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Roots of religious extremism in Russian regions

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Marianna Belenkaya.) -- Reports about trials of proponents of religious extremism and terrorism in Russia are no longer breaking news.

Many of them involve organizations that call themselves Islamic and operate all over Russia, including the North Caucasus, the Volga region and the Urals. Muscovites seldom hear much about them or know what is at the bottom of disputes in the regions. Are the defendants genuine extremists or are they being punished for their religious beliefs?

It is difficult to discern from Moscow the small but vital details of regional political and economic disputes or find the truth in the clash of interests of companies and individuals. In fact, "cases of religious extremism" are seldom rooted in the nuances of religion.

Svetlana Akkiyeva, director for social and political research at the Institute of Humanitarian Studies of the Kabardino-Balkarian Government and the republican center of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told RIA Novosti that it is social factors that mostly determine the situation in the regions, primarily the North Caucasus. The ethnic factor, which was the root cause of confrontations between the people and the authorities in the early and mid 1990s, has withered to almost zero. Ethnic conflicts are possible wherever people of different nationalities live side by side, but current events are based on entirely different reasons.

"Religious radicalism is primarily a social and not a religious conflict," Akkiyeva said. "Young people think that religion is the only equalizer of people and restorer of social justice. They use religious slogans, but what they really want deep inside is social justice."

The October events in Nalchik, capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, clarified some of the roots and causes of religious extremism. They were provoked by a complicated mixture of foreign policy reasons (the role of international terrorist organizations), internal problems in the Muslim community, and social and economic problems, such as corruption in the upper echelons, unemployment and monetary stratification of the people, dissatisfaction with the actions of law enforcement agencies, etc. Of course, some forces want to rock the boat, but extremist ideas brought from without will not take root unless the local soil has been prepared, say RIA Novosti experts.

There are many formulas of combating extremism. One of the latest examples was the idea advanced by Kabardino-Balkarian parliament: amend the Russian legislation by stipulating longer sentences for incitement of religious hatred and organization of extremist groups. The clergy - irrespective of confessions - also suggest stricter control of missionary operation by outside preachers.

Valiulla Khazrat Yakupov, first deputy mufti of Tatarstan, a Muslim republic of Russia, summed up the general opinion: religious ignorance is one of the root causes of extremist sentiments among Muslims, which makes them an easy prey for all kinds of missionaries.

Religious extremism also thrives on the fact that religious institutions were outlawed and liquidated in the Soviet Union, which is why newly established and inexperienced religious communities could not control the situation or resist outside preachers in the early 1990s.

Yakupov also said that young Muslims in the former Soviet republics are mostly new converts. And as it often happens with new converts, they go to extremes and frequently detour from Islamic beliefs that are traditional for the given region. This provokes conflicts between different generations of Muslims.

A conflict of generations is fraught with serious problems. Many young Muslims who studied Islam in Arab countries in the middle or late 1990s have acquired new views of religion and life there. We do not mean those who were recruited by terrorist organizations and took up arms upon returning to Russia. We mean those who decided to strictly abide by the norms of Islam, though not its traditional forms preached in Dagestan, Tatarstan and other Muslim republics of Russia, but those they learned in Arab countries.

Islam, just as any other religion, has local traditions differing from country to country. But young Muslims reject them, especially because they see the older generation of the imams who grew up in the Soviet Union as corrupt and religiously semi-literate. The new generation of Muslim believers frequently wants to have their own mosques, imams and their own life. As a result, they clash with the official Muslim Boards in the regions.

Worse still, the official Muslim clergy is frequently disunited too, with one of the conflicting sides trying to involve the assistance of the state and accusing the other side of Wahhabism and extremism. The Russian law enforcers cannot always distinguish between Wahhabis and ordinary Muslims. Police simply react to the information to the best of their ability, which only pours fuel onto the flames of religious discord in the regions.

Mufti Yakupov spoke in a recent interview not about the danger of growing influence of such extremist groups as Hizb ut-Tahrir in Russia, but precisely about the danger of Wahhabism. Hizb ut-Tahrir has been outlawed, but the notion of Wahhabism is too vague for general understanding. Yakupov said that this provides fertile breeding ground for Wahhabi cells that are winning the ear of Muslim clergy.

But those who are listed as "politically suspect" in the regions hold a different opinion. They say that all opponents of the official Muslim Boards are branded Wahhabi in the regions. To establish the truth, one needs to analyze each particular case for something other that religious circumstances.

Regional judges are mostly biased because they are involved in the situation in one way or another, and external arbiters are non-existent or have no possibility or time to analyze the situation in detail.

This is not only a problem of relations between the Muslim Boards and the unrecognized religious communities. Conflicts, as well as accusations and suspicion, can develop also between secular and religious authorities. The latest example is the scandal over the Russian Islamic University in Tatarstan.

Legislation should provide more clear-cut definitions of the notions of extremism and terrorism. How can one distinguish between an over-zealous believer and an extremist? How can one establish that foreign sponsors' money is spent on improving education, including religious one, and not on subversive activities? This is extremely difficult to do when absolutely everything is complicated by the shadow of local scandals. There are no ideal criteria, judges or arbiters.

In fact, the regions can rely either on the wisdom of local authorities, who should be interested in maintaining stability, or on the interference of the federal center. The federal center also faces a very difficult choice. Whom to back without making a serious mistake?

Russian scientists and experts working with the local public seem to be the least biased in this situation. Most of them say that the shortest way to regional stabilization is dialogue with Muslims who are listed as suspect. The use of force will not solve the problem, though the law enforcement agencies should increase the network of agents and improve the quality of information collection. But they must not limit their activities to conducting mass check-ups, closing mosques and arresting suspects.

Svetlana Akkiyeva said that in the mid-1990s Muslim converts in many North Caucasus republics firmly rose against the traditional values. They erected a high wall between themselves and society, but some local authorities wisely decided to involve them in dialogue. As a result, the young converts became more accepting of the world around them and gradually stopped rejecting their own culture, traditions and society.

The situation has changed dramatically since then, with law enforcement agencies made responsible for working with such young people. This clearly points to a preference of the stick to the detriment of the carrot. One of the results of this policy was the tragedy in Nalchik and the spread of radical sentiments among young people in Dagestan. Those who had never taken up arms before and rejected Basayev have been actually forced out to the other side of the barricade.

Yuri Sidakov, Chairman of the Human Rights Commission under the President of North Ossetia, also calls for dealing directly with the people. The commission experts, who get no money from the state, are working with Muslim communities in the outlying regions of the republic within the framework of the Islam Without Weapons program.

"We are trying to solve their problems within the boundaries of law," Sidakov said. The young people killed during the terrorist attack in Nalchik died not only because terrorists had thoroughly brainwashed them but also because of the authorities' slack policies, he said. The underlying reasons are social, economic and political drawbacks in the work of the authorities.

Sidakov said terrorists used two standard channels of influencing the communities: through a network of schools of Arab language and religion fundamentals (there is a need for this), and a chain of Shariah courts created in the regions because the people have become disillusioned in the corrupt secular courts. Sidakov said that this trend could be cut short if Russian legislation were complemented with local judicial traditions of the North Caucasus, which take into account blood feuds and conflicts.

"All problems can be solved within the community if we talk to the people as equals," Sidakov said. "As a rule, Muslim communities are deeply pained by external interference in their affairs. But talking to them in the same language can preclude many problems."

The community can influence the situation in its region, control its members and cut short the influence of extremist preachers. No secular laws, let alone use of force, will solve problems unless we recognize this truth. But do the advocates of dialogue speak up loudly enough in the regions? Are the conclusions of researchers who monitor the situation on a weekly basis applied in practice? Or are their attempts to improve the situation in the regions doomed to failure?

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