Religious Leaders Disown Wahhabis

Muslim leaders in Nalchik are eager to distance themselves from the Wahhabi extremists -- Russia's latest scapegoats in the North Caucasus

Religious Leaders Disown Wahhabis

Muslim leaders in Nalchik are eager to distance themselves from the Wahhabi extremists -- Russia's latest scapegoats in the North Caucasus

The religious leadership in Kabardino-Balkaria is fighting back against a relentless media offensive aimed at exorcising the phantoms of Wahhabi fundamentalism which continue to terrorise the North Caucasus region.

The repeated attacks -- which take their cue from the Russian military campaign in Chechnya -- have bombarded the reading public with conflicting reports of extremist activity in the republic. And local people, who have traditionally had a tolerant attitude to all religious faiths, have come to view the spiritual community as a whole with growing suspicion.

But now Shafig Pshikhachev, the head of the Spiritual Islamic Leadership (SIL) in Kabardino-Balkaria, is making concerted efforts to distance himself from the Wahhabis, whom he has dubbed "a subversive force from without".

The SIL, says Pshikhachev, is committed to limiting their influence in Kabardino-Balkaria and defrocking any rogue imams who insist on spreading the Wahhabi doctrine.

Inflammatory articles denouncing Wahhabi groups began appearing just weeks after Chechen fighters under the warlord Shamil Basaev attempted to create an Islamic state in the republic of Dagestan. Wahhabism which advocates a purer, more traditional form of Islam, first appeared in the east Caucasian republics during the first Chechen war.

In an October 1999 edition, the Severny Kavkaz (North Caucasus) weekly devoted a two-page spread to a tirade against Wahhabism. At the end of the feature, a "specialist in radical-extremist movements" is quoted as saying, "We can expect increased activity from the Wahhabi community in the very near future."

This set the tone for a barrage of equally damning articles in newspapers across the region. These included the story of a 17-year-old Wahhabi convert who refused to eat food prepared by his mother because she "lacked religious convictions" and an interview with a veteran of the war in Chechnya who said, "Brothers, believe me, it's an unjust war. True Islam doesn't let you take up arms in order to impose your belief on others. I don't want you to repeat my mistake."

Shafig Pshikhachev's leadership has been reeling under the tirades. Most recently, the Yuzhnaya Gazeta (Newspaper of the South) published an article claiming that the local authorities had been forced to dismiss Musa Mukozh, the imam of Volny Aul (a suburb of Nalchik), for preaching the Wahhabi doctrine. As a result, many worshippers suspect the SIL of lacking the courage to tackle the extremists themselves.

Pshikhachev has been swift to react. In an interview with Severny Kavkaz, he said, "There were no natural, political, historical or national grounds that ever gave us cause to suspect that Wahhabism could take root on the territory of Kabardino-Balkaria. But it is a subversive force that attacks a society from the outside. What were once just 'isolated incidents' have now become so commonplace that they threaten the security of the republic as a whole."

In a follow-up article entitled "Religion Cannot Force You to do Anything Against Your Will", Pshikhachev answered accusations that he failed to heed warnings of a growing Wahhabi movement back in 1993. On this occasion, at a Nalchik seminar organised by the Mohammed al-Saud University from Saudi Arabia, the imam of Dugulubgei, Amir Kozdokhov, said, "No matter what you do, there will be a Wahhabi leadership in this republic one day."

Pshikhachev counters, "At the time, neither the SIL nor the government nor the republic's security services understood the true dangers of this phenomenon. But I always believed that a truly democratic society needed a religious opposition as well as a political one."

However, several local newspapers have pointed out that no efforts were made to remove Kozdokhov from his post -- despite his obviously extremist beliefs. In fact, the imam tried to resign on several occasions, complaining of low pay, and was persuaded to stay. He now combines his religious work with a lucrative business sideline, trading in vodka.

But, despite Pshikhachev's protestations, the government-run newspapers have showed no sign of relenting. The October 11 edition of Soviet Youth carried a short article signed by an assistant to the Nalchik prosecutor entitled, "Religious Extremism Grips our Youth." The author accuses the religious leadership of allowing schools to "ignore the issues of faith, with the result that youngsters are becoming obsessed with dubious religious movements.

"The spread of the concepts of Wahhabism is particularly worrying. Followers of this religious tendency can be found amongst senior students and recent graduates of Nalchik's top schools."

Musa Alibekov is a political commentator in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria

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