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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Who Is A Wahhabi?

Washington, 7 July 2000 (RFE/RL) - Russia's Muslim leaders have refused a government request to ban Wahhabism, a branch of Islam which some have linked to terrorism, on the territory of the Russian Federation.

They did so because they believe that the term itself is undefined and because they fear that the authorities could use such a ban to violate the rights of Muslim believers more generally.

Last week, the Council of Russian Muftis met in Moscow to consider requests from "some power institutions" to ban Wahhabism, a movement Russian officials and journalists have used to describe Muslim groups in the North Caucasus and Central Asia supposedly linked to Osama bin Laden and terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, the council's chairman, said that the government request to ban Wahhabism had provoked heated debate -- largely because there was little agreement on "what Wahhabism really is" and how a ban on that particular group might affect Russian policy toward all other believers. He and his colleagues, Gainutdin added, believe that such a law "cannot be adopted until the question is fully clarified."

The history of the application of the term Wahhabi in Soviet and post-Soviet times gives few clear answers. Official and journalistic accounts appear to use it more as a damning epithet rather than a description or explanation. Scholars, Russian and Western alike, have pointed out that such use of the term is inappropriate.

In a recent article, Aleksei Kudriavtsev, a scholar at Moscow's Institute of Oriental Studies, notes that at the end of the Soviet period, many officials called Wahhabis those Muslims who rejected both the Soviet-sponsored official Islamic establishment and popular Islam in the name of restoring a purer variant relying on the Koran and the hadith or sayings of the prophet.

But the term was extremely inappropriate, Kudriavtsev says. Not only did these people never call themselves Wahhabis -- instead they identified themselves as supporters of "pure Islam" -- but they "did not regard themselves as such and had a very vague idea of abd el Wahhab [a Muslim leader] and of his movement born in the middle of the eighteenth century in central Arabia."

Moreover, "they did not belong to the Hanbali mazhab -- they professed one of the two schools, the Hanafi and the Shafi'i" which had long been present on Russian territory, Kudriavtsev points out. "They never supported the Saudi model of an Islamic state and society." And "their criticism of idolatry was fundamentalist rather than Wahhabi."

Nevertheless, the term has proved popular in the Russian media during recent months, with its implicit linkage of Chechen nationalists and Tajik opposition groups to foreign Muslims in general and particularly to Osama bin Laden, a Saudi exile in Afghanistan who is widely believed to be financing a variety of international terrorist activities.

On the one hand, Moscow has used this implicit tie between an otherwise undefined Muslim group and foreign terrorists to justify its campaign in Chechnya and to encourage Central Asian leaders into cooperating with Moscow against a supposed threat from the south. Indeed, this week at the Shanghai Five summit in Dushanbe, Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked just such a specter.

And on the other hand, Moscow's use of Wahhabism, which blurs important distinctions between Muslims, Muslim fundamentalists, and international terrorism also has drawn understanding from Western governments who also fear Islamic activism of one kind or another.

Indeed, both the U.S. and Western European governments have sometimes used Wahhabism as Moscow does, treating the term itself as justification for Moscow's concerns in the region. And Russian officials announced over the weekend that the United States and the Russian Federation have begun consultations on how to respond jointly to Islamic terrorism emanating from Afghanistan.

As Kudriavtsev and other scholars of the subject have pointed out, there is such a thing as Wahhabism. There is also such a thing as Islamic fundamentalism. And of course, there is such a thing as international terrorism, and even international terrorism conducted by Muslims.

But the refusal of the Council of Russia's Muftis to go along with Moscow's request to ban Wahhabism on Russian territory highlights both the dangers of not making these critical distinctions and the risks that a broad brush approach to complicated social phenomena can easily lead to the denial of the basic rights of individuals. Indeed, as the muftis clearly understood, the use of such poorly defined or inappropriate terms virtually invites official abuse.