Two recent developments cast a pall over Ramzan Kadyrov’s inauguration on October 5 -- his 40th birthday -- for a third consecutive term as Chechnya’s leader.
The first is the publication in Novaya Gazeta of an in-depth analysis showing how Kadyrov failed to deliver on his unwritten contract with the Kremlin to bring Chechnya back under Moscow’s control in return for virtually unlimited funds to finance postconflict reconstruction and social benefits seen as the key to securing the population’s loyalty.
The second is the determination by the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR) to nix proposals adopted at an international conference of Muslim clerics in Grozny in August, including the formation of a body empowered to act as arbiter in determining which believers qualify as true Muslims, and which are sectarians who pose a threat. Those proposals almost certainly originated with Kadyrov, who for the past decade has sought to impose on Chechnya and neighboring North Caucasus republics his own bizarre and idiosyncratic interpretation of what constitutes “traditional” Islam.
The head of the Security Committee of the SMR’s Expert Council, a Chechen with an impeccable reputation both as an Islamic scholar and as a veteran of the campaign to wipe out the Chechen insurgency, has demonstratively endorsed SMR Chairman Ravil Gaynutdin in his dispute with Chechen mufti Salakh Mezhiyev over the implications of those proposals.
At the heart of the dispute is a fatwa or declaration adopted at the conference affirming that the sole true adherents of traditional Islam are those who abide by Kalam scholastic theology, belong to one of the four madhhabs (legal schools), and follow the path of moral self-perfection espoused by the great teachers, primarily the Sufi sheikhs. It identifies the Salafi strain of Sunni Islam professed in Saudi Arabia and by some North Caucasus Muslims as a “dangerous and erroneous contemporary sect,” along with the extremist group Islamic State, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the Habashis.
The conference participants also adopted an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin to ban Salafism in Russia and to designate as “extremism” any criticism of “traditional Islam.”
The representatives at the conference of Gaynutdin’s SMR did not sign the fatwa, having left the conference prematurely due to what one of them described as previous commitments. Chechen mufti Mezhiyev, therefore, formally asked the SMR to accede to it, but Gaynutdin argued that it would be premature to do so before convening a discussion of its implications by all Russia’s Muslim communities.
On September 28, Russia’s Muslim Spiritual Board (DUM) issued a resolution saying the text of the fatwa should be fundamentally revised because it risks “causing a split within the country, and between the Muslim community in Russia and that abroad.” It has become clear from a detailed analysis, the statement continued, that the fatwa “reflects primarily the situation in one of [Russia’s] regions” and does not constitute reliable guidance for Russia’s Muslims with regard to those intrinsic hallmarks of true Islam that differentiate it from fallacies. Specifically, the resolution rejected the importance attached to “one single current of Islam -- Sufism” as the hallmark of true belief.
Mezhiyev responded immediately with a statement taking issue with the objections enumerated in the SMR resolution, which he said were not adequately substantiated. He denied that the fatwa designated Sufism as the supreme criterion of piety. He then proceeded to accuse the SMR of ignoring the threat posed to Russia by what he termed “pseudo-religious extremism.”
Finally, Mezhiyev construed Gaynutdin’s failure to attend the Grozny conference, and the fact that Said Buryatsky, who in 2008-09 served as the ideologist of the Caucasus Emirate proclaimed by former Chechen resistance fighter Doku Umarov and once worked on the staff of the SMR, as evidence that Gaynutdin personally and the leadership of the SMR “are engaged in encouraging radicalism and Wahhabism in our country.”
Gaynutdin has not responded to that tirade. But Said-Magomed Esambayev, who in May had been appointed head of the SMR Expert Council’s Security Committee, commented on it in a blog post on the website onkavkaz.com.
Esambayev affirmed that compliance with the fatwa cannot be regarded as mandatory for all Russian Muslims, only for those subject to the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Chechnya. He then focused on the other two documents adopted at the Grozny congress.
The first was an appeal to the Russian authorities to introduce even harsher reprisals and punishment with regard to those currents of Islam, primarily Salafism, which the fatwa branded dangerous heresies, but which Esambayev describes as “an unspecified number of religious groups which frequently do not pose any danger to the state and society, and which may be targeted in the fight against dissent as a result of legal incompetence on the ground.”
The second was a proposal to establish a supreme council of Muslim scholars to which the various territorial Muslim spiritual boards would be subordinate, and which would function as the ultimate arbiter of who is and is not a true follower of Sunni Islam. Those proposals have been construed by both clerics and secular commentators as an outright bid by Kadyrov to marginalize those Russian Muslims who do not unquestioningly accept the importance he assigns to the teachings of the Sufi brotherhoods, and possibly also his own idiosyncratic and controversial version of what constitutes “traditional Islam.”
Esambayev categorically rejects the idea of a supreme council of scholars. Describing the SMR as “one of the country’s most authoritative centralized religious authorities,” and one that should therefore be involved in any discussion of such proposals, he warned that any alteration to the hierarchy of Muslim organizations that has evolved since the tsarist era could pose a threat to relations between different faiths and ethnic groups.
Esambayev, 46, is a multiple boxing and wrestling champion and a colonel in the Federal Security Service (FSB). He has spent much of his career outside Chechnya, except for a mysterious episode in 2010 when he was reportedly seriously injured trying to escape from a group of Chechen fighters during a counterterror operation in 2011. He is said to be an accomplished poet and philosopher and, in contrast to Kadyrov, to be able to quote the Koran fluently in Arabic.
In light of what critics say is Kadyrov’s vindictiveness toward anyone who dares challenge his authority, there are two possible explanations for Esambayev’s defiance of Mezhiyev. One is that he is foolhardy enough to risk bringing down Kadyrov’s wrath on himself and his entire extended family in Chechnya. The other is that has the tacit support not just of Gaynutdin and the SMR but of senior Russian officials who are using him to send the message that there are potential replacements for Kadyrov who are not only better qualified than he to serve as republic head but who are also willing to operate within the framework of Russian law and the Russian Federation constitution which Kadyrov routinely disregards.