Wednesday, 13 September 2000

WHY WAHHABISM WENT WRONG IN DAGESTAN

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By Dr. Robert Bruce Ware (9/13/2000 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Political Islam became an active force in the Soviet Union during perestroika through the Islamic Party of Revival (IPR) that owed its organization and development to the efforts of three Dagestanis: Ahmed-Kadi Ahktayev, and the brothers Abbas and Bagaudin Kebedov. Bagaudin Kevedov, who is also known as Bagaudin Magomedov, became a key figure among Dagestani Wahhabis and is presently participation in the struggle in Chechnya. Wahhabism is a fundamentalist Sunni Islamic movement founded in Arabia in the middle 18th century by Mohammed Abd-al-Wahhab.

BACKGROUND: Political Islam became an active force in the Soviet Union during perestroika through the Islamic Party of Revival (IPR) that owed its organization and development to the efforts of three Dagestanis: Ahmed-Kadi Ahktayev, and the brothers Abbas and Bagaudin Kebedov. Bagaudin Kevedov, who is also known as Bagaudin Magomedov, became a key figure among Dagestani Wahhabis and is presently participation in the struggle in Chechnya. Wahhabism is a fundamentalist Sunni Islamic movement founded in Arabia in the middle 18th century by Mohammed Abd-al-Wahhab. The IPR remains a moderate wing of the Wahhabi movement though its members do not refer to themselves as Wahhabis. They called themselves "Muslims of the djamaat (traditional community)", or Alafiyyun, "those that return to Islam". The radical Dagestanis are "Wahhabi" enough to receive funds from the Gulf, where with the exception of Oman, "Wahhabism" is the official form of Islam.

In Dagestan, Wahhabi fundamentalists challenged traditional Muslims, polarizing village life. With strict adherence to the Koran, Wahhabis do not smoke, drink alocohol, shave their beards, or recognize government authority. Wahhabism differs from the Sufi tariqat movement by rejecting the post-first four imams’ interpretation of the Koran and shari'a. It also holds local sheiks cults and proclamations of holy sites to be invalid. Wahhabism had least appeal among Dagestani ethnic groups most Western in their orientation: Russians, Laks, and Lezgins. Wahabism never accounted for more than 3% of Dagestan's Islamic faithful and concentrated in the Dargin Buynasky region, the Avar regions and the indigenous Chechen-Akkin population of Dagestan's Novolaksyk region. These areas became the scene of conflict during the summer of 1999.

Insurgents, included Chechens, Central Asians, Arabs, North Africans, Eastern Europeans, and many Dagestani Wahhabis, began infiltrating Dagestani villages from training camps in Chechnya operated with foreign funding by Bagaudin Magomedov, Shamyl Basayev, and Emir al Khattab, a Jordanian, of Chechen descent. The insurgents were courteous to the locals, paid for everything they required, and harassed no one, except in so far as they forbade alcohol. A skirmish with Dagestani police led Basayev and Khattab to invade Dagestan that was fiercely resisted by the overwhelming majority of Dagestanis. Two weeks later on the day Basayev's forces were driven from Dagestan, the Dagestani People's Assembly outlawed Wahhabism. Ordinary Wahhabis were viewed as traitors and pariahs, and Wahhabi leaders were arrested or driven into hiding.

IMPLICATIONS: Throughout the 1990s, Wahhabism drew its acolytes from diverse points along the socio-economic spectrum of the North Caucasus. Impoverished residents of rural villages found in Wahhabism clarity and ideological simplicity. It was a refreshing contrast to, and cut through the cumbersome and often costly, pseudo-traditions of North Caucasian Islam. Wahhabism also spread through relatively prosperous villages that found in its Puritanism an organizational power for the preservation of their civic conventions and traditional morality against degenerative influences of the media, mass culture, individualism and liberalism. Wahhabite rejection of political authority lent them an opportunity to free themselves from the bureaucratic constraints and political corruption of state officials.

The negative political significance of the Wahhabis is greater than their numbers would suggest. The reasons for its initial appeal to many Dagestanis, and the reasons for its ultimate repudiation, suggest strategies for its management elsewhere in the Eurasian crescent. The Wahhabite critique of traditional clergy not only increased mutual enmity, but also had a radicalizing effect upon the otherwise mild traditionalists. Dagestan's Wahhabites built their own mosques and Islamic schools. They operated a satellite uplink through which they communicated with one another, and with their supporters abroad. Dagestani Wahhabism received considerable financial support from the Persian Gulf and elsewhere in the Islamic world several years prior to the war in Chechnya. Indeed, Dagestani authorities have accused Islamic fundamentalist groups in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia of launching a jihad in Dagestan.

Wahhabism came earlier to Dagestan than to other areas in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Wahhabism dispensed with many of the rituals that distinguish local Islam, along with the paternalism of traditional spiritual authorities. Yet its rejection of North Caucasian customs, particularly with regard to weddings and funerals, tended to polarize its opponents, and was a further obstacle to its spread. Neophyte Wahhabis forced such issues through their inevitable zeal and spiritual resolve. The rigid Wahhibite Puritanism and fully veiled Wahhabi women were both alien and offensive to the freewheeling, hard-drinking, rough-shod egalitarianism with which traditional North Caucasian Islamic authorities had long since learned to compromise.

CONCLUSION: Increasing travel opportunities increased foreign influence and contributed to the growth of Wahhabite fundamentalism in Dagestan. As travel restrictions were eased, more North Caucasians made the pilgrimage to Mecca. A full 80 percent of those who have embarked on the Hajj from the Russian Federation since independence are from Dagestan. As religious youths increasingly were educated internationally in some of the best Islamic universities they lost respect for the traditional North Caucasian clergy, who tend to be elderly and, in some cases, half-educated. Wahhabism also was a refuge for that part of the intelligentsia which abandoned its connection to traditional Islam in Soviet schools and universities, and which subsequently found itself without ideological footing. Still today, approximately 500-700 Dagestani Wahhabis are currently fighting on the side of the Chechen militants.

Wahhabis offered a direct critique of moral degradation, social irresponsibility and the corruption of the religious and political establishment that found an eager audience among the least fortunate mountain villagers. The growth of Wahhabism can be viewed as a product of Western influences, for it is a potent reaction against the excesses of modernization. It springs from a deep disillusionment with the prospects for economic transition, and feeds on widespread despair over the myriad forms of moral and political decay that are rapidly overwhelming Caucasian society. The roots of this movement may be traced to ever-deepening poverty and the prevalence of political corruption. Wahhabism offers immediate answers for the critical social problems resulting from the current period of transition. But since January 2000, with federal funding for Dagestan increasing 270 percent, crime is reduced and a wide variety of socio-economic problems have dramatically improved.

AUTHOR BIO: Robert Bruce Ware is Assistant Professor of Philosophical Studies Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He conducts field research in the Northeast Caucasus and has published extensively on topics of ethnic politics, separatism, and religion.

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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