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Tatarstan Cracks Down On Radical Islam After Mufti Attacks

Tatarstan has traditionally been known for its moderate form of Islam.
Tatarstan has traditionally been known for its moderate form of Islam.
A crackdown on religious groups, deadly attacks on Muslim leaders, and a raid on a "catacomb" Islamic sect have turned the spotlight on what authorities say is the alarming rise of radical Islam in Tatarstan.

Tatar President Rustam Minnikhanov this week signed into law new restrictions on religious groups operating in the predominantly Muslim Russian republic.

Tatar deputies drafted the measures in the wake of twin attacks on the republic's mufti, Ildus Faizov, and his close associate, Valiulla Yakupov.

On July 19, Faizov was injured in a bomb attack in Kazan. The same day, Yakupov was shot dead near his home in Tatastan's capital, Kazan.

Both men were known for firmly denouncing the spread of Islamic radicalism in Tatarstan, which has long prided itself on its moderate form of Islam and its peaceful coexistence between different confessions.

Under the amendments to Tatarstan's law on freedom of thought and religion, foreign nationals will now be barred from establishing religious groups. The more than 1,500 religious organizations active in the republic will also have to sign contracts with all their staff.

Razil Valiev, the head of Tatarstan's parliamentary committee overseeing education and culture and an advocate of the new measures, says religious groups have been lacking accountability for too long.

"Before, authorities merely recommended that organizations make sure the law on the freedom of thought and religion was respected. Now, under the new amendments, organizations will have the obligation to make sure the law is observed. This gives them more rights and more responsibilities," Valiev said.

The amended law also requires that clerics prove they have received formal religious education. Those educated abroad will need to have their diploma certified in Russia before they can start preaching. The authorities have long suspected that foreign-educated imams have been spreading radical Islam in the republic.

A close associate of the mufti, Valiulla Yakupov was shot dead on July 19.
A close associate of the mufti, Valiulla Yakupov was shot dead on July 19.
In another move stressing their determination to stamp out Islamic fundamentalists, Tatar authorities this week charged four members of a local Muslim sect for allegedly keeping dozens of its members, including children, underground for nearly a decade.

Faizrakhman Sattarov, the sect's 83-year-old leader, has declared his house an independent Islamic state and has barred his followers from seeking medical assistance or education.

Sattarov, however, had long been known to law-enforcement agencies, and the timing of the raid on his compound has raised eyebrows.

Critics have consistently accused the Kremlin and the Moscow-backed authorities in Kazan of brandishing the threat of extremism to undermine the aspirations of many Tatars for more autonomy from Moscow.

But the new restrictions on religious groups appear to have drawn little controversy so far.

For many Tatars, still reeling from last month's bloody attacks, the violence has driven home the reality that radical Islam is gaining a strong foothold in their republic.

Tatarstan-Chechnya Links

The release of a video in which an Islamic militant claims responsibility for last month's attacks on the mufti and his aide has lent credence to fears of a Muslim radicalization in Tatarstan.

"These fears are well-founded. Many people who studied in Arab countries, in the Middle East, return to Russia with a specific ideology --a radical form of Islam known as salafism," Smirnov said.

"It is a militant current whose leading goal is the creation of a political Muslim regime, a caliphate."

In the video, the militant, who identifies himself as Muhammad, warns of further violence against Tatar Muslim leaders who do not adhere to the Shari'a law.

(WATCH: The raid on the "catacomb sect." Source: Tatarstan's Interior Ministry.)

He also pledges allegiance to Chechen warlord Doku Umarov, the leader of the self-styled Caucasus Emirate, confirming that North Caucasus militants have been successfully exporting their radical brand of Islam to Tatarstan in recent years.

Aleksei Malashenko, an expert on Islam in Russia at Moscow's Carnegie Center, says there is a link between Chechnya and Tatarstan.

"There is definitely a link. Doku Umarov claims to have a strong influence in Tatarstan," Malashenko says. "In reality those ties may not be as strong, but they nonetheless exist and they are intensifying. In the Volga-Ural region, including in Tatarstan, Islamic radicalism is becoming increasingly international."

While the latest crackdown on foreign-linked religious groups is viewed by many as justified, doubts remain about whether it will help curb the rise of radical Islam in Tatarstan.

Malashenko says vetting imams educated abroad will have limited impact:

"This won't help. If these people are not accepted in mosques, they will simply go to underground circles. This type of punitive measure is usually ineffective," Malashenko says.

Some in Tatarstan are also worried that authorities will distort the new legislation to tighten its grip on potential dissidents.

Angry citizens have held a string of rallies in recent weeks to protest the massive wave of arrest they claim was sparked by the attacks on Faizov and Yakupov.

According to rights groups, close to 700 people were detained, in what critics describe as arbitrary round-ups, in connection with the attacks. Many are believed to be still in custody.

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