RUSSIA: Religious dispute fuels state oppression of Kabardino-Balkaria Muslims
Conflict between Muslims in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria led to the local authorities' repressive policy towards one party, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Returning from Islamic study abroad in the 1990s, young Kabardin and Balkars insisted upon the removal of what they learnt to be corrupt local customs. While criticism could centre on trivial details – such as the wearing of a hat during prayer – "you only need to strike a match to light a fire," one local Muslim pointed out to Forum 18. Kabardino-Balkaria's Muslim Spiritual Directorate and the older generation responded to the younger Muslims' demands by branding them "Wahhabi" extremists. In part because they saw adherents of stricter Islam as a threat to local traditional and political culture, the republic's authorities backed these claims and instigated a brutal crackdown against them.
The authorities in the North Caucasus republic have backed Kabardino-Balkaria's Muslim Spiritual Directorate in the dispute. In 2003-5 they instigated a brutal crackdown on young Muslims forming an independent jamaat [Arabic: assembly or congregation] (see F18News 19 August 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1172). Organised Islamic activity outside the Spiritual Directorate is now impossible (see F18News 22 August 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1177).
"Revival [of Islam] should be healthy and pure, without bidah [innovation]," local Muslim Ali Pshigotyzhev remarked to Forum 18 in Kabardino-Balkaria's capital, Nalchik, on 24 July. In Adyghe [ethnic group including Kabardin] culture, however, contradictions with Islam persist, he explained. "We never have an event – weddings, birthdays – without alcohol. People say, 'How can you raise a toast without a glass of alcohol?' But Islam rejects that. And if there is something sinful – forbidden in Islam – in Adyghe culture, then we won't do it."
Ali Pshigotyzhev's family has been adversely affected by Kabardino-Balkaria's treatment of Muslims in a number of ways (see F18News 21 August 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1175).
A practising Muslim, local lawyer Larisa Dorogova pointed to similar discrepancies. "An imam might attend a wedding where there'll be alcohol on the table, although he won't drink. Some of the older imams drink a lot, even," she told Forum 18 on 23 July. "Weddings and funerals are also very elaborate – although this has no place in Islam." Muslims at odds with Kabardino-Balkaria's Muslim Spiritual Directorate resolutely oppose such practices, she told Forum 18.
The division affects the republic's law enforcement agencies – staffed by Kabardin and Balkars rather than Russians – local lawyer Magomed Abubakarov, an ethnic Chechen, told Forum 18 on 24 July. "Police might sit and drink vodka, turning into I-don't-know-what while insisting they are believers," he explained. "They say they have a positive attitude towards Islam, but they divide it into 'traditional' and 'non-traditional', which they call 'Wahhabism'. 'Traditional' speaks for itself – Islam plus national traditions, as in Chechnya, where we have many ancestral customs that aren't part of Islam."
"Wahhabism" is a loose term for Islamic extremism commonly used in Russia and Central Asia (see F18News 8 August 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1004).
Contempt for stricter Islam, added Abubakarov, lies partly behind brutal treatment of those accused of the failed 2005 Nalchik uprising by people from almost identical backgrounds (see F18News 18 August 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1171). "They're some kind of different caste. There were even police who were silent when their relatives were detained. They didn't help their own relatives who were being tortured in the next office."
Arsen Mokayev, the brother of one of the accused and himself detained numerous times, described to Forum 18 on 25 July how a police officer might laugh that Allah was "probably on his way but run out of petrol" if a detainee cried out for divine aid while being beaten in custody. "But in an accident, he'll be the first to cry out, 'Help me, Allah!'."
Local officials dealing with religious affairs and a senior detention centre administrator have denied reports of abuse to Forum 18 (see F18News 18 August 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1171 and 19 August 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1172).
While Kabardino-Balkaria is viewed as a traditionally Muslim republic – Islam gained a foothold there by at least the sixteenth century – the population has never been deeply observant. Even by the 1830s, when British traveller Edmund Spencer spent several months living incognito among Adyghe tribes, he noted that they drank alcohol and venerated gods of the wind, livestock and bees while adorning their homes with wooden tablets bearing Koranic verses.
The Stalinist purges of a century later only exacerbated such practices, according to Ali Pshigotyzhev. "Muslims here were completely destroyed. There was no one left to teach people – no one who had studied in Turkey or Egypt. The older people just did what they knew."
By the 1990s, "we didn't know what Islam was," according to Boris Pashtov, who heads Kabardino-Balkaria's Committee for Youth Affairs and Social Organisations, responsible for religious affairs. Not understanding their content, some village elders even used to read journals in Arabic in place of prayers, he noted to Forum 18.
As younger Muslims began to challenge accepted practice in the post-Soviet period, a conflict broke out, Ali Pshigotyzhev told Forum 18. In Adyghe culture, for example, a man always wears a hat, "but the young people got to know that you could pray without a hat, and some did." Older Muslims then began to insist that no one should enter a mosque without a hat: "In some villages you would be chased out of mosques for that." While this might sound trivial, "you only need to strike a match to light a fire," he pointed out.
If the Spiritual Directorate had chosen "a course towards pure Islam from the beginning, the young people would have supported it," Pshigotyzhev, who is 56, maintained. "But they sided with the old people." The Spiritual Directorate, state media and local officials continue to maintain that there is no contradiction between Adyghe culture and Islam, he claimed.
While there are local customs incompatible with Islam, "these are of secondary importance," Mufti Anas Pshikhachev of the Spiritual Directorate insisted to Forum 18 on 25 July, "and it takes time to root them out." Agreeing that consumption of alcohol was one such discrepancy, "we explain that everywhere in lectures and sermons," he said. Pshikhachev noted, however, that the Koran was revealed to Mohammed over 23 years at a time when alcohol consumption was also widespread: "It wasn't banned all at once – three ayat [Koranic verses] were needed. It should happen gradually. One of the mistakes of the extremists is to demand that everything must end straightaway – but they don't know Islam."
Members of Kabardino-Balkaria's jamaat, in turn, did not recognise or trust the Spiritual Directorate, local Muslims told Forum 18. Not believing the business funds which supported its construction to be halal [permissible in Islam], for example, they refused to attend Nalchik's central mosque – opened in 2004 and also home to the Spiritual Directorate – the mother of two young Muslims killed in the failed 2005 uprising told Forum 18 on 23 July.
Mufti Pshikhachev confirmed that Kabardino-Balkaria's current president, Arsen Kanokov, had supported construction of the central mosque as a "rich businessman" (see F18News 22 August 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1177).
Young Muslims at odds with the Spiritual Directorate chose to study abroad and later with the unregistered Islamic Research Institute in Nalchik. Their zeal baffled Kabardino-Balkaria's late president, Valeri Kokov, Ali Pshigotyzhev told Forum 18: "He didn't understand why young people went to mosque and not the disco. He thought they were paid to go from abroad, that they were preparing a second Chechnya in Kabardino-Balkaria."
The republic's religious affairs officials view study by up to 200 local young Muslims in Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt in the late 1990s as the source of extremism. "Very often, unfortunately, they received a radical interpretation of Islam," Boris Pashtov maintained to Forum 18.
In a typical scenario, according to Pashtov's colleague Dzhambulat Gergokov, "Four might go to Syria or Saudi Arabia, say – one gets into a normal, classical Muslim university, but the others don't and look elsewhere. Then a group of people go up to them and say, 'Come with us, we'll teach you'." A young Muslim who travelled from Kabardino-Balkaria in this way would know nothing about Islam due to the absence of religion in the Soviet period, he pointed out to Forum 18. "But he's told he's chosen, on a mission, and, after a certain processing, he returns."
"I heard one of those who went say he came back to do jihad [Arabic: struggle, commonly understood as holy war]," remarked Pashtov. "That's exactly the word he used."
Mufti Anas Pshikhachev – who himself studied in Libya and Syria during the 1990s - saw a further problem in what his young rivals encountered abroad. While most Muslims in Russia – including Kabardino-Balkaria – are traditionally of the Hanafi madhhab, or school, of Sunni Islam, those in Saudi Arabia follow the Hanbali school. While the differences are slight and most scholars agree that it is irrelevant which madhhab is followed, he told Forum 18, "literature coming from Saudi Arabia – including in Russian – doesn't say it is Hanbali, it just says it's the Koran and Sunnah." As younger Muslims were unaware of this, he explained, "They accused the older people of not praying right."
Pshikhachev likened what he saw as their extremist stance to the seventh-century Kharijite sect of Islam: "Their mindset is, 'Whoever isn't with us is against us.' They believe that if people aren't Muslim, it is alright to oppress and kill them."
Ali Pshigotyzhev, however, insisted to Forum 18 that the Kabardino-Balkaria authorities' opposition to those branded extremist is in fact directed against non-violent Islam. "Obviously you can't struggle against Islam openly, but if you call Muslims 'Wahhabis', you can conduct searches, arrest and even destroy them physically."
Young mosque-goers in Kabardino-Balkaria reported being listed as "Wahhabis" by police and subjected to beatings and more severe torture (see F18News 20 August 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1173).
If members of the jamaat were in fact opposed to violence, Forum 18 wondered whether they could have practised their faith freely in Kabardino-Balkaria if the state had adopted a different approach. Pshigotyzhev thought the crackdown inevitable, however. "If the state produces alcohol, takes bribes, encourages fornication - everything forbidden by Allah - and people who live in accordance with Islam tell politicians they can't do that, they see a threat to their positions," he explained to Forum 18. "Their predisposition was not to allow the spread of Islam – because how they live is the complete opposite." (END)
For a personal commentary by Irina Budkina, editor of the http://www.samstar.ru Old Believer website, about continuing denial of equality to Russia's religious minorities, see F18News 26 May 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=570.
For more background see Forum 18's Russia religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=947.
Reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Russia can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=10.
A printer-friendly map of Russia is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=russi.
22 August 2008
Little has changed for practising Muslims in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria since a state crackdown on alleged Islamic extremists culminated in a failed 2005 uprising, Forum 18 News Service has been told. The capital of what is a traditionally Muslim region still has only two functioning mosques. In violation of Russia's federal Religion Law, organised Islamic activity is possible only within the republic's Muslim Spiritual Directorate. Mosque-goers report that they are still watched by the state or turned in to police by older worshippers, forcing many young Muslims to pray at home. "The Soviet times have come back," the widow of one remarked to Forum 18. Mufti Anas Pshikhachev defended police surveillance of mosques, telling Forum 18, "The state must know everything." State representatives have rejected allegations of abuse.
21 August 2008
Until 2004, Kabardian radio presenter Ali Pshigotyzhev enthusiastically spread Islam with the assistant directors of the Islamic Research Institute, the main rival to Kabardino-Balkaria's Muslim Spiritual Directorate. Then, at the height of the North Caucasus republic's crackdown on active Muslims and a few years before his retirement, he was sacked for religious reasons, he told Forum 18 News Service. "But praise be to Allah, now I can devote the rest of my life to studying and writing about Islam." Ali's son Zaur was similarly laid off from his police job in 2003, and wrongly convicted of distributing extremist literature and possession of firearms in 2004, his father insists. Zaur Pshigotyzhev was also detained and allegedly tortured following the 2005 uprising in the capital, Nalchik, but released due to numerous witness statements in his defence. Kabardino-Balkaria Public Prosecutor's Office has refused to comment to Forum 18.
20 August 2008
Names of those detained or wanted for Islamic extremism in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria were culled from "Wahhabi lists" – police records of regular mosque-goers, local Muslims have told Forum 18 News Service. The republic's late President, Valeri Kokov, in 2002 announced the compilation of a list of 400 Islamic extremists and the authorities' readiness "to take any measures against them, including physical elimination." At the top of the list were the three leaders of the main rival organisation to Kabardino-Balkaria's Muslim Spiritual Directorate, all of whom have since gone missing. A state representative denied the existence of the "Wahhabi lists" to Forum 18. The head of the Spiritual Directorate acknowledged to Forum 18 the possibility that some ordinary Muslims may have been targeted by police, but added that, "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs."