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Not Another Chechnya

The activity of Islamic radicals in Tatarstan should be neither exaggerated nor ignored.

by BBC Monitoring 23 August 2012

Text of report by Russian news website, often critical of the government, on 16 August


[Article by Aleksey Malashenko, a member of the research council of the Carnegie Moscow Center]


The recent terrorist act in Kazan put an end to the illusion that Tatarstan, in contrast to the North Caucasus, would succeed in precluding the radicalization of religious feelings.


Valiulla Yakupov
The twofold terrorist act in Kazan in July – the attempted murder of Tatarstan Mufti Ildus Fayzov and the murder of Valiulla Yakupov, leading theologian and ideologist of "traditional" Hanafi Islam – raised many questions that still have not been answered. The authorities' reaction to the terrorist act, however, whether appropriate and reasonable or, conversely, excessive and "nervous," will affect the state of affairs in the country's Muslim regions, including the Volga zone and the Caucasus, and consequently will affect the atmosphere throughout the country.


We have to wonder what actually happened in June. The attempt to blame everything on strictly commercial disagreements over the profits on Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca seems dubious. This explanation certainly would simplify the situation for Tatarstan's politicians, but it sounded dubious to most people from the start. A second explanation sounds plausible, but it puts the Tatarstan establishment and the Muslim clerics loyal to it in an uncomfortable position. This explanation is that the terrorist act was organized by local Wahhabi-Salafi-fundamentalist-Islamists – in the context of the state of affairs in today's Russian Muslim community, there are no fundamental differences between them.


It is important to point out, however, that whatever they may be called, all of them oppose Tatarstan's so-called traditional Islam. The division of Islam into traditional and nontraditional forms is taking place in Tatarstan, in the North Caucasus, and in Central Asia (in the Muslim world, in general), and the two Islams are in a state of permanent conflict, accompanied by clashes between the opposing sides.



This battle is not only religious, but also ideological and political. It is a fight for influence over the minds of Muslims, for control of the mosques, religious institutions, and universities, and ultimately for the society.


In the case of Tatarstan's local "Wahhabites" – we will call the Islamic opposition members what they usually are called by journalists and politicians – what do they actually want? First, they want to prove their superiority to traditional Islam, which is less insistent on the need to observe Sharia rules, and to the clerics, who are too loyal to the authorities and have taken an overtly conformist stance. Second, they are striving for affiliation with the global radical Islamic movement and already feel that they are part of it. Third, they are seeking an opportunity to adhere to the Islamic way of life, to live by Sharia laws, and if this is not possible, to secede from Russia and establish their own Islamic state.


The last of these features gives the "Wahhabites" something in common with radical nationalism, which was already evident in Tatarstan in the beginning of the 1990s but never became a broad and influential current.


Even now, it appears that the nationalist-separatists have no chance of becoming a mass movement, but their interaction with the "Wahhabites" is giving them extra attention.


No one knows how many supporters of "Wahhabism" there are in Tatarstan. Some say there are only a few dozen and others say there are a few hundred. The figure of 3,000 has also been cited. Judging by the experience of the North Caucasus, it would be virtually impossible to come up with the exact number. Something else is obvious, however: Imams sharing "Wahhabite" beliefs are officiating and preaching in at least a few dozen of the 1,000 mosques in Tatarstan, including some in the republic's largest cities – Kazan, Naberezhnyye Chelny, Zelenodolsk, and others. And people are listening to them because their expert sermons – hundreds of young Tatars were educated at Islamic universities in the Arab countries and Turkey – combine religious instructions with appeals for social justice and honest governance Russia (including non-Muslim Russia) needs.


The "Wahhabites" are particularly popular with young people, some of whom are disillusioned with the traditional Islam presented to them so listlessly by members of the official clergy.


The radicals in Tatarstan have had more contact with people sharing their views in the North Caucasus and Central Asia in recent years. People from those places, particularly Chechnya, come to the republic or to the Volga zone in general, settle down there, establish business and religious contacts, and promote stronger religious feelings among the local Muslims. Some imams in the Volga zone say that more than half of the people present at their regular Friday prayers are from the North Caucasus.


The situation in Tatarstan attracted the attention of radicals in the Caucasus long ago. Their leader, Doku Umarov, openly urges his supporters to go to Tatarstan and other locations in the Volga zone, organize a radical Islamic (and even insurgent) movement there, and start a jihad. In 2006, Umarov was already announcing the establishment of the Idel-Ural Vilayat (an administrative unit of the so-called Islamic Emirate).


Members of a radical organization called Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party) come to the region from Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan, and set up international cells with the participation of local Muslims. The supporters of Hizb al-Tahrir have confined their activity to propaganda and the distribution of religious literature, but their influence is slowly but surely growing stronger. The participation of these supporters in the demonstrations against the muftiate of Tatarstan attests to this. The Hizb al-Tahrir emblem was seen on the windshields of many of the vehicles in which the opponents of Mufti Ildus Fayzov arrived at Kul Sharif, the main mosque in Kazan.


The activity of Islamic radicals in Tatarstan should not be exaggerated, but it also should not be ignored, which is what the republic authorities sometimes do. Yes, the majority of Tatars still profess traditional Islam and the activity of the Wahhabites actually irritates them.


On the other hand, it would be wrong to ignore the existence of a tendency toward the radicalization of Islam in Tatarstan, especially among youth. The influence of radicals from outside the republic is also growing stronger.


The recent terrorist act in Kazan put an end to the illusion that Tatarstan, in contrast to the North Caucasus, would succeed in precluding the radicalization of religious feelings. Furthermore, Islam in Tatarstan, just as the rest of the world, is inseparable from politics, which is creating a highly critical situation in the republic.


Time will tell whether the authorities – local and federal – will succeed in precluding the escalation of the conflict. They did not succeed in doing this in the North Caucasus.

BBC Monitoring provides in-depth news and comment from around the world, 24 hours a day, to help governments, businesses, policy makers, and analysts keep abreast of political, security, and defense-related developments worldwide.

Source: website, Moscow, in Russian 16 August 2012

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