No Repeat of Chechnya

The recent terrorist attack in Kazan has put an end to the illusion that Tatarstan, unlike the Northern Caucasus, will be able to avoid the radicalization of religious beliefs.

The double attack in Kazan in July – an attempt on the life of Tatarstan mufti Ildus Faizov and the assassination of Valiulla Yakubov, a leading theologian and proponent of “traditional” Hanafi Islam – has left many unanswered questions. The way the authorities will respond to it – adequately and sensibly or fussily and “nervously” – will affect the situation in the Muslim regions of the country, including the Volga Region and the Caucasus, and consequently throughout the rest of the country.

One may well ask: What actually happened in July? The idea that it was an attempt to hijack the profits from Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca seems unconvincing. This explanation would no doubt make things simpler for Tatarstan’s politicians, but few believed it right away. A second version appears closer to the truth, but is not favorable to the Tatarstan establishment and its loyal clergy. According to this version the attack was engineered by local Wahhabis-Salafists-Fundamentalists-Islamists – there is no great difference between them in Russia.

Yet no matter what they are called, they all oppose the traditional Tatar Islam. Traditional and non-traditional Islam exist in Tatarstan, the Northern Caucasus and Central Asia (and in the Muslim world generally) and both these forms of Islam are in constant conflict, with clashes between the opposing sides occurring all the time.

This is not only a religious struggle, but also an ideological and political one. It is a battle for Muslim minds, for the mosques, the religious institutions and universities and in the end for society.

What do the local “Wahhabis” in Tatarstan want? – Let us call the Islamic opposition there the way reporters and politicians call them. – First, they want to prove their superiority over traditional Islam, which is less demanding of compliance to Sharia law, and over the clergy, who are too loyal to the authorities and take an openly conformist stance. Second, they want to join global radical Islam, whom they consider themselves to be a part of. Third, they want the opportunity to follow the Islamic way of life, observe Sharia law and, if that is impossible, to leave the Russian Federation and set up a separate Islamic state.

This latter circumstance identifies the Wahhabis with the radical nationalists who appeared in Tatarstan in the early 1990s but never developed into a large-scale influential movement.

Even now the national-separatists are not considered to have much a chance of turning themselves into a mass movement, but their cooperation with the Wahhabis is certain to draw greater attention to them.

How many Wahhabis there are in Tatarstan is anybody’s guess. Some say a few dozens, others hundreds. A figure of 3,000 has also been quoted. Judging from the experience of the Northern Caucasus, it is virtually impossible to come up with an exact figure. But it is an established fact that imams who share Wahhabi views preach and serve in at least dozens of the 1,000 Tatar mosques in Kazan, Naberezhnye Chelny, Zelenodolsk and other cities of the republic. Their clever sermons are heeded because the religious instructions issued by hundreds of young Tatars who graduated from Islamic universities in the Arab countries and Turkey are also calling for social justice and honest authorities (a demand voiced throughout Russia and not just in the Muslim areas).

The Wahhabis go down particularly well with young people, some of whom are disillusioned with traditional Islam, so uninspiringly preached by the official clergymen.

Recent years have seen closer ties develop between the Tatar radicals and their like-minded religious peers from the Northern Caucasus and Central Asia. People arriving from the region, especially Chechnya, settle down in the republic, and generally in the Volga Region, establish business and religious contacts and promote religious teachings among the local Muslim population. Some imams in the Volga Region say that more than half the worshippers at common Friday prayers are from the Northern Caucasus.

The situation in Tatarstan has long been the focus of attention among radicals in the Caucasus. Their leader, Doku Umarov, is openly calling on his supporters to go to Tatarstan and other Volga districts to launch a radical Islamic (even rebel) movement and start a jihad there. Back in 2006, Umarov declared the establishment of an Idel-Ural vilayet (an administrative unit of the Islamic Imarate) in the area.

Members of the radical organization Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islamiyya (Party of Islamic Liberation) are coming to the region from Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan. Once there, they set up international cells with the local Muslim population. Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters limit their activities to the promotion and distribution of religious literature, but their influence, albeit slowly, is nevertheless growing. This is apparent from their participation in protests against the muftiat of Tatarstan. The windscreens of many cars in which opponents to Mufti Ildus Faizov travel to Kazan’s main mosque the Kul Sharif feature Hizb ut-Tahrir stickers.

The activities of the Islamic radicals in Tatarstan cannot be overstated, but neither can they be ignored, as the republic’s authorities sometimes do. Admittedly, most Tatars remain faithful to traditional Islam, and are even exasperated by the activities of the Wahhabis.

On the other hand, the trend toward the radicalization of Islam in Tatarstan, especially among young people, cannot be overlooked. The influence of radicals from outside is also growing.

The recent terrorist attack has put an end to the illusion that Tatarstan, unlike the Northern Caucasus, will be able to avoid the radicalization of religious views. Besides, Islam in Tatarstan, like in the rest of the world, is inseparable from politics, which makes the situation in the republic especially acute.

Time will tell if the authorities – both local and federal – will be able to stem the brewing conflict. In the Northern Caucasus they failed to do so.

This article was originally published in Russian on

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