02:42 GMT +323 March 2018
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    By Marianna Belenkaya, RIA Novosti political analyst

    "We declare that genuine believers will never take the path of terrorism. We are convinced that those who consciously choose to become terrorists renounce their faith," reads the final document of the 2nd Interfaith Peace Forum, which took place in Moscow in early March.

    Unfortunately, these words of CIS spiritual leaders can hardly break the connection between terrorism and Islam in the Russian, European and American public minds.

    This has forced clergymen and spiritual leaders to focus on a predicament: how can the public be persuaded that religion and terrorism are utterly incompatible?

    For anyone who knows the basics of Islam, this is an obvious truth. According to Ismail Berdiyev, the chairman of the Coordination Centre of North Caucasus Muslims, "terrorists are not shakhids (martyrs for the sake of faith) but murderers of other people and themselves". Both acts are mortal sins for Christians and Muslims alike.

    This, though, is difficult to explain to the public. Russia's Muslim leaders have implored journalists and politicians not to apply the term "shakhid" to suicide bombers, but to no avail. This word has taken root in the standard lexicon of ordinary people and the security services. Indeed, the "shakhid's belt" has all but become the official name for the explosive device carried by suicide bombers. In the public mind, spiritual leaders argue, this breeds an association: a shakhid means a Muslim, and every Muslim is a potential terrorist.

    However, let us assume that the term "shakhid" disappears from newspapers and TV screens. There is yet another popular word, "wahhabite", which has become a synonym for "terrorist" across the former Soviet Union. This word is used both by politicians who have nothing to do with religion and many Muslim leaders. It is a source of a great deal of confusion.

    During a plenary session of the religious forum, one mufti said from the rostrum, "Wahhabism is not a traditional Islamic doctrine and should be eradicated". On hearing this, a Georgian priest asked a RIA Novosti analyst sitting next to him, "Excuse me, but isn't Wahhabism the official religion of Saudi Arabia?"

    It is hard to say where this idea came from. Saudis do not call themselves "Wahhabites". They should be rather called "Salafites", i.e. "followers of the traditions of their righteous forefathers".

    However, wahhabism does exist, though the term is interpreted differently in Russia and Saudi Arabia. In Russia, wahhabites for some reason are not only terrorists using Islamic slogans as a cover for their activity, but also all oppositionists to the official Muslim clergy, much the same as sectarians in Orthodoxy. These wahhabites are mainly young people who received their religious education abroad and returned home with the desire to play an active role in religious activities. In some regions, accusing a rival of being a wahabbite, in contrast to righteous believers, is a way of easing him out of the way. However, the religious community suffers as a whole, because the image of the Muslim-terrorist is fixed in public conscience.

    Ismail Berdiyev announced at the forum that Saudis had asked Russia's Muslims to help them get rid of the label of wahhabism. During Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov's visit to Riyadh, the Russian delegation proposed to their hosts that an international information centre be set up to provide Islamic explanations about examples of extremism, terrorism and a great deal more. Berdiyev said that this move was needed to change the negative image of Muslims in mass consciousness and to inform Muslims themselves about what spiritual leaders think about many issues. The Saudis supported the delegation's idea.

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