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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Aiming At The Wrong Target

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 28 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow risks violating the rights of Russian Muslims, offending important Muslim states in the Middle East, and increasing the terrorist challenge against itself by attempting to ban Wahhabism without carefully defining just what that Muslim trend is.

That message was delivered on Thursday by Ravil Gainutdin, the chairman of Russia's Council of Muftis, in response to a decision the day before by Akhmad Kadyrov, the head of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration, to ban Wahhabism on the territory of that north Caucasus republic.

While acknowledging that Kadyrov, himself a Chechen mufti, had "acted quite reasonably," Gainutdin used the occasion to warn against any broder ban at least until the Russian authorities define precisely what they mean by Wahhabism and clearly distinguish between Islamic beliefs and terrorist activities.

At present, Gainutdin continued, the Russian authorities have not done so, nor have they yet understood that there are very few genuine Wahhabis on the territory of the Russian Federation, something most Russian and Western scholars have long been at pains to point out.

Indeed, the Russian mufti argued, most of those whom the Russian authorities call Wahhabis know little about Islam in general--or Wahhabism in particular--and routinely violate its norms. As a result, he said, "pseudo-Wahhabism is a serious threat to Russia," but genuine Wahhabism is not.

But an even greater threat to Russia, Gainutdin implied, is likely to arise from a misplaced government campaign directed at an ill-defined enemy.

First of all, he said, this official effort will threaten the rights of all believers in Russia. In the absence of a clear definition of just what Wahhabism is, any ban could potentially be used against almost any believer and that in turn could lead to the alienation of otherwise loyal and increasingly numerous Muslim citizens.

Consequently, Gainutdin warned against any ban "at the federal level" as well as against "the shutdown of 'mosques of discord," two moves that he suggested would violate the constitutional rights of the faithful and might make it easier for anti-Russian extremists to gain recruits from among them.

Second, Gainutdin pointed out, any such government campaign would be certain to offend countries in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism, a puritanical brand of Islam, is the official religion of the state.

Such governments and their populations, he suggested, would be unlikely to view favorably any Russian effort to ban the followers of the Islamic trend they practice or to suggest as Moscow officials already have that Wahhabism is somehow linked to terrorist activities.

Their potential negative reaction to such a ban, Gainutdin argued, would limit Russian influence in the region and thus represents yet another reason why Moscow should not extend the ban.

And third, and perhaps most significantly, the Moscow mufti implied that misplaced official attacks on Wahhabism could have the effect of making it more attractive to those Muslims who for other, political reasons are angry with Russian policies.

As other Russian muftis have done in recent weeks, Gainutdin stressed that political extremists have been successful in using Islamic terminology to recruit followers precisely among those groups, particularly the young, who know almost nothing about Islam.

By attacking Wahhabism, he argued, Moscow may be helping to create its own nemesis.

None of these arguments is new or even new from Gainutdin. He and other Russian muftis successfully used them earlier this month to turn down a Russian government request that they ban Wahhabism throughout Russia.

But what is striking is the self-confident tone with which Gainutdin repeats them. Unlike the leaders of many other religious groups or societal institutions, the Moscow mufti clearly sees little need to defer to what he views as a misguided effort by the Russian government.

And that in turn points to a growing self-confidence among Russia's Muslims, an attitude that may prove to be more of a challenge to the new Russian nationalism under President Vladimir Putin than any actions taken by the relatively few Wahhabis or even pseudo-Wahhabis in that country.