Dagestan: Muslim Factions Clash

An eruption of violence closes one of the oldest mosques in the Caucasus.

Dagestan: Muslim Factions Clash

An eruption of violence closes one of the oldest mosques in the Caucasus.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

A mass fight in the main mosque of the southern Dagestani city of Derbent last week has highlighted apparent religious divisions in what was formerly one of the most peaceful areas of the North Caucasus.


The imam of a local mosque, whose worshippers formed one side in the battle, claimed unspecified Islamic extremists provoked the fight in the ancient mosque. The head of the city administration appeared to back these claims, while the main Muslim body in the republic suggested Derbent religious authorities shared the blame for the disturbance.


The violence, which erupted on April 9, involved around 300 people, 25 of whom were admitted to Derbent’s central hospital with varying degrees of injury. Nine of these were kept in hospital for observation and on April 12 three were in a critical condition. The mosque itself has been temporarily closed.


By early morning of April 10, there was nothing other than a stronger than usual police presence and two or three curious onlookers to hint at the events of the night before.


That evening it was possible to inspect the interior of the mosque. Everything had been turned upside down. The altar was on its side. Mirrors and sound equipment were smashed. Building materials – stone, wood and tiles – lay strewn across the floor, apparently used as weapons during the disturbances. Streaks of blood were visible everywhere. In one place, blood with a clump of hair stuck to it stained the wall. Lying broken on the floor was the flagpole from a green banner symbolising Islam.


The UN cultural agency UNESCO dates the Juma mosque back to the eighth century, making it arguably the oldest mosque on Russian soil.


Dagestan is well known for its high levels of criminality and political violence. However, the southern part of the republic, which borders Azerbaijan and in which Derbent is the main city, had until recently the reputation of being a quiet region.


The conflict began during Friday prayers, when locals from the Bab-ul-Abwab mosque came as usual to the bigger Juma (or “Friday”) mosque for worship. There they got into an argument with a group of young men from the Juma mosque.


The former, older group, who view themselves as Muslim traditionalists, called the latter “Wahhabis” - a catch-all term for Islamic fundamentalists influenced by Saudi Arabia.


“We were praying on Friday when one of the Wahhabis standing in the front row began to swear at our community and raised his voice at [us]. The others backed him up, and a scuffle began,” said Isamudin-haji, imam of the Bab-ul-Abwab mosque.


“It was impossible to carry on the ceremony. They gave the elders [the Bab-ul-Abwab worshippers] no chance at all.


“Then we decided to get together in the mosque once more and go to speak to them. Before this we also met with the imam chosen by them, but without any result. On Saturday we gathered together as a jamaat (community) and went to the lunchtime namaz [prayers]. There were around 200 of us. We entered the mosque, where there were around 30 people, but didn’t manage to complete the namaz. They took out knives and metal casing and attacked us. We were forced to defend ourselves.”


It took the police an hour to bring the fight to a halt, and the injured were sent to hospital. Officers let the men from Bab-ul-Abwab leave in groups, and took some away for questioning.


The Spiritual Board of Muslims of Dagestan, the main official religious body in the republic, suggested the fight had been planned in advance and weapons brought specially, but local people said there were very few knives involved.


The next morning, worshippers from Bab-ul-Abwab told IWPR that the police had treated them sympathetically, regarding their actions as carried out in self-defence.


The head of the city administration of Derbent, Felix Kaziakhmedov, appeared to back the traditionalists, saying, “We will get to the bottom of who finances these groups [a reference to the alleged Wahabbi worshippers].


“We need to bring our influence on [them], right down to closing [them down]. And we are working on this already. I want to state that all guilty parties will be punished. We have given no-one reason to doubt that we have the strength to maintain order in the city.”


The Spiritual Board of Muslims of Dagestan, however, hinted that the local religious authorities share some of the blame for failing to keep order. And Magdi-Haji Mutailov, deputy mufti of Dagestan, told IWPR that there was now a need for a new authority to try to prevent such disputes breaking out.


“Today the spiritual board is on the side of those who were hurt. So we can avoid these excesses in future, we are planning to assemble all the imams of southern Dagestan and collectively appoint a concrete person who commands respect and to name him chairman of the Council of Alims [or Islamic teachers]. So that he can be the arbiter amongst the Muslims of Dagestan on all controversial issues,” he said.


Enver Kisriev, a Dagestan scholar and author of a book on Islam and politics in the republic, said that the spiritual board was trying to exert greater control over southern Dagestan.


Rinat Turabov is a correspondent with Moskovsky Komsomolets Dagestan in Derbent. Aishat Abdullayeva, editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets Dagestan, contributed to this report from Makhachkala.


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