Balkar Muslims Blamed for Wahabbi 'Terror'

Muslims in Kabardino-Balkaria say they are being unfairly blamed for the excesses of radical Islamic groups

Balkar Muslims Blamed for Wahabbi 'Terror'

Muslims in Kabardino-Balkaria say they are being unfairly blamed for the excesses of radical Islamic groups

Police in Kabardino-Balkaria are warning people to be on the look out for terrorists. Since the middle of July, they have been on alert for some sort of attack in this autonomous republic on Russia's southern rim. But whether the warnings are based on actual or perceived danger remains unclear.

Focussing their attentions on the capital, Nalchik, the police say that their suspicions were raised by recent bomb explosions in Russia's Stavropol region, which have been blamed on Islamic Wahhabist groups. However, their warnings have been so alarmist that anyone wearing a beard, driving a luxury car or looking even vaguely Muslim immediately falls under suspicion.

Wahhabi gangs have become the bogeymen of this North Caucasian region and the people of Kabardino-Balkaria are expecting them to come barrelling down from the mountains which border Russia, at any time.

The republic's mountains are indeed inhabited by a traditionally Muslim people - the Balkars -but for a number of reasons they are now being associated with more radical Islamist elements. The Russian media in particular has been vilifying Balkar and Cherkess youth who have been enjoying a revival of moderate Islamic beliefs since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

A traditional Russian dislike for Caucasian nationalities, the spread of Wahhabism and the Chechen war has radicalised media opinion. In the process, the media have exploited the historically tense relationship between Balkars and Kabardinians - essentially a demographic rivalry between a mountain and valley dwelling people.

Problems are likewise rooted in the fact that the Kabardinians occupy far more government posts and therefore have the greater say over the republic's policy. They are also quick to point the finger of blame at the Balkars in the event of any trouble.

The press fuels tensions with stories like the one which recently appeared in the daily Argumenti I Fakti claiming that special Wahhabi training camps in Karachajevo-Cherkessia were being financed by their counterparts in Kabardino-Balkaria.

A massive police and military presence has restored an uneasy calm in the capital. Though no attacks have yet been carried out here, the police have said that they have received a number of threats. But officials' promises to arrest and prosecute terrorists are not exactly reassuring local Muslims who remember all too well the first war the government waged against the Wahhabis in the late Nineties, when there were widespread arrests.

This is an entirely different picture from the situation in the early and mid-Nineties when Islamic groups were largely tolerated. Preoccupied by the nearby Chechen war, which Nalchik perceived as an act of open Russian aggression, the authorities even provided rooms and police protection for Wahhabi meetings. There was a feeling of solidarity with the Chechen Muslims fighting Russian forces.

The revival of Islam was seen not as anything threatening but rather as a sign of the reinvigoration of religious freedoms so long suppressed during the Soviet era. There was an added plus when Wahhabi groups threatened criminal gangs - a move which won them the support of ordinary people.

However, this all turned sour when Islamists started imposing their beliefs. The first incident which awakened people to their intolerance occurred in 1998 when a group of young people were beaten up on the street after ignoring a request to turn down their music and stop smoking.

Unfortunately for the Wahhabists, one of the youths was the son of a high-ranking official. This was the spark which led to the clampdown on the group as well as other Muslim youths, for police swoops and arrests made no differentiation between the two.

The interior minister, Khachim Shogenov, personally cut off Islamists' beards. Muslim meetings were dispersed. "If you had a beard or visited a mosque you were immediately labelled as a Wahhabi," said one Muslim activist from the Balkar region.

"We have never had such lawlessness in our republic. [President] Valeri Kokov and his gang do what they want - no one protects Balkars," said Marzhan Ulbasheva, whose son was sentenced to eight years imprisonment because he twice made the Haj to Mecca.

It has been left to the local intelligentsia and, surprisingly, the Russian Orthodox church to protest against the persecution of Muslim youth. "It is a sin to mix up Wahhabists with normal Muslims," said one church leader. "The state should support Muslims or at least refrain from involvement in their affairs. And the Wahhabists should be expelled from the republic because they preach Islam through terror and violence."

Although there has been a spread in radical ideology in the region, it is a shame that the government has insisted on treating the whole question of Islam as a security issue.

Boris Zhamborov is a freelance journalist based in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria

Support our journalists