Islamic Teachings Challenge the Status Quo

The spectre of Wahhabism continues to haunt local governments across the North Caucasus because it offers young people an alternative to the status quo

Islamic Teachings Challenge the Status Quo

The spectre of Wahhabism continues to haunt local governments across the North Caucasus because it offers young people an alternative to the status quo

The ongoing persecution of Wahhabis in the North Caucasus has little to do with the war in Chechnya. In fact, it pre-dates the current military campaign by several years.

The Islamic extremists are under fire because they alone have dared to stand up to the corrupt regimes which rule the Caucasian republics - because they offer young people an alternative social order and a different set of moral values.

Following the collapse of the Soviet state, the local authorities in the North Caucasus devoted considerable efforts to encouraging the rebirth of Islam across the region. However, by the mid-1990s, the majority of local bureaucrats were beginning to explore the financial benefits of their position, amassing vast personal fortunes at the expense of the population at large.

Naturally, they became wary of any political or social movement that might topple them from these lucrative posts - and, by 1995, the growing influence of some Islamic groups became a real cause for concern.

In the following year, a group of young Muslims in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, attacked and beat up the sons of several influential bureaucrats whom they accused of "getting fat on government funds".

The authorities were swift to react, arresting any young man in the republic who happened to be wearing a beard (considered to be the most obvious outward sign of strong religious convictions). Police burst into mosques during morning and evening prayers and seized anyone under the age of 45.

The minister of internal affairs, Khachim Shogenov (a modern day Peter the Great), even went so far as to set upon suspects with a pair of scissors and hack off their beards.

Five men were later charged with the attack on the apparatchiki and were jailed for between six and nine years.

It was at this point that the Nalchik regime decided it was easier to rule a society of shiftless atheists who sought solace in drugs and alcohol than to deal with a population which answered to a higher spiritual authority.

Fortunately for the government in Kabardino-Balkaria, the local Islamic community has been unable to unite under a single leader and mount a serious challenge to the status quo.

The republic's mufti, Shafig Pshikhachev, has remained silent in the face of the unremitting pogroms and consequently has lost the respect of his flock.

Pshikhachev has also been unable to explain what happened to the millions of roubles raised to build a mosque and Islamic centre in Nalchik five years ago.

Apparently, the authorities have found it convenient to leave the mufti tainted by the scandal and no attempt has been made to investigate the case.

Consequently, regular meetings held across Kabardino-Balkaria to discuss "the problems of combating religious extremism" are generally one-sided affairs.

Earlier this month, Pshikhachev attended one such meeting in Chegem, on the outskirts of Nalchik. Here interior ministry official Anzor Shorov informed his audience that Islam was becoming "increasingly politicised" and 350 active Wahhabis had already been identified in the republic.

He went on to say that 40 per cent of these had criminal records and, since 1996, the interior ministry had smashed 13 mafia gangs which were motivated by religious convictions.

Shorov concluded, "The fundamental goal of all criminal groups based on the territory of this republic is to establish an Islamic state in the North Caucasus".

And then, of course, there is the theory that all the Wahhabis are, in fact, agents of Western security services seeking to persuade the mutinous republics to secede from the Russian Federation.

Just this month, Komsomolskaya Pravda published an article claiming that Islamic forces were poised to invade nine Russian republics (including Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygea).

The newspaper even published a campaign map which the Russian secret service had allegedly procured in El-Riyadh. The map reportedly proved that the Islamic army enjoyed the full support of Western intelligence chiefs, who hoped to extend their influence across the Caucasus mountains in the event of an invasion.

Strange then that the Western security services have done nothing to protect their network of saboteurs and rabble-rousers in Kabardino-Balkaria. Surely they would be able to outwit a local police force which consists predominantly of bribe-takers and witless oafs?

At this month's meeting, the Chegem police said they had noticed a new trend in local religious circles - the younger generation went to the mosques only in the evening whilst their elders attended during the day.

This, they said, was conclusive proof that the young worshippers were gathering under cover of darkness to hatch devilish plots against the state. One officer told the mufti, Pshikhachev, "You should explain to your flock that a mosque is not a hotel and ensure people are not allowed to stay there overnight."

But young Muslims I have met betray none of these reactionary tendencies. Recently I attended the wedding of a young couple who made no secret of their purist Muslim beliefs.

The wedding guests did not drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. They never swore and spoke in low voices. One told me he considered European music to be the devil's work but, when I remonstrated, he made no attempt to lecture me on the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. Instead he smiled and said that everyone chooses their own path to God and he saw nothing reprehensible in the fact that I like the Beatles.

It is a tragedy that the Kabardino-Balkarian authorities are unwilling to share this "live and let live" mentality. But they see this calm, ascetic existence as a direct condemnation of their decadent lifestyle. And at the same time, by pointing the finger at the Wahhabis, they succeed in diverting the public's attention from their own nefarious activities.

Boris Zhamborov is an independent journalist based in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria

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