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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Dagestan: Political Islamism and radical groups as a threat to the region’s stability (Part I)

Dagestan, view of a village of Ghimri
(Image: AFP)
Dagestan, currently one of the Russian federal objects in North Caucasus, is one of the most ethnically heterogeneous regions, where nearly 38 different ethnic-linguistic groups are presented. There is no majority nation or ethnicity in Dagestan, what makes its consolidation more complicated. Unlike some neighboring countries, such as Chechnya, Dagestan has no clear nationalistic idea due to the ethnic diversity and relatively low level of connection between various groups and low level of trust to local government, appointed by Russian officials and representing the interests of federal forces, rather than interests of local community.


Dagestan is also one of the most Islamic regions of Russian Federation, as nearly 93% of population is Sunni Muslims of the Shafii rites, which has been in place for centuries. On the Caspian side of the country the population is mostly Shia. It’s worth mentioning also a big significance of Sufi mysticism in Dagestan, as it plays an important role here, just like in the neighboring Chechnya. Sufism appeared here back in the 14th century and advocates for tolerance and coexistence and secular government.

Many experts and scientists studying the region and the issue of Islam and political Islamism in Dagestan state, that Islam was always a strong consolidating power here, as it was the only one factor of uniting people of this diverse region. Dr. Z.S.Arukhov, leading expert on Islam and Islamism in Dagestan, stated that Islam could be a stabilizing and rallying factor for the region, though it didn’t happen, as revival of Islam in Dagestan was connected to the radical teachings and fundamental Wahhabi doctrine, which spread in country late in 1990s.

Leading experts on Dagestan, including Dr. Robert Bruce Ware, Dr. Enver Kisriev, Dr. Werner J. Petzelt, Dr. Ute Roericht, Eldar M. Eldarov, Edward C. Holland and many others, stress about the importance of this transformation of Islamic revival in the region from the religion, able to stabilize the situation in the country and unite people, into the fundamental radical Wahhabi movement, caused spread of radical views and terrorist activities in the region and making Dagestan a scene of Islamist insurgency for many years.

Wahhabism ideology, appeared back in 18th century in Saudi Arabia, advocating for the “pure Islam” and refusing any later interpretations of Qur’an, arrived in Dagestan in 1990. Robert Bruce Ware and Enver Kisriev state, that Wahhabism and Islamist extremism were exported to Dagestan from Afghanistan late in 1980s. Another point of view indicates, that Wahhabism and Islamic fundamentalism came to Dagestan from Tajikistan in 1990, influenced by the Islamic Revival Party, formed in the times of “perestroika” in Tajikistan. Several Dagestani intellectuals and spiritual leaders were members of this party and brought this ideology to Dagestan.

Extremist Islamism and Wahhabism rapidly spread in the region, especially among the rural and young people from economically deprived and unstable regions. Economic devastation and degradation, social inequality, total corruption of local authorities, massive abuses of high officials and Russian backed government, affiliation of the local clergy with the corrupt authorities and, of course, influence of “global jihad” and Islamist movements from the Arab Gulf countries were among the key factors of spread of Wahhabism in the region. Fundamentalist teaching had clear ideology, giving people the chance to find “pure and true Islam” without clans, ethnicities, corruption and inequality, bringing together all the Muslims. In addition to that Wahhabis in Dagestan were advocating for creating an Islamic state, based on Sharia Law, and these ideas found support among young and poor people, especially from the mountainous and rural areas.

Talking about Dagestan as a volatile and extremely unstable region of Russian federation, it’s worth mentioning, that most of its Islamic and religious based tensions are actually based on the internal conflict between the traditional Sufi Islam and moderate Sunni Muslims, advocating for tolerance and secular state, and extremist and fundamental Wahhabism, aiming to create Islamic based state in North Caucasus.

However, despite the rapid spread of Wahhabism and radical Islamist views in Dagestan and activities of numerous radical groups, attraction to the fundamentalist Islam varies between different sectors of population, as the majority of population of Southern and mountainous areas of Dagestan, where most of the people are rural, poorer and less educated, is more inclined to Wahhabi views and teachings, while Northern Dagestani population, wealthier and more educated, is less inclined to these views. In addition to that Wahhabi movement is usually supported by youth, as elderly people are suspicious towards the new religious practices and teachings. According to the survey conducted by Enver Kisriev and Robert Bruce Ware in Dagestan, nearly ¾ of the country’s population doesn’t support radical Islamist movements.


Up to this day, Dagestan remains one of the most troubled Russia’s regions, with various underground Wahhabist and radical Islamist organizations and groups operating in the country. Some of them are relatively moderate; others are extremely radical and are affiliated with the terrorist activities in the region and in Russia as well.