For the second time in three months, Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov has intervened to defuse tensions between supporters of the republic's mufti, Issa-hadzhi Khamkhoyev, and of popular preacher Khamzat Chumakov.
And recent positive coverage of Yevkurov by mainstream Russian media suggests top-level approval of his ongoing handling of the situation.
Yevkurov's aide Kharon Torshkhoyev was constrained to submit his "voluntary" resignation last week after his comments on a standoff between the two rival factions in early June at the Nasyr-Kort mosque of which Chumakov is imam were quoted at length in an article in Russia's central press implicitly linking Chumakov with the North Caucasus insurgency. According to an unidentified source within Yevkurov's administration, Yevkurov felt that Torshkhoyev's remarks (or possibly the way they were quoted) reflected badly on his own image as "peacemaker."
Chumakov is a charismatic preacher who over the past eight years has acquired a huge following among younger Muslims across the North Caucasus, many of whom regard the state-sponsored clergy as corrupt, discredited, and more concerned with currying favor with the authorities than with their religious obligations. He has long been a thorn in the flesh of the Ingushetian authorities because of his denunciations of official corruption.
The catalyst for the dispute with Khamkhoyev in early June was a ruling by Chumakov that beginning on June 5, collective midday prayers (namaz) at the mosque in Nasyr-Kort where he serves as imam would no longer take place after the Friday service of worship. That ruling is in line with the recommendation of scholars who attended an international conference on Islam in Ingushetia in May, according to theologian Abo Ganizhev. It is also standard practice in the Shafii school of canonical Sunni Islam, according to Ali-hadzhi Yevteyev, the former mufti of North Ossetia.
When Khamkhoyev, accompanied by other senior clerics and a large number of supporters, showed up on June 5 for the Friday worship at the Nasyr-Kort mosque, which was cordoned off by police in anticipation of violence, Chumakov's supporters apparently overreacted to harmless gestures by Khamkhoyev, resulting in minor scuffles. No one was seriously injured, however.
Yevkurov first threatened to close the mosque temporarily, then attended the Friday service the following week and appealed to the two factions to try to resolve their differences, which Chumakov agreed to do.
Less than a week later, however, the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an article by Vladislav Maltsev, one of its regular contributors on religious affairs, titled Salafis Are Trying To Impose Their Customs In Ingushetia.
Quoting extensively from Torshkhoyev's comments to Caucasian Knot, in which he unequivocally sided with Khamkhoyev, Maltsev gives a detailed account of the kerfuffle at Nasyr-Kort, and claims the resulting tension "is being used" (he does not specify by whom) to fuel the rivalry between two of Ingushetia's most prominent clans.
At the same time, Maltsev portrays the difference of opinion between Khamkhoyev and Chumakov not as a dispute over a minor point of religious practice, but as a full-fledged clash between traditional Sufism, as represented by Khamkhoyev and the official clergy, and the Salafism espoused by the North Caucasus insurgency, of which Chumakov has never expressed approval.
In that context, Maltsev quotes Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam, as affirming that "the Salafis are incapable of reaching a consensus" and that "the events at Nasyr-Kort have demolished the illusion" that adherents of Salafism can be divided into two categories, those who have "left for the forest" to join the ranks of the insurgency, and the "peaceful" variety.
In a follow-up article in Zavtra two weeks later, Maltsev draws a parallel between Nasyr-Kort and the predominantly Salafi village of Karamakhi in Daghestan that the republic's authorities have long claimed is a hotbed of support for the North Caucasus insurgency. He further adduces "information" according to which Moscow intervened to prevent the Ingushetian authorities intervening acting resolutely to end the Nasyr-Kort standoff. Chumakov had reportedly addressed an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin to take measures to prevent the conflict escalating.
The "Salafis," according to Maltsev, interpreted the Ingushetian authorities' restraint as "a definitive victory." He concludes by quoting analyst Yana Amelina as predicting that the tensions in Ingushetia herald an attempt to overthrow the republic's leadership in a Ukrainian-style "maidan" protest, meaning the mass protests in Ukraine in the winter of 2013-14 that culminated in the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovych.
Predictably, Chumakov's supporters were outraged by such insinuations. The congregation of the Nasyr-Kort mosque denounced Maltsev's articles as "lies and slander," "tendentious," insulting and inciting interconfessional hatred, and demanded that he be formally charged with "extremism." They specifically objected to his portrayal of them as maintaining contact with "terrorist elements and the Ukrainian maidan."
Chumakov for his part insisted in an extensive interview with the website Kavpolit.com that he personally had never differentiated between the various strains of Islam, and that contrary to Torshkhoyev's claims, there were no obstacles to Sufis attending worship at Nasyr-Kort. Chumakov declined to specify who might have an interest in sowing discord among Ingushetia's Muslims, referring vaguely to "some political force."
Nezavisimaya Gazeta, however, responded with a harshly worded editorial on July 22 claiming that in a sermon one week earlier, Chumakov had incited his supporters to reprisals against journalists "whose sole guilt lies in their efforts to give an unbiased account of what happened at Nasyr-Kort" and who had come to the conclusion that the blame for the June 5 standoff lay entirely with Chumakov's supporters.
The editorial further quoted Chumakov as having said that "thousands" of practicing Muslims in Ingushetia were cursing those journalists daily for their "dirty little articles" and praying to God to punish them, together with their families and children.
That statement impelled Georgy Fyodorov, a member of Russia's Public Chamber, to appeal formally to federal Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin to determine whether Chumakov's pronouncements were "extremist," thus rendering him liable to prosecution.
There has been no public response from Bastrykin to that appeal. But in early August, Chumakov's parishioners staged a mass demonstration in his support.
Whether Yevkurov's sympathies lie with Chumakov, or whether his primary concern is his own carefully crafted image as a moderate and fair leader, is difficult to judge. So, too, is whether Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's statements in defense of Chumakov may have influenced the Kremlin's attitude. Kadyrov described Chumakov as "neither a Wahhabi nor a terrorist" and implicitly accused Khamkhoyev of "seeking to use his position to provoke other believers to provocations [sic]."
It is worth noting that over the past month, no fewer than four long interviews with Yevkurov have appeared in the central press: RIA Novosti on July 29, Novye Izvestia on July 30, Lenta.ru on August 3, and Kommersant on August 12.
All of them portray Yevkurov in an exceptionally positive light; none of the interviewers mentions Chumakov.