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Ingushetia Religious Rivalry: Guns, Clans, And Death Threats

Khamzat Chumakov, arguably the Ingush republic's most charismatic Muslim preacher

Khamzat Chumakov, arguably the Ingush republic's most charismatic Muslim preacher

Friday worship at a mosque in Ingushetia nearly descended into violence on June 5, when supporters and allied clans of the republican mufti and a charismatic rival cleric squared off before the latter was hustled off the premises.

The broader dispute involves dueling styles of religious leadership, clashing liturgical views, entrenched clan frictions, and competing schools of Islamic thought, and has drawn both Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Russian President Vladimir Putin into the religious fray.

Ingushetia's top official religious authority, mufti Issa-hadji Khamkhoyev, is demanding that Khamzat Chumakov, arguably the republic's most charismatic Muslim preacher, vacate the mosque in their home village of Nasyr-Kort, near Nazran, on the grounds that Chumakov was never formally appointed as its imam.

Chumakov, 49, studied theology for 12 years in Cairo and has served as imam of the Nasyr-Kort mosque since 2007. A cult figure especially among young believers, he preaches not only in Ingushetia but elsewhere in Russia, and to Ingush emigres in Europe.

Chumakov has been subjected to threats and pressure on several occasions in recent years, apparently in retaliation for his unstinting criticism of the republic's leadership. (Two months ago, he demanded during a Friday sermon that the authorities explain how 1.8 billion rubles ($31.97 million) in budget funds had been embezzled.)

The catalyst for the current standoff between Chumakov and Khamkhoyev is primarily theological. But the conflict also has a secular dimension insofar as it pits two of Ingushetia's most prominent teyps (clans) against each other. The Yevloyevs support Chumakov; and the Ozdoyevs, Khamkhoyev.

On May 29, Chumakov announced at the Friday service of worship that beginning on June 5, collective midday prayers (namaz) would no longer take place after that service. That ruling is in line with the recommendation of scholars who attended an international conference on Islam in Ingushetia last month, according to theologian Abo Ganizhev. It is also standard practice in the Shafii school of canonical Sunni Islam, according to Ali-hadji Yevteyev, the former mufti of North Ossetia.

Chumakov's announcement triggered an impassioned debate, with some believers circulating a demand for his removal as imam, and unidentified activists circulating via WhatsApp an appeal to gather on June 3 in Abi-Guv in Chumakov's defense.

Ingushetia's leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov

Ingushetia's leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov

Chumakov, however, posted a video appeal to his supporters not to attend that meeting, which he denied having organized. Instead, he convened a meeting of clerics at Nasyr-Kort on June 3 to discuss the tensions resulting from his decision. Khamkhoyev was present at that meeting, as were acting republic of Ingushetia Security Council Secretary Albert Barakhoyev and presidential administration official Magomed Shaukhalov.

The meeting was described as "productive." Participants drafted an appeal to Ingushetia head Yevkurov noting the positive repercussions of the May conference, On Moderation In Religion, and condemning "provocative actions by isolated individuals" against Chumakov. They appealed to Yevkurov to reject what they termed "an attempt to establish the hegemony of one [religious] denomination," meaning the Sufism espoused by Mufti Khamkhoyev and the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Ingushetia. The following day, however, on June 4, tensions escalated after Nasyr-Kort village head Mokhmad-Bashir Ozdoyev reportedly appealed to mourners at a funeral to gather on June 5 and "stop at nothing, even bloodshed" to remove Chumakov as imam. Members of the Yevloyev teyp, reportedly unarmed, immediately went to Ozdoyev's home to demand an explanation, whereupon, they said later, Ozdoyev's sons, armed with Kalashnikov rifles and a grenade launcher, fired into the air. Reports differ as to whether there were casualties.

Yevkurov issued an appeal the same day to all worshipers planning to attend Friday worship at Nasyr-Kort on June 5 not to engage in "unlawful actions that could lead to unforeseeable consequences."

The Nasyr-Kort mosque was cordoned off by police on the morning of June 5, and worshipers were required to pass through metal detectors. Chumakov had reportedly already begun his sermon when Khamkhoyev arrived with other members of the Muslim Spiritual Board and some 10 to 15 imams and did not stop preaching to welcome him.

When at the end of the sermon Khamkhoyev tried to take the microphone from Chumakov, there was a heated exchange between the two rival factions that almost turned violent, according to Magomed Mutsolgov, head of the human rights NGO Mashr. Chumakov's supporters then escorted him out of the building.

Chumakov has written to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the heads of Russia's "power" ministries accusing Khamkhoyev of seeking to provoke bloodshed. He expanded on his criticisms of Khamkhoyev in a lengthy (55-minute) video address in Ingush. Khamkhoyev responded by formally complaining to the police that Chumakov has telephoned him and threatened to kill him. Khamkhoyev requested, and has been provided with, police protection.

The republican authorities appear to have taken the side of Khamkhoyev and the official clergy, to judge from the account of the situation that Yevkurov adviser Kharon Torshkhoyev gave to Caucasus Knot. Torshkhoyev argued that Chumakov is not in fact the Nasyr-Kort imam as Khamkhoyev did not formally appoint him to that post. (Chumakov was the deputy of, and succeeded, a cleric named Sulumbek-hadji, who was the father-in-law of prominent Ingush businessman Mikhail Gutseriyev.)

Torshkhoyev further claimed that believers in Nasyr-Kort had complained to Khamkhoyev that due to the huge numbers of Chumakov's young followers who travel regularly to Nasyr-Kort to hear him preach, they have no choice but to go elsewhere to worship.

Yevkurov has not commented on the June 5 altercation. Ozdoyev is said to have publicly cursed both Chumakov and Kadyrov on June 5 and expressed the hope that Chumakov will leave Ingushetia for Chechnya. In January, Chumakov accompanied a second prominent critic of Yevkurov, Magomed Khazbiyev, when the latter took refuge in Grozny at the invitation of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov.

Whether Kadyrov, who is at daggers drawn with Yevkurov, might similarly offer sanctuary to Chumakov is debatable, however. Kadyrov has long positioned himself as the defender of Sufism in Chechnya, and categorically rejects Salafism, while Chumakov's Sufi detractors have openly branded him a Salafi.

-- Liz Fuller

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.