The tensions between Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and the republic's mufti, Issa-hadzhi Khamkhoyev, have worsened over the past two months. Khamkhoyev has managed to thwart Yevkurov's plans to convene a congress of the Council of Alims (Muslim scholars) that would have removed Khamkhoyev from his post. Yevkurov countered by announcing that the muftiate will be dissolved and its duties transferred temporarily to the Council of Alims.
The antagonism between the two men has its roots in the uneasy coexistence in Ingushetia between various Sufi "tariqahs" (brotherhoods) and adherents of the more puritanical Salafism. Khamkhoyev, together with other members of the official clergy, belongs to the Qadiriya Sufi tariqah, which is at odds with both the Salafi community and the rival Naqshbandi Sufi brotherhood, which does not recognize the authority of the Spiritual Center of Muslims (DTsM) that Khamkhoyev heads.
Khamkhoyev has accused the Salafis of seeking to split Ingushetia's Muslim community by encouraging believers to reject the authority of the DTsM. He also claims they consider it permissible to kill those who do not share their views.
Yevkurov, by contrast, seeks to downplay the differences between the Sufi and Salafi congregations and to promote dialogue between them. His rationale is presumably less theological than secular and pragmatic, dictated by the need to avoid antagonizing and alienating young Salafis to the point that they head for Syria to join the ranks of the militant group Islamic State (IS).
The mutual distrust between the official Muslim clergy headed by Khamkhoyev and the Salafi minority, in particular the hugely popular preacher Khamzat Chumakov and his followers, escalated last summer into a confrontation that nearly turned violent.
In late December, Yevkurov declared publicly that Khamkhoyev's behavior on that occasion "undermined the authority" of the official clergy, and he called on him to resign.
Khamkhoyev refused point-blank, arguing that only his fellow clerics are empowered to remove him from his post, to which he was reelected in 2014 for a third term. He then traveled to Grozny, where he secured the backing of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov is seemingly unwilling or unable to differentiate between peaceful, law-abiding adherents of Salafism and the Salafi militants who in recent years have joined the ranks of the North Caucasus insurgency or IS; he has branded them all as "terrorists."
Addressing a gathering of Sufis in Grozny in early February that Khamkhoyev attended, Kadyrov warned that "heads will roll" if Chumakov ever seeks to preach on Chechen territory.
That threat, and Khamkhoyev's overt alignment with the Chechen clergy and leadership, were widely condemned in Ingushetia. Whether spontaneously or at Yevkurov's prompting, the secular Council of Teyps (Clans) immediately issued its own demand for Khamkhoyev's resignation.
Insofar as religious bodies are not subordinate to the republican authorities, Yevkurov is not empowered personally to remove Khamkhoyev from his post. Therefore, in early March, Yevkurov convened a meeting of clerics from the various different Sufi brotherhoods. Participants reportedly condemned Khamkhoyev's refusal to resign as mufti and scheduled for March 29 a congress of alims that was to elect his successor.
Khamkhoyev, however, set out to subvert the Council of Alims, reportedly dismissing those of its 15 members who would have voted for his removal and replacing them with staunch loyalists, a move that Nationalities Minister Ulan Yevloyev claimed violated the statutes of the Council of Alims.
Khamkhoyev also convened a joint meeting on March 21 of DTsM personnel and most of the 70-odd village imams who support him. Participants voted overwhelmingly (63 against, one in favor, and one abstention) against holding the congress of alims on the grounds that it would only exacerbate the situation. They then adopted a statement, posted online the following day, containing derogatory remarks about the Ingushetian leadership and affirming that the congress of alims planned for March 29 was illegitimate and would not take place.
Nationalities Minister Yevloyev immediately dismissed that statement as untrue and affirmed that the planned congress would take place as planned.
Less than 24 hours later, however, Yevkurov released a statement saying that in response to requests from the Councils of Alims, of Clans, and of Elders, the planned congress of alims had been postponed, rather than risk "splitting society into two warring groups," meaning supporters of Khamkhoyev and of whomever the congress elected to succeed him.
Having failed in his bid to co-opt the Council of Alims to remove Khamkhoyev from office, Yevkurov went on to announce that the entire muftiate will be dissolved and its responsibilities transferred to the Council of Alims pending the election, for which no time frame was mentioned, of a new mufti. Khamkhoyev dismissed that proposed course of action as illegal, unworkable, and "a farce."
Meanwhile, Khamkhoyev and his subordinates have apparently come under increasing scrutiny from the secular authorities in what may prove to be a parallel attempt to incriminate them. The website MagasLife posted on March 23 and then took down within hours a report quoting an unnamed official close to the presidential administration as saying a criminal case had been opened against Khamkhoyev and one of his subordinates in connection to suspected smuggling of foreign currency. Two days later, the same website reported that the home of deputy mufti Adsalam Dolgiyev had been searched.
At the same time, Yevloyev alleged that Khamkhoyev is receiving massive funding from unknown sources to continue his "destructive activities on the territory of Ingushetia."
Russia's most senior Muslim cleric, chief mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin, has spoken out in Khamkhoyev's support, saying that the secular authorities do not have the right to interfere in religious affairs.
But the Kremlin seems to be siding with Yevkurov against Khamkhoyev, who was reportedly not invited to a meeting in early March of North Caucasus muftis organized by the Russian presidential administration.
Instead, Ingushetia was represented at that gathering by Yakhya Khadziyev, who heads the Board for Religious Affairs that advises Yevkurov.