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Radical Islam in North Caucasus ‘a Form of Social Protest’ When Other Channels are Blocked


Radical Islam has become “above all a form of social protest” in the North Caucasus, according to a leading specialist on Daghestani youth, “and no one has offered another model of self-expression which is different in principle and which by its significance is equal to radical Islam.”


In a wide-ranging 5400-word interview with Yana Amelina carried by yesterday, Ruslan Gereyev, a specialist on young people at Makachkala’s Center for Islamic Research on the North Caucasus, says that unless this changes, Russia’s future in the region is likely to be a sad one (

Indeed, he argues, “there are no prospects for anything except the rapid development of Wahhabism and its broader dissemination.” Few, Gereyev says, “have the courage to say openly” that all the talk about investments and about improvements in the situation in the North Caucasus is not only false but driving ever more young people toward the radicals.

Daghestani youth, he continues, are appalled by the radical income differentiation, corruption, the shadow economy, and rampant immorality they see around them, and they see Wahhabism as a reasonable and attractive response, one that gives their lives meaning and even hope.

Today, in fact, “the religious factor is the basis of what is taking place among young people [in Daghestan] and especially in the motivations of ‘the forest brothers.’ But let us explain,” Gereyev says, “what we understand by [that because] it does not mean that they run into the forests.”

“No, they, just like you and me, live in villages, cities and major megalopolises. The ‘forest’ brothers can be your neighbors in any region of the country or the world.” It applies to “the bearers of the ideas of radical changes here and now, and radical Islam has become above all a form of social protest.”


Many specialists on this issue have told him, Gereyev adds, that “if Wahhabism did not exist, then [young people] would find a different form” for their political protest. “Young people are dissatisfied with what is taking place; they are absolutely out of control, and no one has offered another model of self-expression equal in significance to radical Islam.”

And consequently, it is a fundamental mistake to confuse attachment to such ideas with criminality or banditism as Russian commentators and officials often do. “No bandit will give his life” for an idea, but those attached to Wahhabism and other forms of radical Islam are quite prepared to do precisely that.

Seeking to cooperate with religious authorities, something the powers that be have tried without a clear policy, also has been counterproductive, Gereyev says. Indeed, it has often led to a situation in which state officials find themselves captured by the religious leaders with whom they say they want to work.

Imams and mullahs in some parts of Daghestan now have a say in the appointment of the officials, who sometimes take pride in that fact. But “such cases inevitably are leading to the clericalization of Daghestani society,” alienating young people both from the state and from traditional Islam and thus driving more of them into the hands of the Wahhabis.

At present, Gereyev says, things have gone so far that many Islamist leaders are suggesting that “we don’t need terrorists because the signs show that Allah will give victory to Islam in Europe, America, and Asia without the sword or wars.” But in their view, quite reasonably Gereyev implies, this victory will not go to the traditional religious leaders.

He points out that “traditional forms of religion are losing everywhere and not only in Islam as a result of the lack of modernization from the point of view of simplifying ritual and also the continuing agreement with civil norms and much else. But the most important thing is the closed nature” of the traditional faiths, both Muslim and Christian.

When Amelina suggested by a question that these trends did not extend to the Middle Volga region where she works, Gereyev replied that “you are mistaken; this is happening in Tatarstan as well,” not according to exactly the same design but rather in a way that will lead to the imposition of what he called “the liberal version of shariat,” like that in Turkey.

Trying to combat radicalism by law or by economic assistance or by force alone will not work, as the deteriorating situation in the North Caucasus shows, Gereyev says. Instead, those concerned must face up to the reality that the problems lie “in the complete lack” of a serious government policy about religion as such and propaganda in support of that policy.

In Daghestan, he points out, “there is absolutely no propaganda from the side of the ideological agencies of the republic and the youth structures. [In fact,] there is the sense that no one needs this.” Moreover, “many already in open form support the positions of the radicals” and “there is [thus] no unity in the spiritual sector of the Republic of Daghestan.”

The lack of a government agency specifically charged with religious affairs is “an absurdity” in a republic that is 96.5 percent Muslim, if only so there will be someone to negotiate with the radicals. According to Gereyev, there is “no other possibility” than conducting such negotiations and seeking “a symbiosis” of secular and religious law.

(No one elsewhere in Russia should think this task is irrelevant to their concerns, he implies, noting that “new enclaves” of Daghestani Islamists are forming in various parties of Russia where they can be counted upon to trigger new outburst of “inter-ethnic and especially inter-confessional tensions.”)

Challenged by Amelina as to why modern civil law should cooperate with Islamic law of the 13th century, Gereyev replies that has “incorrectly understood the nature of Islam,” a religion unlike most other faiths in which “there is no understanding of time” and in which principles even a thousand years old are just as true for believers as they ever were.

Ignoring that and trying to ban things won’t work, Gereyev says. What is necessary instead is “the development of partnership relations from the side of believing citizens toward the state and of the state toward believers” and allowing both to speak their mind and compete. There are conditions for this, “but there is no locomotive to carry this heavy load forward.”

“Under the current political disposition” – which Gereyev agrees with Amelina is not the best – this is hardly likely to appear” anytime soon. But unless officials and citizens seek it and thus conditions “will continue as they are, no terrorism will be needed, we will ourselves destroy ourselves.”

Those concerned about preventing that need to recognize that “no civil ideology will ever replace a religious one; this is simply impossible,” at least for any prolonged period of time. Consequently, a compromise needs to be found, and there must be a willingness to consider almost any possibility.

Gereyev concludes with one that more than a few people will find “difficult to believe,” as he himself admits. He points to the ideas of Muhtazar Masood, the leader of the Taliban who already in 1993 was talking about the possibility of some kind of compromise mechanism between religion and the civic state.

“Why do I offer precisely this example?” Gereyev asks rhetorically. “As you see, even the Taliban were thinking about how to build an improved project of administration. We will be forced to search for new forms of cooperation both civic and religious.” And at the start of that search he says there must be a recognition that traditional Islam will be of little help.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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