BACKGROUND: “The traditional Spiritual Administrations of Muslims are not able to cope with Wahhabism, only authorities can defeat it,” said Farid Salman at a recent conference held in Kazan and devoted to the threat of “Wahhabism.” The chairman of the Ulema Council of the Russian Association, himself a famous Islamic theologist, went on to assert that “[t]here is no scheme, apart from that of Ramzan Kadyrov, to fight Wahhabism.” In fact, the Tatar intellectual summarized a commonly held belief among representatives of the “traditionalist Islam” in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, which reflects the growing appeal of Salafist ideology to local youth. Is Salafism – or Jihadism for that matter – indeed a serious challenge to the region?
According to some sources, there are as many as 5,000 Salafi Muslims in Tatarstan alone; in Bashkortostan, their estimates are slightly lower. Yet it should be stated that not every adherent of Salafism takes on its militarist interpretation, for which the term Jihadism has recently been established. The vast majority of Salafis profess their religion in a peaceful manner. Unlike, for instance, adherents of Sufi brotherhoods, they claim allegiance to the purist and utterly monotheistic interpretation of Islam, inasmuch as they attempt to purify what is considered “folk Islam” from proto-Islamic (jahiliya – relics of paganic cults) and post-Islamic (bid’ah – innovations in Islam, non-Islamic in their essence) elements, regarding God, Allah, as the only source of holiness.
Yet the sources of support for Salafism have had little to do with theology and much with sociology. Like elsewhere in the Islamic world, Salafi Islam started gaining adherents in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in recent years due to a combination of key factors: first, the official clergy has been discredited by its close cooperation with and support for local unpopular regimes accused of corruption and clientelism. Second, the absence of credible secular opposition that would be capable of changing the regime by means of free and transparent elections; third, the deteriorating economic situation and gap between the rich and the poor, amplified by the urban-rural divide; fourth, support from foreign Salafi groups or some form of ideological indoctrination, for instance by local Muslims who obtained Salafi-styled religious training in some Middle Eastern country; and fifth, the global appeal of Jihadism as a potent revolutionary ideology.
So far, the local Salafi community has been rather low-profile, refraining from entering politics or using violence. The notable exception was the assassination of mufti Ildus Faizov and the murder of his deputy Valiulla Yakupov in July 2012, which was most likely carried out by local jihadists who detested Faizov’s active efforts to rid Tatarstan of “Wahhabism.”
IMPLICATIONS: During the recent decade, local and federal authorities have increasingly reinforced their control over Muslim mosques and communities, pushing Tatar and Bashkir Salafis out of the public space into little cells on the periphery of towns. Instead of open gatherings in the mosques in Kazan, Nizhnekamsk, Naberezhnie Chelny and elsewhere, which was the case in the 1990s and partially also in the 2000s, the adherents of Salafism now usually meet for prayers and social activities in local private prayer rooms, dozens of which are scattered across Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. This, in turn, has somewhat complicated the control over Salafi communities in these republics.
Another factor is that in a series of waves, the last one coming up in the aftermath of the July 2012 assassination of Faizov and Yakupov, the local Salafi communities have found themselves under serious pressure from local law enforcement units that have treated them in an indiscriminate manner as a threat to national security, failing to distinguish between peaceful adherents of Salafism and Jihadists. According to local sources, this has contributed to the radicalization of a certain segment of local Salafis, particularly from the ranks of semi-criminal groups from Kazan’s Vysokaya Gora district and Nizhnekamsk.
In the meantime, sources in Tatarstan’s Ministry of Interior have alleged that contacts have been developed by representatives of the Caucasus Emirate, particularly some Dagestan-based jamaats, and local Salafi communities over the course of the recent year or two. Interestingly, the leaders of the Caucasus Emirate, notably Doku Umarov, have long threatened Moscow to extend the insurgency into Moscow’s backyard, particularly to the Muslim-dominated republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, yet due to the lack of an ideological, personal and logistic base in this area and the lack of capacities on the part of Chechnya-based insurgents who have recently suffered significant losses in resources and manpower, this has never materialized. By contrast, Dagestani jamaats have recently broadened their operational range deep into the Russian hinterland, carrying out lethal terrorist attacks in the Russian capital and elsewhere.
Sources in Kazan further state that agents of Tatar and Dagestani jihadists have recently met in a number of Russian cities, particularly in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, resulting in extended financial support to Tatarstan-based Salafi communities in order to ensure their survival and attempts to arrange basic training for Tatarstani jihadists in manufacturing explosives, etc. This could be considered the first step for radicalized Salafi communities with inclinations to Jihadism to prepare deadly attacks in the Russian hinterland, possibly also in the Sochi area on the eve of the forthcoming Olympics. In fact, observers speculate that because of the established focus of intelligence services on natives of the North Caucasus, it would take less effort for the Jihadists to implement a terrorist attack in a Russian town like Sochi, should it be carried out by an ethnic Tatar, Bashkir, or Russian.
According to Tatarstani sources, an inflow of militant Salafis from Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, as well as some Central Asian republics (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), has recently boosted local Salafi communities. Unlike in their home republics, where they have been subjected to persecution, the environment in the Volga-Ural region enables them to profess their faith in a relatively open manner. This, in turn, has further contributed to the radicalization of a segment of Volga-Ural Salafis, helping to establish personal links with the North Caucasian insurgency.
CONCLUSIONS: Most observers point out that the compelling differences between Tatarstan and Bashkortostan on the one hand, and the North Caucasus on the other, reduce the risk that of effective terrorist group, let alone an insurgency, emerging in this part of Russia. First off, both republics are situated deep in the Russian heartland with relatively flat terrain, with populations that are secular, rich, and with some significant exceptions largely unwilling to challenge the republics’ status as part of the Russian federation. Importantly, heavily modernized local societies lack archaic patterns of social organization based on clans and traditions including concepts of honor, blood feud, etc., that have accounted for a swift mobilization and spread of violence in the Northeast Caucasus. Last but not least, this has allowed the authorities to infiltrate agents into the Volga-Ural-based Salafi communities in a much more effective way than in the North Caucasus, which has so far helped Moscow to act preemptively. Yet even so, the establishment of links between radicalized Salafi communities in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, and North Caucasian insurgents creates a risk of deadly terrorist attacks carried out in the Russian hinterland, contributing to the overall worsening of the situation in another of Russia’s predominantly Muslim regions.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Emil Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2013) and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007).