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Daghestan's Leadership Seeks To Contain 'Religious-Political Extremism'

  • Liz Fuller

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev in Novo-Ogaryovo in March 2007.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev in Novo-Ogaryovo in March 2007.

In February 2006, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin shunted Daghestan's longtime leader Magomedali Magomedov into retirement and named then-parliament speaker Mukhu Aliyev to succeed him as republic head. But if Putin was counting on Aliyev to quash the Islamic resistance, which staged more than 70 separate attacks in 2005 that killed dozens of police and military personnel, he miscalculated.

Despite the deaths of successive leaders and dozens of rank-and-file fighters, Daghestan's Shariat Jamaat not only still exists, but continues to target with deadly regularity those it considers infidels and traitors.

The reasons for the Daghestani authorities' inability to come to grips with the problem are a combination of cognitive and strategic.

Crucially, opinions diverge concerning the factors that impel young men to join the Islamic resistance, and how to neutralize those factors. Aliyev has consistently argued that "extremism" is a foreign ideological import, and that the most effective way of countering it is to limit the exposure of young Daghestani believers, in particular theological students, to pernicious and potentially destabilizing foreign influences. That argument was developed in depth in a report submitted in July 2005 by Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov to then-republic head Magomedov and since reposted on badrcenter.org.

Speaking at a Moscow press conference in December 2007, Aliyev proposed establishing "one or two" training centers in Daghestan for aspiring Muslim clergymen to obviate the need to send them to study abroad. On April 30, 2008, Aliyev similarly argued that "most" religious colleges in Daghestan should be closed as they do not offer "high-quality" education. "One large religious college is sufficient," kavkaz-uzel.ru quoted him as saying.

By contrast, Akhmed Magomedov, who heads the Daghestan government's Committee for Religious Affairs, was quoted in November 2007 by "Moskovskiye novosti" as arguing that "the extremism of which we see manifestations in Daghestan is not religious. This extremism is political, but uses religious slogans to achieve its aims...It is fueled not by religious belief, but by the money of those who have an interest in instability in Russia, in the North Caucasus, in Daghestan."

In that same article, Magomedov categorically rejected the findings of an opinion poll conducted by the republic's Ministry of Education, Science, and Youth Policy in which 16.8 percent of the 4,438 respondents listed police brutality among factors that drive young men to join resistance, 16.4 percent listed violations of civil rights and freedoms, and 15 percent religious convictions.

The extremism of which we see manifestations in Daghestan is not religious. This extremism is political, but uses religious slogans to achieve its aims.
In a detailed report released in June 2008, the International Crisis Group concluded that a combination of factors, including clan-based corruption at a level that surpasses that in many other federation subjects, unemployment, and above all police brutality "feed the grievances" of young Daghestanis and "drive them into radical Islamic movements" such as Shariat Jamaat.

The experts of the Russian human rights movement Memorial harbor no doubts that arbitrary police brutality against peaceful and law-abiding young believers and "gross violations of the law" in the course of "counterterrorism operations" against suspected militants are the primary factors.

Memorial has documented numerous cases of the arrest and torture of young men who incur suspicion simply by virtue of being devout Muslims. Memorial has also reported on counterterrorism operations in which, in an excess of zeal, the Interior Ministry and security forces have ruthlessly killed people who are posthumously shown to have had no connection with the Islamic resistance. Those operations often involve the use of artillery against residential buildings.

Convenient Rationale

The legal basis for the ongoing crackdown on any Islamic practice that is deemed subversive or even just suspect is the republican law banning "wahhabism and other extremist activities" passed in September 1999, six weeks after the unilateral proclamation, by renegade Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev and others, of an independent Islamic state in Daghestan. That law does not, however, contain any definition of either "wahhabism" or "extremism."

No other North Caucasus republic has adopted comparable legislation.

That legal lacuna serves as a convenient rationale for the use by police and security forces of excessive brutality. It also explains the huge number of people police consider suspect. In November 2008, Magomedtagirov referred to a list of "1,370 wahhabis," kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. Aliyev has implicitly queried the methodology used by police in compiling such lists, but he has never criticized the Interior Ministry's tactics.

He may indeed have compounded the confusion by sending mixed signals. On the one hand, he has repeatedly called for an all-out effort to stamp out "those who commit crimes against the state in the name of ideology," while at the same time insisting that "we do not persecute wahhabis," and that "it is impermissible to persecute people simply because they perform religious rituals in a different way."

Some members of Daghestan's official Muslim clergy have, however, publicly questioned police methods, specifically, the harassment by police in some southern districts of theological students sent to work with the imams of local mosques, riadagestan.ru reported on August 21, 2008. Those clergymen suggested that at least in the south of the republic, where economic conditions are worse than in the north, the antiwahhabism law has proven counterproductive and served to fuel the spread of radical Islamic sentiments.

Speaking last month at a press conference in Makhachkala, Committee for Religious Affairs head Magomedov advocated talks between the Daghestan authorities, on the one hand, and "the militants and their ideologues" on the other, but added that he doubted whether any such talks would prove productive. Neither Aliyev nor Magomedtagirov has commented publicly on that proposal.

A spokesman told RFE/RL in March 2007 that the Shariat Jamaat considers such talks "pointless."

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