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Tatarstan Attacks Spark Fears That Islamist Threat Is Spreading

  • Daisy Sindelar

Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov (left) visits Mufti Ildus Faizov in hospital after the cleric's car was rocked by powerful bomb blasts on July 19.

Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov (left) visits Mufti Ildus Faizov in hospital after the cleric's car was rocked by powerful bomb blasts on July 19.

In some parts of Russia, brazen daytime assassination attempts on religious leaders might not seem so unusual.

In the past four months alone, for example, two Muslim clerics and a prominent Islamic scholar have been killed in the restive North Caucasus republic of Daghestan.

But no such violence had ever been witnessed in Muslim-majority Tatarstan, a relatively peaceful, prosperous republic with a reputation for cultural diversity and religious tolerance.

That all changed on the morning of July 19 with twin attacks on the republic's two leading Muslim clerics.

Mufti Ildus Faizov was hospitalized with moderate injuries after his car was rocked by three powerful bomb blasts on a broad, sun-lined street in the capital, Kazan.

An hour earlier, Faizov's powerful former deputy, Valiulla Yakupov, had been shot dead outside his home in a different neighborhood of the city.

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No one has claimed responsibility for the dual assaults, the first terrorist-style attacks in the republic, which come a day before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

But the clerics' pro-Kremlin, anti-Wahhabi stance has stirred speculation that they may have been targeted by hard-line Islamists looking to break Moscow's grip on Russia's second-largest religion.

Islamist Insurgency Spreading?

Rais Suleimanov, an ethnic and religious affairs expert who heads a pro-Moscow think tank in Kazan, has suggested that the attack could signal that the Islamist insurgency in Russia's restive south could be spreading north -- with potentially disastrous consequences.

"We see a North Caucasus scenario unfolding in Tatarstan now, and it's spreading across the Volga region," he said. "Traditional Muslim leaders who were speaking up against so-called 'pure Islam' pushed by the Wahabbis were also getting killed 10 years ago in Daghestan.

"Tatarstan's politics are based on [projecting a good image of Tatarstan], while the secular authorities are weak. It's even possible that a Beslan-style tragedy may happen [here]. I mean, a hostage-taking or similar action."

It's an assessment that may send a chill through federal authorities who over the last decade have roundly failed to quell what they see as a growing Islamist threat in the troubled North Caucasus.

Tatarstan police search the wreckage of Mufti Ildus Faizov's bombed-out car.

Tatarstan police search the wreckage of Mufti Ildus Faizov's bombed-out car.

In a statement, Russia's National Antiterrorism Committee said it was exploring a number of motives behind the attacks, including the work of the Tatarstan Mufti's Office "to counter the spread of radical religious ideas across the republic's territory."

Special attention has focused on the 49-year-old Yakupov, a veteran member of Tatarstan's Muftiyat, or Spiritual Board.

Openly Opposed To Extremism

Yakupov, who spent two decades as deputy mufti before moving to head the Muftiyat's religious education department, had long been seen as a powerful figure with close ties to federal authorities and a willingness to act as an agent of restraint in Tatarstan's Muslim affairs.

He had consistently sought to limit the number of Tatars studying in foreign madrasahs, suggesting a homegrown religious education could better create moderate Muslims prepared to peacefully coexist with Russia's Orthodox majority.
Valilulla Yakupov had been a veteran member of Tatarstan's Spiritual Board.

Valilulla Yakupov had been a veteran member of Tatarstan's Spiritual Board.

Speaking at a roundtable discussion sponsored by RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service the day before his death, Yakupov criticized what he called the "miserable psychology" of internationalism and altruism and called on Tatars to "fight for ourselves."

Irek Murtazin, a Kazan-based journalist and the former press secretary to the republic's ex-president, Mintimer Shaimiyev, maintains that Yakupov's open opposition to Wahhabism and Salafism may have prompted the attack.

"I knew [Yakupov] as a fighter against the Wahabbization of Islam in Tatarstan," he said. "It is possible that this was the Wahabbis' revenge against the Muslim Spiritual Directorate, which has been preventing Wahhabism from spreading across Tatarstan's mosques."

Despite serving in a lesser post, Yakupov was seen as more powerful than Faizov, whose first career was as an actor and who was only appointed to the post in January 2011.

But Faizov, 49, is seen as equally accommodating when it comes to Kremlin concerns about centralizing control over Muslim authorities.

He quickly moved to consolidate Tatarstan's Muslim communities by creating regional councils and screening the selection of local imams.

This ran counter to the work of Faizov's predecessor, Gusman Iskhakov, who was seen as presiding over a largely unregulated and liberal network of Muslim institutions.

Tatarstan, which enjoys substantial oil wealth, is home to a number of lavish mosques, including the Kul Sharif Mosque in Kazan. This year, it also became the latest point on the globe to claim ownership of the world's largest printed Koran, an 800-kilogram tome decorated in gold, malachite, and jasper.

But while many Tatars identify with their Muslim heritage and enjoy the celebrity of their mosques and Korans, few are seen as religiously devout. And there are disagreements about how far Wahhabism has, or could, spread in Tatarstan.

In November 2010, three alleged Wahhabists were shot dead by police after reportedly seeking to assassinate local officials.

Moscow May Tighten Controls

But few such incidents have been reported in Tatarstan, and the threat of Wahhabism has not been used as a pretext for police roundups of local youths, as it has been in the North Caucasus.

The dual attacks on July 19, therefore, are seen as a deeply unwelcome surprise for both local and federal officials.

This is particularly true as the country looks ahead to two major international sporting events that will present massive security concerns. Kazan will host the Universiade, the Student Sports Olympics, in 2013; Russia follows with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The high-profile assassination plots have raised concerns among some observers that Moscow may use the attacks as an opportunity to tighten security controls on a region that has long enjoyed a degree of freedom from federal scrutiny.

On July 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled a readiness to intervene when he made critical remarks about how "no preventive measures" had been taken to prevent the Tatarstan plots and said the attacks sent a "serious signal" to authorities.

Pavel Salin, a political analyst at the Center for Political Assessments in Moscow, agrees that the Kazan attacks are doubtless a "serious worry" for the Kremlin.

But he downplayed suggestions that Tatarstan, as a largely peaceful and compliant Russian republic, would be the target of a full-scale Kremlin crackdown -- even at a time when Putin is moving briskly to consolidate his own political authority.

"Responsibilities are being transferred from the center to the regions," he said. "The center is not taking on all the volume of responsibilities that it took on in the 2000s. Also, if we look at Tatarstan specifically, this republic has not posed problems for the federal center in the last 10 years, as opposed to, say, Bashkortostan."

Correspondents Tom Balmforth and Natalya Dzhanpoladova contributed to this report from Moscow; Alsu Kurmasheva contributed from Prague

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