BACKGROUND: In mid-May 2010, Jamaat Shariat, the largest and oldest jihadi group in Dagestan, disseminated leaflets across the republic declaring war on fellow countrymen involved in “seeding spoiled morals and multiplying sins.” The jihadi group warned all those concerned – the owners and employees of liquor stores, casinos, and saunas (in fact, brothels) – that “we will set fire to your brothels, blow places where you do haram, destroy your properties and shoot on your stores and casinos, blow up and shoot your saunas, where adultery is practiced.” Since then, five men have been killed by jihadi groups in around 37 attacks against such anti-Islamic targets across Dagestan, leaving dozens injured. Similar jihadist attacks against liquor stores, casinos, and saunas have periodically occurred in other parts of the North Caucasus, as well.
In their infamous 2010 leaflets and later statements, the jihadists have frequently used the word haram to refer to practices deemed unlawful and forbidden according to Islamic and Salafi dogma. While Islamic tradition outlaws, among other things, prostitution, adultery, premarital sex, gambling, alcohol and pork consumption, as well as any food incompatible with Islamic dietary rules; Salafi dogma also adds to the category of haram tobacco consumption, music, dancing, and singing.
Since the beginning of the concentrated targeting of haram businesses in Dagestan, the local society has been ambivalent on the matter. On the one hand, traditionalist Dagestanis – who still form a majority of Dagestan’s population – have long been opposed to what many refer to as the spread of “spoiled morals,” an eclectic phenomenon comprising, among other things, homosexuality, “frivolous behavior of women,” a lack of proper respect for the elderly, gambling, alcoholism, drug addiction, disrespectful and ill-mannered behavior, and the like. The dissolution of the Soviet Union exposed Dagestan to outside influences, while the remnants of patriarchal society – clan organization, customary law, and so on – faded away. The modernization and urbanization that had gained momentum in Dagestan since the post-World War II period accelerated these processes dramatically in the 1990s. These developments, coupled with immense economic decline, brought about female emancipation, but also increases in alcoholism, gambling, and drug addiction particularly in the younger generations. Yet a considerable share of the local population rediscovered Islam, calling for the reintroduction in Dagestani society of values and practices deemed Islamic, deeply rooted, and thus intrinsic to the local society.
IMPLICATIONS: These opposing developments have turned Dagestan into a society of extremes, where deep religiosity – at least on the surface – has gone hand in hand with elements of (post-)modern culture. Intriguingly, most Dagestanis – both pious and secular – have found a compromise between Islam and modernity, exemplified by their attitude to social conservatism. Nowadays, even many secular Dagestanis tend to display skeptical attitudes towards “spoiled morals” and positive attitudes towards religion, a hallmark of Dagestani identity. Likewise, both Salafi and non-Salafi minded believers appear to coalesce with secular Dagestanis over the “spoiled morals” as a menace to the very notion of what is means to be Dagestani or, as many have referred to it in the republic, to the highlanders’ honor (gorskaya chest).
Therefore, the principal question has not been whether most Dagestanis share the critical stance of the local jihadi groups towards liquor stores, casinos, and brothels, but whether they approve of the violence carried out against such groups. While statistical data is missing on this controversial issue, discussions with dozens of Dagestanis reveal that a considerable portion of the local population approve of non-lethal violence against anti-Islamic objects. For them, against the backdrop of local authorities being either unwilling or incapable of combating alcoholism, prostitution, and gambling, the use of violence – or the threat thereof – against such businesses is the only available option to halt the spread of “spoiled morals” in Dagestani society. Indeed, given the existence of infamously corrupt law enforcement in the republic, reportedly involved in “taxing” or sheltering such businesses, jihadists appear to be doing the job of imposing fear in current and prospective “sinners.” Yet, with the exception of hard core Salafis, most Dagestanis appear to disapprove of the use of lethal violence against such targets.
The local jihadi groups seem to be taking the expectations of the local population seriously. Since May 2010, around 460 law enforcement officers and federal troops have been killed in the republic in hundreds of assassinations and diversionary operations, in comparison to five victims of haram-centered targeting. In contrast to other areas of jihadi-led violence against haram targets, these numbers are surprisingly low. For instance, in a one-day operation carried out across the country on December 7, 2013, Iraqi jihadists targeted liquor stores across the country, killing 15 people. Similarly, on July 14 2014, Iraqi jihadists targeted a brothel in Baghdad, killing 34 people. In the city of Bauchi, Nigerian Boko Haram-affiliated jihadists targeted a brothel on June 28, 2014, killing ten people. Similarly high numbers of casualties inflicted upon haram objects have been a hallmark of Afghanistan-based Taliban.
CONCLUSIONS: The low casualties of haram-centered violence in Dagestan may be explained by a number of factors. First and foremost, unlike jihadi groups operating in other parts of the world, Dagestani jihadists, a predominantly urban guerilla movement, have been vitally dependent on the support from among the local population, which has provided the jihadists with shelter, intelligence, financing, and material supplies. Carrying out highly lethal attacks on civilians in the republic would dramatically shake the level of support emanating from the local population, endangering their cause. This may also explain why Dagestani jihadists, unlike their counterparts in other the areas affected by jihadist violence, have focused on alcoholism, prostitution, and gambling – the less controversial targets according to Dagestani public opinion – while avoiding targeting schools with mixed sex education, sites of popular resort, and other essentially haram objects.
Secondly, unlike jihadist groups operating in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Islamic world, Dagestani local jihadists appear to have focused not on punishing, but rather “re-educating” the local population. In fact, many members of Dagestan’s Salafi community have told this author that following seven decades of state-imposed atheism, the local society is still not ready for the imposition of Islamic law, the ultimate goal of Salafis. Hence, the local population first needs to be re-Islamized, and deeply rooted societal diseases need to be eradicated, for which a generation or two of active efforts are needed. Against this background, many Salafis and (former) jihadists refer to ordinary Dagestanis as their potential allies, not current enemies, expressing concerns over acts that would antagonize them from the right cause. While this points to Dagestani jihadists as essentially rational actors, these assumptions may not hold for other areas of jihadist violence, where the “sinners” are considered enemies and as such are seen as an adequate target of divine punishment.
AUTHORS’ BIO: Emil Aslan Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists, co-authored with Huseyn Aliyev (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Peter Lang, 2007).
Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons