The Spiritual Board of Muslims of Daghestan (DUMD) has performed a bizarre U-turn over the appointment of a new imam for one of two Makhachkala mosques whose predominantly Salafi congregations are routinely harassed by police and security personnel.
Having named Magomedrasul Saaduyev, imam of Makhachkala's central mosque, on November 24 as imam of the Kotrov Street mosque, which Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnayev visited during his travels in Daghestan and Chechnya in 2012, the DUMD dismissed him from that post five days later, saying that it was up to the congregation to elect a new imam.
The reasons for that U-turn were not spelled out. Nor is it immediately clear how it will impact on the uneasy relations between Daghestan's Salafi minority, estimated to number 30,000-50,000, the DUMD, which professes canonical Sunni Islam as represented by the Shafii legal school and thus represents the vast majority of Daghestan's 2.5 million Muslims, and the republic's security and law enforcement agencies. The latter have long regarded the Salafis en masse as potential insurgents or, more recently, potential recruits for the militant organization Islamic State (IS).
Relations between the Salafi community, headed by the organization of Islamic scholars Akhl-us-Sunnah, and the DUMD (and by extension the republic's leadership) have undergone three distinct phases over the past decade under successive republican leaders, according to the independent weekly Chernovik.
Strictly speaking, Salafism is illegal in Daghestan under a law adopted in 1999 in response to the incursions by Chechen radical Islamists headed by field commander Shamil Basayev.
Mukhu Aliyev, who served as president from 2006-10, maintained his distance from religious life while giving the law enforcement agencies carte blanche to take whatever steps necessary to rein in the North Caucasus insurgency, which in those years was still a serious force to be reckoned with.
Aliyev's successor, Magomedsalam Magomedov, by contrast, promoted the idea of dialogue between the Salafis and the DUMD. During the three years he served as president, the insurgency scaled back its attacks on members of the police and security forces, who reciprocated by relaxing the surveillance and pressure to which the Salafi community had been routinely subjected.
Meeting in the spring of 2012, representatives of Akhl-us-Sunnah and the DUMD affirmed their shared commitment to seeking a way to bridge their doctrinal differences. But the dialogue between the two bodies was effectively terminated by the killing four months later by a woman suicide bomber recruited by the North Caucasus insurgency of respected Sufi Sheikh Said-Afandi Chirkeisky.
Ramazan Abdulatipov, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin named to replace Magomedov in January 2013, has unequivocally supported the DUMD in return for its subservience, while paying lip service to the idea of Sunni-Salafi dialogue. At the same time, he has turned a blind eye to, if not actively encouraged, the resumption by police and security personnel of pressure on the Salafi minority, including restaurants and other commercial businesses owned by Salafis that function strictly in conformity with Islamic law.
A prominent aspect of that crackdown has been regular raids by police on Salafi mosques, not only in Makhachkala but also the towns of Buynaksk (in August 2014 and May and November 2015) and Derbent (in August 2014).
Worshippers at Friday Prayers at all those mosques have routinely been rounded up, bused to the nearest police station, photographed, fingerprinted, and their names entered into a register of persons suspected of sympathizing either with the North Caucasus insurgency or, more recently, with IS.
The chain of events that led to Saaduyev's appointment began on November 20, when police detained some 50 worshippers at Makhachkala's Kotrov Street mosque, along with two visiting Russian journalists. Some hours later, Daghestan's first deputy mufti, Akhmad-hadzhi Kakhayev, entered the mosque escorted by some 40 young toughs and told worshippers that the republic's leadership and "siloviki" (law enforcement and security agencies) had issued an ultimatum to the DUMD to impose its control over the mosque, otherwise it would be closed.
But spokespeople for Daghestan's Committee for Freedom of Conscience and Relations with Religious Organizations, for the republican Interior Ministry, and for the Daghestan directorate of the Federal Security Service (FSB) subsequently denied having made any such demand. So too did the National Counterterrorism Committee.
Kakhayev then announced the appointment of a new imam, Daud-hadzhi Tumalayev, to replace elderly incumbent Hasan-hadzhi Gasanaliyev, who had served in that position since the mosque first opened and is reportedly in failing health. (Both men are ethnic Laks, as are the Khachilayev family, who originally endowed the mosque.)
Parishioners objected to Tumalayev's appointment, however, arguing that they were entitled to elect their imam themselves. That theoretical right is nonetheless routinely violated; the overwhelming majority of imams are imposed on congregations by the DUMD.
Apparently with the aim of clarifying the situation and defusing tensions, Saaduyev convened a press conference on November 24 at which he explained that under pressure from siloviki representatives he declined to identify, the DUMD had acted swiftly to name a replacement for Gasanaliyev in order to avert the closure of the Kotrov Street mosque.
Asked whether an imam could not be chosen who would enjoy the support of, and help unite, all factions, Saaduyev replied in the affirmative. He added, however, that "not everyone wants to become involved with this mosque." Its imam, he continued, needs to demonstrate "particular knowledge" in order to counter its reputation for subversion and mollify the security services. Saaduyev also said the new imam would be selected without taking into account the opinion of the siloviki.
Just hours after that press conference, however, it was announced that Saaduyev himself would take over as imam of the Kotrov Street mosque.
Saaduyev is reportedly held in high regard. One blogger described him as "one of the few honest, decent, informed, sincere Muslims."
A second writer characterized him as "the only theologian in the republic who is equally respected both by supporters of the muftiate and among the Salafi milieu," and as someone whom many believers would have liked to see become Daghestan's mufti. The central mosque of which he is imam is the only one in which Salafis and Sufis pray together.
Saaduyev's apparent acquiescence in the way to which he was named imam of the Kotrov Street mosque without consultation with the congregation is therefore likely to damage his reputation, according to Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya of the International Crisis Group's (ICG) Moscow office. She suggested his appointment may have been a deliberate attempt to undermine the authority of one of Daghestan's most influential clerics. At his press conference on November 24, Saaduyev also assured his audience that no attempt would be made to appoint a new imam at the Salafi mosque on Hungarian Fighters' Street, where a smaller number of worshippers (estimates range from five-to-six to 10-14) were detained on November 20.
On November 28, however, the weekly Novoye Delo reported that Daghestan's Muftiate has decided to appoint deputy mufti Magomed Magomedov (Kakhibsky) as the new imam of the Hungarian Fighters' Street mosque, again allegedly in response to a threat from the law enforcement sector to close it.
Angered that such a decision had apparently been taken behind their backs, a delegation from the mosque's public council flew to Moscow, where they met with Council of Muftis of Russian co-Chairman Nafigulla Ashirov.
Ashirov tried in vain to telephone Daghestan's mufti Akhmad-hadzhi Abdullayev but ended up speaking to Saaduyev, who reportedly told Ashirov he was not aware of any plans to appoint a new imam of the Hungarian Fighters' Street mosque.
Ashirov had intervened in June to call for a halt to reprisals against that mosque's congregation after Salafi preacher Nadir Medetov (aka Nadir abu-Khalid), who had formerly preached there, publicly swore allegiance to IS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and appealed to his followers to do likewise.
As noted above, the reasons for Saaduyev's dismissal as imam of the Kotrov Street mosque remain a mystery. Some analysts are inclined to believe that Abdullayev would neither have appointed Saaduyev in the first place nor then summarily removed him on his own initiative. The question is thus whether he was acting on orders from republic head Abdulatipov, from one of the security agencies, or possibly from the Council of Muftis in Moscow.
Whatever the motivation, the events of the past week are likely to compound the misgivings of the Salafi minority. They could also, Russian journalist Irina Gordiyenko suggests, spur the exodus of Salafis, together with their families, from Daghestan to Syria to join the ranks of IS.