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Salafists and Sufis square off over Chechnya

Publication time: 10 July 2008, 14:43

From July 5 to July 7, an international Islamic conference entitled "The Place and Role of Sufism in the Islamic World," which gathered together more than 200 clergymen from Russia and other countries, was held in the Chechen town of Gudermes. According to official sources, the event was organized by the Libya-based World Islamic People's Leadership organization (Interfax, July 1). The event, however, was most likely financed by the Russian government. The Kremlin seeks support from international Sufi leaders to counter the aggressive Salafi ideology that inspires the anti-Russian insurgency in the North Caucasus.

 

Sufism is a mysterious branch of Islam whose main idea is that a Muslim in his lifetime should concentrate on improving his moral principles while the social environment around him is not so important. At the opposite side of the spectrum, the disciples of the Salafi branch of Islam believe that all Muslims compose one Umma (society) that should be united as one political force and live according to Islamic Sharia law. The separatists in the North Caucasus very often justify their armed struggle by the fact that Caucasian Muslims live in a country ruled by non-Muslims (Russians). Salafists are usually very hostile to non-Muslim societies.

 

It is no surprise that the Russian authorities prefer to deal with and support Sufi disciples and not Salafi preachers. The conference in Gudermes was just another attempt to strengthen Sufism in Chechnya, where Salafism has become very popular recently, especially among the Chechen youth. In an address to the conference participants, Chechnya's pro-Russian president, Ramzan Kadyrov, said that the "spiritual and moral ideals of Sufism are directly connected with the acknowledgment of monotheism, with the perception of the multitudinous attributes of the Most-High, with spiritual perfection, with the purification of a believer's heart from evil, with condemnation of luxury and social injustice, with equality and human brotherhood" (Vesti-Severny Kavkaz, July 7). The conference adopted a resolution stating that "for many Muslim peoples spiritual knowledge of Sufism is part of their culture" and that the spiritual knowledge of Sufism is directed toward the "establishment of tolerant relations between people and helps to block radical and extremist developments" (Vesti-Severny Kavkaz, July 7).

 

Thus, the participants of the conference did not hide their main goal: to find ways to confront Salafism effectively. "The conference was an important event to unite all healthy elements of the traditional Islam that opposes radical Islamic distortions of the true faith," said Ruslan Saidov, a political observer and unofficial ideologist for Kadyrov's regime. Saidov sees Sufism as an ideological basis for national and state construction in Chechnya (forum.msk.ru, July 4).

 

The Kremlin regards Sufism as an ideal alternative to Salafism because Sufism agitates for non-violent methods, does not interfere with politics and helps to divide Russian Muslims, especially in the North Caucasus, according to ethnic characteristics. The North Caucasian insurgency has the opposite goal: to unite Muslims living in the Caucasus with those living in all Russia under a banner of the holy war against infidels and for establishing a pure Islamic state. The rebels in the North Caucasus recently gained an important ally-the famous Russian Muslim preacher Said Buryatsky.

 

Half ethnic Russian, half Buryat (the Buryats are a minority in Siberia very close to the Mongols), Sheik Said Buryatsky graduated from an Islamic Institute in Egypt several years ago. According to Jamestown's sources among Moscow Muslims, Buryatsky's main spiritual teacher in Egypt was Sheikh Mukhammad Khasan, an Egyptian scholar who issued his own fatwa (religious ruling) concerning defensive and offensive Jihad (holy war). According to his fatwa, a defensive Jihad requires every Muslim to defend any Muslim land against infidel aggression while an offensive Jihad is not obligatory.

 

Some people say that while studying in Egypt, Said Buryatsky was arrested once by the Egyptian police on charges of extremism. Despite this fact, Buryatsky became one of the leading young Muslim preachers after his return to Russia. Russia's Muslim community lacks good preachers and Buryatsky has demonstrated good skills as a religious missionary. His emotional sermons are well-constructed, and his knowledge of the Koran and religious literature in general is exceptional. He also speaks fluent Arabic.

 

Said Buryatsky used to preach on Radio Islam (which is controlled by the Spiritual Directorate of Russian Muslims and is the main source of propaganda for Islam in Russia). It is astonishing that the Russian authorities allowed Said to preach on the radio for such a long time because some of his sermons sounded clearly Salafi-like. In his sermons, Buryatsky targeted Shias as well as Sufis, calling them people who distort the true Islam. The official Muslim clerics probably overlooked this simply because they needed a preacher as brilliant as Said Buryatsky.

 

However, Buryatsky suddenly appeared in Chechnya accompanied by two top rebel leaders of the Caucasian insurgency: Dokka Umarov and Supyan Abdulaev. In a video posted by the rebel Kavkaz-Center website on June 19, Buryatsky stated that after the declaration of a Caucasian Emirate (see Chechnya Weekly, November 1 and 8, 2007) it became clear that the Emirate is what Russian Muslims really need and that all Muslims should support it. Buryatsky called Dokka Umarov "our amir"-meaning "our leader."

 

Buryatsky's appearance in Chechnya and the recent conference of Sufis in Guderemes demonstrate the important role that religion has started to play in the Chechen conflict, which back in the early 1990s appeared to be simply a political dispute between the federal center and one of Russia's regions.

 

Source: The Jamestown Foundation

Kavkaz Center


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