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Growth of Islam in Russia Brings Soviet Response

Submitted by on November 22, 2005 – 12:37 pm No Comment

By STEVEN LEE MYERS
Published: November 22, 2005

CHERKESSK, Russia – Security officials here in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, a restive republic on Russia’s mountainous southern border, have a secret list of people who are kept under scrutiny.

Those on it have committed no crimes, but are considered suspect because they are Muslims who practice Islam outside of the state’s sanctioned mosques.

Ovod Golayev is on that list. He lives in Karachayevsk, a city nestled in the foothills of the Caucasus, where he works for a tourism company that organizes skiing and hiking excursions. He wears his hair and beard long. He prays five times a day. He fasts during Ramadan, which is unusual here.

In recent weeks, he said, the police have detained him four times, twice in one day.

Mr. Golayev, 36, said the Islam he observes is opposed to violence, but he warned that the mistreatment of believers was driving men like him to desperation.

“They will pressure me enough,” he said, “and then I will blow somebody’s head off.”

Here in the northern Caucasus, and across all of Russia, Islamic faith is on the rise. So is Islamic militancy, and fear of such militancy, leading to tensions like those felt in Europe, where a flow of immigrants from the Muslim world is straining relations with liberal, secular societies.

And so the government has recreated the Soviet-era system of control over religion with the Muslim Spiritual Department, which oversees the appointment of Islamic leaders.

But the Muslims of Russia are not immigrants and outsiders; they are typically the indigenous people of their regions. “These are Russian citizens, and they have no other motherland,” President Vladimir V. Putin said in August, when he met with King Abdullah of Jordan.

In Russia, the struggle over Islam’s place is not seen as a question of whether to integrate Muslims into society, but whether the country itself can remain whole. The separatist conflict in Chechnya, more than a decade old, has taken on an Islamic hue. And it is spilling beyond Chechnya’s borders in the Caucasus, where Islam has become a rallying force against corruption, brutality and poverty.

On the morning of Oct. 13, scores of men took up arms in Nalchik, the capital of the neighboring republic, Kabardino-Balkariya. They were mostly driven, relatives said, by harassment against men with beards and women with head scarves, and by the closing of six mosques in the city. In two days at least 138 people were killed. In Dagestan and Ingushetia, militants have been blamed for unending bombings and killings.

Followers of a Chechen terrorist leader, Shamil Basayev, have claimed responsibility for the deadliest attacks, including the one in Nalchik, and before that a similar raid in Ingushetia and the school siege in Beslan in September 2004. In Beslan, 331 people were killed, 186 of them children.

All have been part of Mr. Basayev’s declared goal to establish an Islamic caliphate, uniting the northern Caucasus in secession from Russia.

That goal has little popular support in the region’s other predominantly Muslim republics, but discontent is spreading as the government cracks down. Not all involved in the attacks are hardened fighters of Chechnya’s wars. More and more oppose the hard-line stands that the Kremlin takes against anyone who challenges its central authority.

In places like Nalchik and here in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, “official” muftis and imams have themselves been accused of acting to preserve their own status by tolerating the Kremlin’s efforts to repress anyone practicing a “purer” form of Islam.

Larisa Dorogova, a lawyer in Nalchik whose nephew Musa was among those killed in the fighting, said Muslims had appealed to the authorities, both religious and secular, to end the abuse of believers, only to be ignored. “If they had listened to the letters we wrote – from 400 people, from 1,000 – maybe this would not have happened,” she said.

Officials have denounced those who took up arms in Nalchik with the same broad brush they have used to describe Mr. Basayev’s forces. Mr. Putin linked the Nalchik uprising to international terrorists, whom he called “animals in human guise.” But in the Caucasus, where Islamic-inspired violence has killed far more people than terrorists have in Western Europe, the prevailing view is quite different.

“They were all good guys,” Ms. Dorogova said of Nalchik’s fighters.

The paradox of Islam in today’s Russia is that Muslims have never been freer.

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