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Russia: Most Muslim Clergy Rebuff Call For Jihad Against U.S.

Supreme Mufti Telget Tajetdin, head of the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Russia, last week declared a "spiritual" jihad, or holy struggle, against the United States in retaliation for its war with Iraq. But top Muslim clerics elsewhere in Russia and in Central Asia condemned Tajetdin's statement, and the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office has threatened to disband the mufti's office.

Prague, 10 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking on 3 April in the Russian city of Ufa, Supreme Mufti Tajetdin was shown on television throughout the central Volga region brandishing a sword as he told sympathizers that his administration intended to set up a fund and solicit donations in order to buy weapons for a struggle against the United States: "For two weeks now, the anti-Christ of the world has been waging a war [against Iraq]."

But Tajetdin's statements backfired badly, incurring harsh criticism from other Russian and Central Asian Muslim leaders and even from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On the same day as the mufti's comments, Putin told journalists that he would "do everything" he could in order to prevent Russia from being drawn into the Iraq crisis.

Putin said it is Moscow's duty to continue cooperation with the U.S. in order to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and continue the international struggle against terrorism.

Russian Justice Ministry official Sergei Nikulin said Tajetdin has the right to express his moral support for Iraq, but that any attempts to buy weapons and send them to Iraq would be illegal.

The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office threatened to disband Tajetdin's Ufa-based Muslim administration for inciting religious hatred.

Other Muslim officials in Russia were similarly quick to condemn Tajetdin, among them his rival Ravil Gainutdin, who is head of the Council of Muftis of Russia. Both men aspire to the unofficial title of uncontested leader of Russia's Muslim population. Relations between them have been strained for several years.

In a statement published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 7 April, Gainutdin's Council of Muftis expresses "deep regret that among Russian Muslims there are those who want not peace in Iraq, but World War III." Gainutdin said his organization will not support any form of hostilities.

The chairman of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Bashkortostan, Mufti Nurmukhamat Nigmatullin, said that "the announcement of mufti Tadzhuddin in no way reflects the position of all Russian Muslims."

The head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims in Asian Regions of Russia, Mufti Nafigulla Ashirov, said that "no Muslims are taking Tajetdin's statement seriously."

In Central Asia, too, prominent Muslim clerics condemned Tajetdin's call for a holy war against the United States.

Amonullo Negmatzoda, chairman of Tajikistan's Council of Ulemas and spiritual leader of Tajik Muslims, told ITAR-TASS that a jihad against the United States is not the way to solve the problem of Iraq.

Negmatzoda reportedly added that a jihad has almost never brought positive results but only "increases bloodshed and causes unnecessary suffering for ordinary people." He said that Muslims should pray instead for a swift end to the war in Iraq and a political resolution to the conflict.

In Uzbekistan, Muslim Spiritual Administration head Abdurashidkori Bakhromov condemned Tajetdin's call for a jihad as "irresponsible" and said it was likely to aggravate an already unstable situation. In an interview published on 5 April in the official Russian-language newspaper "Pravda vostoka," he said such calls fuel the flames of war and generate enmity toward Muslims living in different countries.

Bakhromov advised Muslims in Uzbekistan to "be careful" and to ignore such appeals. "The head of Russia's Muslims Tajetdin has expressed a completely wrong thought -- a thought that would be beneficial for people with bad intentions," he said.

Kyrgyz Mufti Muratali Juman-uulu was more conciliatory in his reaction: "I cannot say 'right' or 'wrong' about [Tajetdin's appeal]. My opinion on the Kyrgyz state and Kyrgyz Muslims is that nobody from the our muftiyat [Spiritual Board of Kyrgyz Muslims], [ordinary] Muslims, imams nor mosque staff has any idea about a jihad against America in connection with the Iraqi war. This is the first thing. Secondly, we are against this ongoing war [in Iraq]."

The only Russian Muslim leader who has expressed support for Tajetdin's initiative was Sverdlovsk Mufti Sibagatulla Hadji, who said that Islam allows the declaration of a holy struggle in certain extreme cases. Sibagatulla Hadji said Tajetdin had in mind not military activity against the United States but spiritual opposition. He did not explain why, if that is the case, Tajetdin had called for donations to buy weapons.

It is not clear why the Russian authorities reacted so harshly to Tajetdin's call for a holy struggle while ignoring the decision one week earlier by Muslim clergy in Daghestan to declare a jihad against the United States.

Paul Goble is an expert on nationalities in Russia. He suggested that Russian officials are trying to sow dissent among the three main Muslim bodies in Russia. "The Russian government has a long tradition of playing one Muslim group against another, and it seems to me that this differential approach is designed to make sure that no Muslim group can claim preeminence and appear to speak on behalf of all Muslims in the Russian Federation. Were such a group to emerge, it would constitute a major challenge to central Russian control, and that is not something President Putin is prepared to countenance," Goble said.