results in miscalculations and mistakes. In the meantime, traditionalist Muslims are in a kind of euphoria, taking virtually no action to counter the Salafis. Moreover, having once rallied to oppose external enemies, traditionalists are once again slipping into a power struggle, fighting for privileges.

Salafis, subjected to obstruction on the day to day level and in the media, have found themselves at a crossroads: Either they will finally set themselves against the RF ruling authority and start fighting it underground or they will submit to modernization and religious reform, seeking to strengthen the positions of the Muslim community by acting in conformity with the Constitution. The second option is far more preferable for the ruling authorities, but the Islamists themselves are apparently favoring the first and adopting illegal methods of operation.

The situation in the Stavropol Territory is not an exception in this context: Salafis may have changed their tactics but not their strategic goals. Today they act under the umbrella of alternative organizations: the Association of Mosques of the Russian Federation as well as Islamic parties and movements. Thus, the Islamic Party of Russia declared the intention to spread its influence to the Stavropol Territory, mainly by creating its primary cells there.

Yet another tactical ploy that they use is demonstration of their peaceableness in public while preaching jihad in a narrowly circumscribed circle. Radical leaders are trying to legalize their groups, positioning them in the public eye as cultural associations seeking to preserve traditions and strengthen institutions of civil society.

The present stage is crucial for the ruling authority as erroneous action can trigger a series of negative implications that would be extremely difficult to overcome. Given what the territorial authorities see as a unique situation that has evolved, it is critical to implement an array of measures to stabilize the situation and counter extremists. This should be done in cooperation with traditionalist Muslims. These measures can be conveniently divided into two groups: preventive and special. The former should rely on thorough analysis of the situation within the Islamic community of the Stavropol Territory and a comprehensive program of action to counter religious extremism with the involvement of all institutions of power and civil society. It is important to strike the right balance between Muslim traditionalists and Salafis. Special operations by law enforcement agencies should be designed to neutralize the intransigent elementsi.e., those whose activity goes outside the bounds of RF laws.

Analysis of the contemporary stage and trends in the evolution of the religious setup, taking the unique situation in the Stavropol Territory into account, enables state structures concerned to explore the possibility of conducting an experiment in countering extremist activity, including by religious organizations.


1 See: Islamskiy missioner v Daghestane. Mestnyye kontrrazvedchiki polnostiu vosstanovili kartinu podryvnoy deiatelnosti grazhdanina Egipta Servakha Abida Saada, Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, No. 13, 2001.
2 See: Vakhkhabizm kak prodolzhenie islama? Stavropolskaia pravda, 14 March, 2003.
3 A. Larintseva, Mina zamedlennogo deystviia. Vypuskniki tsentrov Khattaba na uchete, no spokoystviia eto ne pribavliaet, Nezavisimaia gazeta, 2 October, 2001.

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