Faith under fire: Muslims in Russia

CHERKESSK, Russia Security officials here in Karachayevo-Cherkessiya, a restive republic on Russia’s mountainous southern border, have a secret list of people who are kept under scrutiny. Those on it have committed no crime, but are considered suspect because they are Muslims who practice Islam outside of the state’s sanctioned mosques.

“We know who they are,” the republic’s president, Mustafa Batdiyev, said in an interview. He declined to elaborate, but said the list included about 150 people.

A former member of a committee that compiled it, Murat Kkahtukayev, said the list was far longer.

Ovod Golayev is on it. He lives in Karachayevsk, a city nestled in the foothills of the Caucasus, where he works for a tourist company that organizes skiing and hiking excursions. He wears his hair and beard long. He prays five times a day. He fasts during Ramadan.

In the past month, he said, the police have detained him four times, twice in one day. The last time was on Oct. 28, after two days of violence that killed at least 138 people two weeks earlier in Nalchik, the capital of the neighboring republic, Kabardino-Balkariya.

Golayev, 36, said the Islam he observes was opposed to violence, but he warned that the mistreatment of believers was driving to desperation men like those who took up arms and attacked police and security outposts in Nalchik, men like him.

“They will pressure me enough,” he said, “and then I will blow somebody’s head off.”

Here in the Northern Caucasus, like across all of Russia, Islamic faith is on the rise. So is Islamic militancy and official fear. The result has been tensions like those felt in Europe, where a flow of immigrants from the Muslim world is straining relations with liberal, secular societies.

Only the Muslims of Russia are not immigrants and outsiders, but the indigenous people of the region.

“These are Russian citizens, and they have no other motherland,” President Vladimir Putin said in August, when he met with King Abdullah of Jordan.

In Russia, the struggle over Islam’s place is not seen as a question of whether to integrate Muslims into society, but whether the country itself can remain whole.

The separatist conflict in Chechnya, more than a decade old, has taken on the hue of an Islamic one. And it is spilling beyond Chechnya’s borders into neighboring republics of the Caucasus, where Islam has become a rallying force against corruption, brutality and poverty.

On the morning of Oct. 13, scores of men took up arms in Nalchik – driven mostly, relatives of some said, by harassment against men with beards and women with head scarves and by the closing of six mosques in the city. In Dagestan and Ingushetia, militants have been blamed for an unending series of bombings and killings.

Followers of the Chechen terrorist leader, Shamil Basayev, have claimed responsibility for the deadliest attacks, including the one in Nalchik and before that a similar raid in Ingushetia and the school siege in Beslan in September 2004, which culminated in the deaths of 331 people, 186 of them children.

All have been part of Basayev’s declared goal to create an Islamic caliphate, uniting the Northern Caucasus in secession from Russia.

That goal has little popular support in the region’s other predominantly Muslim republics, but discontent is spreading as the government cracks down. Not all involved in the attacks are hardened fighters of Chechnya’s wars. More and more oppose the hard-line policies the Kremlin takes against anyone who challenges its central authority.

The government has re-created the Soviet-era system of control over religion with the Muslim Spiritual Departments, a sanctioned group that oversees the appointment of Islamic leaders. In places like Nalchik and here in Karacheyevo-Cherkessia, the “official” muftis and imams have themselves been accused of acting to preserve their own status by tolerating the Kremlin’s efforts to repress anyone practicing a “purer” form of Islam.

Larisa Dorogova, a lawyer in Nalchik, whose nephew Musa was among those killed in the fighting last month, said Muslims had appealed to the authorities, both religious and secular, to end the abuse, only to be ignored.

“If they had listened to the letters we wrote – from 400 people, from 1,000 – maybe this would not have happened,” she said.

Officials have denounced those who took up arms in Nalchik with the same broad brush they have used to describe Basayev’s troops. On Wednesday, Putin linked the Nalchik uprising to international terrorists, whom he called “animals in human guise.” But in the Caucasus, where Islamic-inspired violence has killed far more people than terrorism has in Western Europe, the prevailing view is quite different.

“They were all good guys,” Dorogova said of Nalchik’s fighters.

The paradox of Islam in Russia today is that Muslims have never been freer.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and its repression of all faiths led to an Islamic revival over the past 14 years. Islam is officially recognized as one of Russia’s four principal religions, along with Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism. Russia has applied to join the Organization of Islamic States. There are no official statistics, but the number of Muslims is estimated at 14 million to 23 million – 10 percent to 16 percent of Russia’s population. The Muslims are spread across the country, but congregate in several Muslim-majority republics.

Thousands of mosques have been rebuilt and reopened, as have madrasas, including one here in Cherkessk, where 66 young men and women learn the fundamentals of the faith. Among their teachers are four Egyptians.

“We could pray on Red Square and no one would care,” the imam of Cherkessk’s mosque, Kazim Katchiyev, said after evening prayers.

This tolerance of Islam, however, has been strained. Believers outside of the state’s official Muslim departments are increasingly viewed with suspicion because of the radicalization of Chechnya and other republics. They are denounced as Wahhabis, followers of the puritanical sect from Saudi Arabia and a word that has become Russian shorthand for any Islamic militant.

There has also been a violent backlash. On Oct. 14, for example, a group of young men ransacked a prayer house in Sergiyev Posad, near Moscow, badly beating an imam. They shouted, “There is no place for Muslims in Russia,” according to Russia’s Council of Muftis, which represents the spiritual departments.

Mufti Ravil Gainutdin, the council’s chairman, said that the government needed to do more, complaining that state television routinely depicts Muslims collectively as radicals waging holy war against Russia, rather than as members of Russian society.

“If we educate Muslim children to be rebel fighters, ready to do battle, and meanwhile teach Russians to be against Muslims, then we do not have the right policy,” he said. “And so the leadership of this country, the government, must see this and respond to this.”

He warned that government policy in the Caucasus – and its failure to overcome deep social and economic problems – was pushing some to seek refuge in what he considers improperly radicalized forms of Islam.

“If people see social injustice, corruption in the authorities, the unfair assumption of wealth among some and the impoverishment of others,” Gainutdin said, “then that is a cause of unhappiness, of a radicalization of moods, of something that leads to conflict and revolution.”

In Nalchik, many Muslims blamed the republic’s former president, Valery Kokov, for the seething tensions that exploded in violence last month. His Interior Ministry had responded harshly against those who observed Islamic rituals. Arbitrary arrests and beatings were common.

Many among those killed in Nalchik were not hardened fighters, but local residents acting out of what appeared to be desperation. Many were not yet armed, according to officials, but were hoping to seize weapons from police stations.

Among the dead was Kazbulat Kerefov, 25, a lawyer and former police officer. His parents, Betal and Fatima, refused to believe he was a militant, but like many there understood what sparked the attack.

“It was not a terrorist act,” Betal Kerefov said in an interview in the family’s apartment. “It was a revolt.”

Ali Pshigotyzhev, 55, worked as an announcer on state radio for 30 years until he was dismissed, he said, for praying. His son, Zaur, was arrested on Oct. 29 in a wave of detentions that followed the fighting. Pshigotyzhev accused the local imams of, in effect, endorsing the repressions, for fear of losing their status.

“People were patient in this republic, but patience has its limits,” he said in Nalchik’s only mosque. “And a tragedy occurred. And it is only the beginning of the tragedy.”

Such sentiments are what the authorities fear most.

Batdiyev, the president of Karachayevo-Cherkessiya, said his region openly supported Islam. A businessman, he paid for the construction of a mosque in his native village. The republic pays for people to make pilgrimages to Mecca. The last day of Ramadan – which this year was on Thursday – is a holiday in the state.

But Chechnya’s separatists, he said, had hijacked Islam to wrest control of the Caucasus from Russia, instilling an insidious version that is not widely accepted among the region’s comparatively secular Muslims. Leaders like Basayev, he added, were actively recruiting militants across the region, including in his republic, justifying the compilation of the list of suspects.

The separatists “have not yet broken any Russian laws, so no measures – no force – have been used against them,” Batdiyev said. “But we have and are talking to the population and explaining about them, so as to warn any of their possible supporters and to deny them the opportunity to attract more of our young people to their ranks.”

He added, “We cannot accept and cannot agree with the way these people worship.”

In May, security officials raided an apartment here in Cherkessk, killing six people accused of terrorism. Five were local residents. Among the dead were two women, one eight months pregnant, according to Mukhammat Budai, a neighbor of the woman’s mother.

Batdiyev said the raid disrupted a plan to seize a school, as happened in Beslan, but evidence was never detailed.

A similar case happened in February, in Karachayevsk, the city in the foothills where Golayev lives under scrutiny and suspicion. He adopted Islam after serving in the Soviet Army in the former East Germany.

The authorities, he said, feared Islam because they feared the discipline it demands, the defiance it offers in a corrupted society.

“Who needs a person who does not drink, who does not smoke, who has freedom?” he said of the official attitude. “If I am lying drunk on the ground, I am easier to control.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The New York Times, via The International Herald Tribune, USA
Nov. 7, 2005
Steven Lee Myers

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday November 7, 2005.
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