The dispute between Chechnya’s religious leaders and Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov over two prominent Ingush clerics flared up again last week after a lull lasting several months. Meeting with senior officials on May 19, Yevkurov categorically rejected criticism of the two men voiced in a long interview given to the news site lenta.ru two days earlier by Adam Shakhidov, who is acting Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov’s adviser on religious affairs and imam of a mosque in the town of Argun named after Kadyrov’s mother.
The disagreement between Yevkurov and Shakhidov centers on the suspicion and antagonism with which the Sufi-dominated official clergy in Chechnya and Daghestan regards the moderate Salafism professed by popular Ingush preachers Khamzat Chumakov and Isa Tsechoyev and by many Daghestanis.
In his interview with lenta.ru, Shakhidov engages in a muddled and poorly argued denunciation of that moderate Salafism. Citing an obscure Islamic scholar as an authority on the subject, Shakhidov explains that the strain of Sunni Islam currently known as Salafism arose some 250 years ago and was initially known as Wahhabism after its founder Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who sought to strip worship of later accretions such as the cult of saints and their tombs and revert to a purer monotheism. That identification is spurious, however, Shakhidov says, because the term Salafi refers “only to those who lived during the first three centuries of the Muslim era.” (Strictly speaking, it refers only to the first three generations of Muslims.)
In the post-Soviet context, the espousal of monotheism by Islamic militants in Central Asia and the North Caucasus has given rise to a conflation of Wahhabism with terrorism that has come to imbue official Russian attitudes to the Salafi minority, even though the vast majority of Russia’s Salafis/Wahhabis are peaceful law-abiding citizens who reject violence. Echoing Kadyrov, who has elevated the demonization of Wahhabism to one of the cornerstones of his political ideology, Shakhidov accuses those whom he brands “pseudo-Salafis” of hijacking the term to bestow a veneer of acceptability on their beliefs. He describes those “pseudo-Salafis” as “push[ing] young people into extremism, and whose teachings lead to terrorism and murder, wars, and Muslims being accused of unbelief.”
That categorical rejection of and antagonism towards Salafis was the leitmotif of a resolution adopted by a congress of Muslim scholars in Grozny in early February that called for the expulsion of any member of a Sufi brotherhood who engages in dialogue with Salafis. Speaking at that congress, Kadyrov went so far as to warn that if Chumakov and Tsechoyev ever try to preach in Chechnya, “heads will roll.”
Shakhidov, who according to the head of Yevkurov’s Directorate for Religious Affairs, Yakhya Khadziyev, once demonstratively described Chumakov as his “brother,” now says Chumakov and Tsechoyev “propagate religious teaching that is anathema to us,” and have fallen victim to erroneous teachings that they now try to impose on others.
Yevkurov, Khadziyev, and Chumakov himself have all responded to Shakhidov’s allegations. Yevkurov admitted that “there are problems in all federation subjects” but said it is not up to the leaders of neighboring regions to try to resolve them.
He went on to point out that Russian citizens are free to profess whatever faith they please, provided they do not seek to impose their views on others or propagate “extremism or other radical measures.” “If someone thinks he knows more and better, then let him try to prove it convincingly, rather than push people to confrontation. We should be trying to unite people rather than to divide them,” especially where religion is concerned, Yevkurov continued. He stressed that it is incumbent on the republic’s leadership “to try to unite people, not divide them.”
Khadziyev for his part similarly affirmed in an interview with Interfax that “there are other strains of Islam in Ingushetia besides Sufism, but there are no religious figures who call for radicalism and extremism.”
Asked his opinion on the February resolution adopted by Chechen theologians categorically prohibiting dialogue with those who allegedly seek to impel young people toward radicalism, Khadziyev said, “We shall engage in dialogue with all religious currents, calling them to unity and to work together in the name of the entire Muslim community of the region.”
In his Friday sermon on May 20, Chumakov accused Shakhidov of seeking to sow enmity between the Ingush and the Chechens and called on him to desist. He further challenged Shakhidov to specify what precisely he has said in earlier sermons that constitutes a call to radical or violent action.
Shakhidov has neither responded to that challenge nor commented on subsequent developments that call into question Yevkurov’s denial that his republic remains a hotbed of fundamentalist Islam. On May 21, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee announced the apprehension of four residents of Ingushetia identified as members of the extremist organization Islamic State who were preparing terrorist attacks against the republic’s leadership, police, and clergy. And five days later, it was reported that five IS militants were killed and three more apprehended in two separate counterterror operations in Nazran and Malgobek.