Denis Sokolov
Denis Sokolov

Denis is an expert at Free Russia Foundation, a visiting fellow at CSIS. He focuses on North Caucasus informal economy, land disputes, and institutional foundations of military conflicts


The choice between Kadyrov and al-Baghdadi

As of today, there are just two real political projects that are available for the Russian Muslims that they can choose in between. They are: al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the “Islamic State” (IS – a terrorist organization banned in Russia), and Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic and major general of the Russian police, who, as of late has been positioning himself more and more so as an advocate of Islam in Russia and around the world. As of today, there is nobody else there who is capable of competing with them for Islamic youth residing in urban and rural areas. The youth, which is on its quest for radical and simple ways of its personal self-fulfillment.

Nonetheless, and however paradoxically as they may appear, these two extreme figures are similar, both as far as their content is concerned, and aesthetically so as well. They both terrify the world with their brutality and the marching of the cut-throat assassins clad in black, they both have state agencies at their disposal, and they both enjoy an enormous amount of support outside the boundaries of the territories that are under their control. They both ascended to the leadership positions throughout the course of civil wars blood baths. They both have managed successfully to establish their control over quite substantial fiscal flows.

The IS prisons where the security services hold, torture and execute those dissidents who oppose them on the territories of the self-proclaimed caliphate were nicknamed in a joking manner by the Russian jihadists as: “department number six,” using the analogy with the Ministry of Internal Affairs subdivision, which is in charge of countering extremism and terrorism, and which has a notoriously infamous reputation for kidnapping people, and applying torture against its detainees.

Only al-Baghdadi, who is 46 years of age has been already losing his caliphate, meanwhile, the 40-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov is quite possibly getting a new lease of life, his second wind both as a politician and a religious leader. The mass rally on September 4th that took place in the city of Grozny in support of the Myanmar Muslims, which was attended by representatives of various interpretations of Islam from different other regions – it simply is Ramzan Kadyrov’s report to the general public on the work of consolidating Muslims around himself, that has been performed during the last two or three years. 

Cleanup of the alternatives

The polarization of the active part of the Islamic community has always been the result of the internal policy of Russia, whether it was done consciously or not, it is not up to me to be the judge of that. The criminalization of Islamic dissidents had begun in Dagestan in 1998, when the law on the prohibition of Wahhabism was approved. Later on, in the early 2000s, several educational projects and amnesty attempts for Salaphate followers, which refuted violence ended up with the arrests of their movement participants and in forcing their members to go underground, along with the repressions against the clerical curators.

Such Islamic party movements as: the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Tablighi-Jamaat and Takfir-Waal-Hijra, which renounce the armed jihad version, were legally banned in Russia. In the mid-2000s the attempts of the Islamic activists and intellectuals to come to an agreement with the Administration Office of the President in order to create an Islamic youth movement similar to those pro-Kremlin ones like “Ours/Our own” (“Nashi”) did not find support of the Kremlin’s political technical strategists. And the announcement of Doku Umarov’s, in which he had proclaimed the creation of the Emirate of the Caucasus (banned in Russia) and the shift of some part of the most radical activists towards joining the movement under his banners, those attempts were totally discredited.

The initiatives of Russian “converts” (those, who have converted to Islam from the Orthodoxy) organizations that are somewhat similar to the National Organization of Russian Muslims (NORM) got suppressed with equally vigorous severity, and their leaders and members were forced to emigrate outside of Russia.

The last attempt of the Muslims practicing Salaphite beliefs for peaceful co-existence with the governmental authorities was undertaken in Dagestan under the presidency of Magomedsalam Magomedov. With the support of the Administration of the President, they have established an association of Islamic scholars and preachers – “Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a.” Now most of its members have either emigrated, or have been accused of supporting of the IS and those accusations at times were not without some legitimate merit. Small Salaphite communities continue to exist legally in the Nogai villages of the Stavropol Region, and in Ingushetia. However, in general, the cleaning up of the peaceful Islamic field has been accomplished.

The reprisals against dissidents who think differently have always been particularly brutal, in the Chechen Republic, and as far as the freedom of conscience is concerned, in the state headed by Kadyrov it was abolished in an absolutely medieval fashion: in the year of 2016 a “spiritual and moral passportization” of the Muslims varying in age from 16 to 35 year old has been launched – the document was monitored and signed by the people who bear responsibilities for the young person – the neighbourhood police inspector, the head of the Teip (the Nakh family clan structure), and the head of the Wird (religious brotherhood). The most typical characteristic of the Chechen fight against dissidents is that its main criterion has always been and it still remains either the loyal allegiance towards Ramzan Kadyrov’s, or the absence of such.

Controlled underground movement

After the chaos of the Chechen wars, national movements and the turbulent re-Islamization of the 1990s by approximately the mid-2000s regional elites in the North Caucasus have learned how to resort to the utilization of the armed religious conflicts in their political and economic interests. From the year of 2007 on (the announcement of the “Caucasus Emirate”) up until August 2012 (the murder of Sheikh Said Afandi Chirkeisky in Dagestan), that militant scheme was titled as the fight against international terrorism.

The correct, “traditional” Islam was put into an opposition to the Salaphite version, which was linked to the international terrorism. The history of mutual crimes committed against each other, including the killing of the well – acclaimed famous religious and social leaders was pushing each and every Muslim to define his choice towards either of the parties, despite the fact that the majority of believers attempted to take a stand of neutrality on the matter.

Both sides were putting demands to identify and pick his own side on every Muslim. In Dagestan, as well as in other regions of the country, there were Salaphite and Muftiyat (Muftiate) mosques. There were activists in both groups ready to join in the conflict at any given moment. The “Caucasus Emirate” was almost on the same legal page with the law enforcement agencies as a supplier of militant violence as a resource used as a resolution of commercial and political conflicts.

Here comes an illustration: in one of the of halal network bistros in Makhachkala city, where the visitors and the staff were predominantly of Salaphite belief some waiter refused the service to the police. Later on the owner of the establishment fired that employee, in some part due to the pressure on behalf of the of law enforcement agencies, and in part due to the fact that the waiter simply did not wait on his customers. After that incident threats followed from the organizations: “From the forest” and representatives of the “Caucasus Emirate” for firing a Muslim in order to appease the infidels.

After the year of 2010 two things have finally became quite apparent. The first thing was that Sufi Islam of the Clerical Spiritual Council has been losing its battle for the youth to the Salaphite version of Islam. It was exactly at that time when the Clerical Council Administration of the Muslims of Dagestan after it had received a consent from Sheikh Said Afandi Chirkeisky, moved towards getting closer with the Salaphite religious trend, but two years later the Sheikh perished. The second thing that became apparent was that the “Caucasus Emirate” has been intertwined with the local elite and organized crime, and that it has been transformed into a proxy organization, which is providing non-systematic violence to the political market of the region, making it non-transparent for the federal center.

In 2012, Sheikh Said Afandi was blown up by a female suicide bomber and the reconciliation of Sufis with Salaphites was ceased, a wave of repressions was launched against all non-systemic Muslims. A situation similar to that one in its structure has occurred in Tatarstan as well. There the cleansing of both the Salaphite followers and Hizb ut-Tahrir (banned in Russia) as well as the members of the Tablighi-jamaat has reached its critical decisive phase after a former deputy mufti Valiulla Yakupov had been assassinated, after which an attempt to kill the mufti himself- Ildus Faizov was made. One has to separate Islam from the politicized distortions that are being used by the Islamists and Jihadists, including those ones from ISIS, which is banned in Russia.

At the very same time when the cleanup of the field commanders of the armed underground had commenced and the cleansing also began of those linked to them prominent political big wigs from among the local elite communities, who had their own private armies and their allies as part of the armed underground movement.

Said Amirov, the mayor of Makhachkala, was arrested and sentenced to life in prison in Dagestan, he was accused among other charges of having connections to the underground movement; the Director of the Republic’s Pension Fund – Saigid Murtuzaliyev was put on the wanted search list; Ibrahim Gadzhidadayev, the leader of the Gimrin armed group was murdered, and those politicians at the Republican level, who attempted to save him were arrested. Doku Umarov, Aliaskhab Kebekov, Magomed Suleimanov, who have been consequently succeeding each other as Amirs of the “Caucasus Emirate” were liquidated. Albert Nazranov, who was in charge of establishing liaisons between the political elite of the Republic and its armed underground movement was assassinated in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic. In a short period of time all of the well respected and acclaimed leaders of the underground movement were killed.

By the year of 2012 the “Caucasus Emirate” has been practically destroyed. In the North Caucasus Islamic preachers and activists were pushed into Syrian war, which has become a massive trend before the Olympics, and which has continued on ever after Al-Baghdadi announced about the creation of the caliphate creation in the summer of 2014. Ramzan Kadyrov has practically declared al-Baghdadi to be his personal enemy, especially so since according to different sources about 5,000 Chechens from Russia and Europe have joined the IS, or some of its other fronts, that are predominantly linked to Al-Qaeda (banned in Russia) and the Caucasus Emirate. Chechens who are from both IS and the Emirate are the enemies of Kadyrov.

The second generation of urban Muslims, those whose families moved from villages to cities in the 1990s and early 2000s gives its preference to the global projects. It does not remember regional and local problems, and has no desire whatsoever to know about them. It is exactly this generation that is choosing between Kadyrov and al-Baghdadi. And, it is exactly these young Muslims, who are the target audience of the head of the Chechen Republic in his fight for the leadership position among Russian Muslims.

The second life of Ramzan

When the followers of al-Qaeda, including the leaders of the Caucasus Emirate talk about how the IS not doing the right thing, al-Baghdadi responds by saying: the IS fighting, the IS is supporting the Sharia law on its territory, and what is it that you all are doing?

When Kadyrov’s opponents say that he is terrorizing the Chechen people more and more Muslims answer that: he is defending Muslims all over the country, as well as around the world, and that in Chechnya, which is the only republic in Russia, the sharia laws are placed above the Russian Constitution, an Islamic dress code has been established in public places. There is something that is being built in post-war Chechnya, there is order set there, and it is clean. Chechen cultural autonomies across the country and the diaspora throughout Europe (and, possibly, Chechen criminal networks with similar geography) all have a certain level of support from Ramzan Kadyrov.

Kadyrov and al-Baghdadi are sharing the same target group in Russia, as well as in Turkey and Europe among those Russian migrants. In 2015 a rally named “We are not Charlie” was organized in Grozny city. Using that rally as his venue Kadyrov has annunciated himself as the ideological leader of the protest aimed against globalization and the development of Western democracies of freedom that are associated with them.

A high-publicized scandal with the persecution and murder of gay men in Chechnya in early 2017, along with the statements made by the head of the republic on the topic have enabled Kadyrov to practically implicate all those Muslims, who could not condemn his openly homophobic rhetoric along with the violence for the sake of religious reasons as the co-conspirators in the suspected murder.

Grozny city fatwa (adopted in August of 2016 by the participants of the Islamic conference held in Grozny city, declared many religious trends as sectarian ones, which also caused a scandal and criticism in the Muslim world) -it is also a dispute between al-Baghdadi and the Salaphate sheikhs, who are close with al-Qaeda, and there is a solution, although it may not be the most successful one to the most convoluted mission: how while condemning and speaking out against international terrorism, and subsequently against those Muslims, who have already embarked on the path of jihad to still secure and keep their existing loyalty, and how to gain a new one from those young Muslims, who are almost ready to follow this path.

Ramzan provides support to all Muslims in all majorly well – resonant stories in the country, as it was in the case of the Chechen women, who got insulted while being on a walk in Voronezh. He financed Iftars (a meal after sunset during fast period in the month of Ramadan). In Moscow he was offering a treat in halal cafes of the capital city to all Muslims who were willing to partake in it. He is working on saving children and women from the North Caucasus – the widows and the orphans of the IS militants, who have found themselves on the territories of Iraqi and Kurdish formations after the attacks on Mosul. By doing so he becomes an ally and a partner to those children, simply common Muslims, and even to his own enemies from the “Caucasus Emirate”.

That is why the organization of a rally with a million people in attendance (according to the data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic) in Grozny city in support of the Myanmar Muslims is an absolutely logical, essentially crucial move for Kadyrov as a political and religious leader of Russian Muslims. One can say that the Chechen leader is being permitted to do that. Naturally so – he is being allowed to do it. However, he is positioned at the very forefront of the Russian politics, there are millions of people behind him, his popularity is increasingly growing, and as far as the decision on whether to become the leader of an Islamized social protest movement, or whether to remain a general in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, this is not even up to Kadyrov to make this decision. The choice will be made for him by the circumstances.

 This article has first appeared in Russian at the Vedomosti site.

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