By Paul Goble
Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam with close ties to the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian state, says that there are currently “hundreds of thousands of Wahhabis and their sympathizers” among the Muslim communities of the republics in the North Caucasus.
Given Silantyev’s track record, one that has often infuriated Muslims who see him as an enemy of their faith and leaders, this figure and the others he offers should not be viewed as definitive. Indeed, as the Russian specialist acknowledges, there is no way to know such things with real precision.
But there are three reasons why his words in this regard are nonetheless important. First, they suggest that many in Moscow are very worried about the growth of Islamic extremism which Silantyev and they often lump together under the term “Wahhabis,” even though the followers of that trend do not call themselves that.
Second, his remarks and the coverage they are receiving suggest that the Wahhabis as Russians understand them may be becoming more active despite all the claims to the contrary that Russian officials and pro-Moscow political and social figures in the North Caucasus have claimed over the last year.
And third, Silantyev’s words suggest that some in Moscow, including leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, are pressing for a new crackdown against Muslim groups not only in the North Caucasus but more generally, an effort that would be likely to provoke a sharp reaction from Muslims and could serve to unify them even more than they are now.
Silantyev told Interfax that Wahhabis form “about five percent” of all Muslims in the Russian Federation, with their share rising to 10 to 15 percent in the North Caucasus. “When there will be more than 40 percent,” he continued, “one can calculated that they have already won” (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=40864).
In the North Caucasus, he continued, Daghestan has the largest number of Wahhabis with some 30,000 people being followers of that trend. In Ingushetia, Silantyev suggested, there are “approximately 10,000. Among “the most problematic republics” is Kabardino-Balkaria, and there are also “a large percentage of radicals” among the Muslims in Stavropol kray.
In Chechnya, the specialist said, Ramzan Kadyrov has done a lot to improve the situation, “but [despite his efforts] the problem remains.” As for supporters and sympathizers, he continued, their numbers are in “the hundreds of thousands,” a large share of the total population in that troubled region.
Asked about the level of Wahhabist penetration of mullahs and imams in the Russian Federation, Silantyev said that “there is no separate statistic on this,” but in the words of Interfax, he “expressed the opinion that it is ‘much less than half,’” leaving it to his listeners to determine just how much less.
“At the same time,” Silantyev continued, “there is an opinion that among the religious leaders, the percent of radicalization is higher than among ordinary Muslims ‘because Wahhabis in the first instance work with spiritual leaders and there is thus a high percentage of imams who sympathize with them.’”
But it is impossible to know just how many of these are showing sympathy or open support for the Wahhabis are actual converts because many of them “being subject to pressure from the side of the bandits,” speak in favor of the Wahhabis “out of a feeling of fear for their own lives,” something the Russian authorities should try to remedy.