As the largest nation in the world Russia inevitably contains a myriad of both cultures and religions and this has pushed certain regions within the country to crisis point where the cultural divides have descended into sectarian violence and the predominantly Islamic areas of Southern Russia in the Caucasus region is where the violence is most extreme. Here the careful balancing act between religions, and the desire for independence has pushed regions such as Chechnya and Dagestan towards armed conflict.
Chechnya has historically been the epicentre for conflict in this region with civil war ripping the country apart and the world’s media focused on this region of Southern Russia. Although the conflict in this region continues, it is in the neighboring province of Dagestan that a dramatic escalation in violence has occurred.
Dagestan is a predominantly Muslim province but the region contains a huge cultural mix including native Russians, Turks and many other Caucasian groups and this cultural mix has impacted the way religion functions within the region. The government in Moscow supports Sufism, a form of Islam considered spiritual and mystical and separate from the political associations of both Sunni and Shia Islam. However Islamic fundamentalism has been growing in the Caucasus and many in Dagestan, who are opposed to the religion supported by the government, instead support this ultra-conservative form of Islam, known as Wahhabism.
This deep religious divide has created not just civil strife in Dagestan but as writer, Mark Galeotti, claimed a “Muslim civil war” (Russia Now, Cleric Murdered in ‘Civil War’, Sept 6th 2012) which appears to be engulfing the region. Mr Galeotti made these claims as another attack on Sufi religious leaders was launched, killing 7 people.
Sheikh Said Afandi was the most high-profile victim of the attacks and his death has sent shock waves through the region. Mr Afandi was an influential Sufi cleric, who regularly denounced fundamental Islam and, as such, was seen by the Russian government as a key figure in uniting a disjointed Islamic community with the nation that runs Dagestan. His death came soon after attacks on two high-ranking mufti in Tartarstan (a federal republic further North, but also with a high Muslim population), resulting in the fatality of Valiulla Yakupov. Both mufti, like Mr Afandi, had been considered moderate Islamic clerics who denounced fundamentalism, but were seen by many as state approved ‘puppets’.
It is clear that within Russia, the Islamic community is in crisis. It is a community that has had little in common with the ruling national powers and now is being ripped apart by fundamentals within the region. Historically Islam has been isolated from central Russian politics. Before the Russian Revolution of 1917 Islam was considered a subversive religion, one supported by nationalists, who wanted to overthrow the Russian hierarchy that was staunchly Russian Orthodox. Following the Russian Revolution, despite the collapse in Orthodox authority, Islam did not prosper as it too suffered under the strict atheism of Communist Russia. It is only now following the end of Communism that Islam has begun to be integrated into Russian Society, however with such conflict occurring in these predominantly Muslim regions many in Russia can only see the violence and fundamentalism.
It was believed that support of clerics, such as Mr Afandi in Dagestan, would encourage Muslims, feeling isolated by Russian politics, to integrate into a wider Russian framework. Although this may go some way to building peace and prosperity in the Caucasus Islamic fundamentalism seems to be growing and this may be largely fed by a continued desire for the national independence of provinces and ethnic groups.
Chechnya has fought two long and bloody wars against Russia in pursuit of an independent nation-state and likewise those in Dagestan and across the border in South Ossetia, Georgia have all sought to create independent nation states. This conflict has ripped apart the provinces creating power vacuums filled by warlords and fundamental groups. Whilst this nationalist spirit continues in Caucasus, driving conflict, then Islamic fundamentalism will flourish and their desire to create an Islamic state, following Sharia law, will only add to the push for a further break up of the Caucasus.
For Russia, bringing the Caucasus region into political negotiations is key and the government will have to ensure that the moderates within society are in support of Russia’s political policies before fundamentalism within the country can be tackled. For those in Chechnya and Dagestan this may mean increasing levels of political independence and a reduction in Russian governmental interference.
However whatever is the next step for the Russian government, the solution will be found in the local society with religious leaders encouraging wider social co-operation through a support for moderate Islam opposed to fundamentalism.