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2005 In Review: Harassment Of Dissident Muslims In North Caucasus Triggers Violence

A mosque in Baksan, in Kabardino-Balkaria (file photo) (RFE/RL) On 13 October, dozens of armed young men raided several security buildings in Nalchik, the capital of Russia's North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. The attacks triggered two days of street fighting that claimed some 140 lives. Most of the raiders were reportedly young Muslim dissidents from Kabardino-Balkaria who had long been enduring police abuse and turned to violence out of despair. Regional experts warn that a failure to end persecution against non-official Islam could trigger new violence, and not only in predominantly Muslim Kabardino-Balkaria.

Prague, 14 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Addressing Nalchik University students on 3 November, Kabardino-Balkaria's new president, Arsen Kanokov, called for restraint in the struggle against nonofficial Islam.

"We must make a clear distinction between believers and those who take radical steps," Kanokov said. "We must separate the terrorist from the believer. I've repeatedly told Interior Minister [Khashim Shogenov] and Prosecutor-General [Yurii Ketov] that if we continue taking such tough measures, we will end up turning even those people who just want to pray and worship against us."
Officials say more than 60 people have been detained since mid-October on suspicion of being involved in the Nalchik raids. Rights activists claim the number of arrests is much higher. They also say the detainees are subject to torture.

That was the first time a state official in Kabardino-Balkaria hinted at police abuses against those people whose observance of Islam falls outside the strictures of the government-controlled Spiritual Board of Muslims.

Kanokov, who took over as president just a few days before the October raids, inherited a republic in a state of alarming instability.

Contributing Factors?

Several factors are believed to have paved the way for the Nalchik events.

Russian officials often cite the dismal local economyand high unemployment to explain the recent unrest.

However, this assessment is contradicted by reports that say the bulk of the raiding party was made up of scions of well-to-do Nalchik families.

Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya is a researcher for the Russian human rights group Memorial in Nazran, Ingushetia. Talking to RFE/RL on her return from a recent fact-finding mission to Nalchik, she said she believed the reasons for the raids lie in the heavy-handed policy conducted by Kanokov's predecessor, Valerii Kokov.

"All the people we talked to agreed that what happened in Kabardino-Balkaria in the course of the past few years has helped tensions progressively increase," Sokiryanskaya said. "They cite several factors. Among them are problems related to the persecution and discrimination of Muslims. The past two years have seen [nearly all of] Kabardino-Balkaria's mosques being closed down. In the countryside, people couldn't go to the mosque whenever they wanted. In some villages, residents could go to the mosque only for Friday prayers, with a policeman [in attendance], and then the mosque would be closed again [until the following Friday]. In essence, [Kabardino-Balkaria's] youth has been driven out of the mosques and forced underground."

Young Muslim dissidents have been facing harassment in neighboring republics, too.

In predominantly Christian North Ossetia, authorities in February arrested Yermak Tegaev, the head of the Vladikavkaz-based Islamic Cultural Center and an open critic of the government-appointed mufti. Tegaev, who faces terror-related charges, has not reappeared since then.

In Daghestan, authorities say they have arrested 85 alleged militants in the past three months. They include rights activist Osman Boliev, whose release has been demanded by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.

Officials generally portray the detainees as religious extremists who are seeking to forcefully establish Shari'a (Islamic law) in the Caucasus. They also say most of them helped Chechen rebels fight Russian troops in the 1990s.

Searching For Alternatives

But rights groups and regional experts say that most of the region's young Muslim dissidents are, in essence, reformists who distrust official Islam and seek alternative ways to express their faith.

This is how Sokiryanskaya said one Nalchik resident described to her Anzor Astemirov, the alleged mastermind of the October raids: "I met a [man] who knew him personally and who is neither a [religious] extremist, nor a member of any underground group. He told me he and other people were shocked when they heard that Astemirov had taken up arms because Astemirov was scorning all these ideas of caliphate, jihad, etc."

Valerii Khatazhukov, who chairs the Nalchik-based Human Rights Center of Kabardino-Balkaria, said he believes the jamaat, as the region's non-official Muslim community is often referred to, does not represent a specific trend of Islam. He said that although the republic's young dissident Muslims openly challenge the Spiritual Board's authority, their motivations are more political than religious.

"Should our leadership become freer, should it discuss all those problems openly and give everyone freedom of expression, the situation would change radically," Khatazhukov said. "We've more than once proposed to launch a national debate that would involve representatives of all the creeds of Islam. But [the authorities] have refused, although that [kind of debate] would help settle many problems."

Khatazhukov made those comments a few weeks before the Nalchik raids and at a time when Kokov was still in charge of the republic.

No Letup

But the change of political leadership has brought no reprieve to the republic's dissident Muslims.

Officials say more than 60 people have been detained since mid-October on suspicion of being involved in the Nalchik raids. Rights activists claim the number of arrests is much higher. They also say the detainees are subject to torture.

There are concerns that the new wave of harassment triggered by the Nalchik raids might have repercussions beyond Kabardino-Balkaria's borders.

On 22 October, the young imam of Maikop's mosque in Adygeya and a member of the republic's Spiritual Board of Muslims was arrested with five of his coreligionists and questioned by police. The six were released after a court ruled there was no reason to bring them any charge.

Maikop mosque's imam, Ruslan Khakirov, told RFE/RL that despite being a representative of official Islam, he was accused of being an extremist.

"Those who carried out the [Nalchik] raid were performing their prayers, too," Khakirov said. "They, too, were wearing beards and observing Islamic norms of hygiene. Because [of that] [the policemen] establish a parallel between them and us. Since we resemble them, they think that means we're preparing actions similar [to what happened in Nalchik]."

In comments posted recently on the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website, Russian anthropologist and Islam expert Akhmet Yarlykapov slammed North Caucasus governments for driving young Muslims underground.

He said he believed radical elements within those republics' respective jamaats did not exceed 5 percent. However, he warned that should governments continue their coercive policies, this percentage would increase and new violence occur.

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