Russia's rebellious regions: Islamic militancy brews in Dagestan

BALAKHANI, Russia — Patimat Murshidova begins wailing the second visitors enter her home in Balakhani, a quiet village tucked into the towering mountains of Dagestan.

The sobs last for 15 minutes, interspersed with a single repeated cry: “Maryam!”

Authorities say Murshidova’s 28-year-old daughter, Maryam Sharipova, was one of two women who blew themselves up in the Moscow metro on March 29, killing 40 people in an attack that brought terror back to the Russian capital after a six-year respite.

Sharipova’s parents don’t believe she carried out the attack. They had been with her in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, the day before the bombing, and don’t think she could have made it to Moscow in time to carry out the early morning attack. She had ordered dresses and jewelry in the capital. Her father, Rasul Magomedov, takes out his telephone to show a tabloid photograph of his daughter’s decapitated head. “There are bruises on her face, the kind that wouldn’t come from an explosion,” he says.

In the wake of the March Moscow subway bombings, GlobalPost correspondent Miriam Elder traveled to Chechnya and Dagestan to investigate the relationship between these restive republics and the Russian state.
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Islamic militancy brews in Dagestan

Yet Russian security forces and terrorism experts say Sharipova became a convert to militant Islam after her common law husband — whose existence her parents deny — was killed as part of Russia’s war on a growing rebel movement in its south. Her two brothers are in hiding, and one of them, Ilyas, had already spent eight months in prison on suspicion of being a rebel.

The family says they are being targeted simply because they are adherents to Salafism, the fundamentalist brand of Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia (followers here forego the more common term “Wahhabism,” decrying its association with militancy). As the Salafis gain a larger and more visible profile, tensions between them and the government of Dagestan, which supports the Sufi Islam followed by most of the ethnically diverse republic's people, are running high.

Gulnara Rustamova, a leading human rights activist and a Salafi, calls it a “civil war.” “The government supports one side and the other side is treated as guests. And it's that side that's being killed,” she said.

That's not how the government sees it. Rizvan Kurbanov is Dagestan’s first deputy prime minister. He was appointed earlier this year and tasked with overseeing the security services. “A war is when two governments clash. It's between peoples, more global. This is not a war.”

Maybe that attitude is part of the reason why the government seems to be losing the ideological battle. In the past year, locals say, Salafis have become more visible in the streets of Makhachkala. Women can be identified by their full hijab, men by their long beards. Dagestan, with rampant unemployment and poor living conditions, is fertile recruiting ground for hardline believers, and for those who believe in violence.

The actions of the security services, accused of regular human rights abuses, including kidnappings and illegal detentions, play their part. Even Kurbanov admits that: “We also find that the security system allows for mistakes. And we don’t exclude that these mistakes can raise the feeling of protest among the people and put them on the incorrect path.”

Nadira Isaeva is the bright and energetic 30-year-old editor of Chernovik, Dagestan's most respected weekly, devoted to exposing corruption and human rights abuses, as well as the republic's complicated political process. Even before she started wearing a hijab two months ago, she'd been slapped with a court-ordered psychological examination, charged with inciting ethnic hatred and had her home searched by police.

“There's a polarization of society,” she said during an interview at the newspaper's offices in Makhachkala. “The terrorism comes from the security services. They're incapable of having a dialogue, and now politics has entered religion.”

The government says it is trying. Dagestan prides itself on being one of the first lands to adopt Islam, which parts of it did as early as the 10th century. Despite a ban on religion in Soviet times, many mosques continued to function. The government is rapidly helping to build new ones, and today there are 2,300 mosques in the republic, while 13 of its 16 universities are Islamic, Kurbanov said.

Yet the favored means of battling extremism in the north Caucasus is killing suspected rebels. There are recent signs that strategy might be changing. Last week, special operations forces from the FSB, the federal security service, captured Ali Taziyev, better known as “Magas,” the No. 2 rebel of the Caucasus Emirate, the Islamist group leading the insurgency across the troubled south.

“It might be a sign that authorities have decided to diversify away from ‘seek and destroy’ to add ‘arrest and try,’” said Simon Saradzhyan, a security expert at Harvard University. The move could signal a recognition that, as many Salafi here say, “violence only begets more violence.”

“Any killing in the north Caucasus, or any other closely knit society where vendetta exists, generates the desire to kill in revenge,” Saradzhyan said. "Combating terrorism is not only about hunting terrorists, but also fighting the ideological battle."

Earlier this year, President Dmitry Medvedev appointed an envoy, Alexander Khloponin, in a bid to quell unrest in the troubled Caucasus republics by cracking down on corruption, boosting the economy and bringing a better measure of peace.

The Kremlin blames the unstable situation on the population's economic woes. Inside the region, blame is laid on outsiders. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov blames Western spy agencies for equipping the rebels, and Kurbanov, the Dagestani official, also blamed unspecified “outside forces.” He said rebels with passports from England, Egypt, Georgia, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey and Ukraine had been killed in Dagestan in recent years.

Yet speaking after a trip to Dagestan in the wake of the Moscow bombings, Medvedev was quoted by the Russian media as acknowledging that religion plays a role. “The question is what kind of spiritual education people are getting, what kind of Islam or other religion there is in our country,” he said. “To blame only the social situation for causing terrorism is very short-sighted.”

Since last year, the government has played more of a role in religious education not just in Dagestan, but across Russia, after it instituted a nationwide plan teaching religion in public schools. In most of Russia, children learn Russian Orthodoxy, the dominant religion and one heavily pushed as a national ideology by Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Inside Dagestan, and its neighboring republics, Islam is the religion of choice.

The religious officials that oversee Dagestan's majority, the Sufi, approve of the move, but wish it were taught by imams rather than teachers in the secular system.

“The first steps, perhaps, aren't entirely successful,” said Abdula Magomedov, the deputy imam at the main mosque in Makhachkala, where the government's leadership gathers for Friday prayers. “We support schools talking about Islam if it's done by specialists, by the faithful. If it's just a teacher, then no.”

“The point [of the classes] is to get them to love this religion,” he said.

Magomedov believes if children are educated properly in Islam, the ranks of militant Islamists will decline. In neighboring Chechnya, Kadyrov has sought to outdo the militants in their beliefs, making it obligatory for women to wear headscarves in government buildings and launching an anti-alcohol campaign. Last week, Memorial, Russia's leading human rights group, said unidentified men had shot 17 women in the past 10 days with paintball guns in Grozny, Chechnya — because they weren't wearing headscarves.

There are no signs yet of such a campaign in Dagestan. Its new government has stepped up enforcement of a 2007 law banning casinos, which has won praise from the republic's hardliners, but that's seen as simply good fortune. There's no telling if it will influence local government decisions in the future.

Yet what happens when Islam bumps up against the omnipotence of the Russian Orthodox Church?

Isaeva, the editor, walks to her bookshelf and takes out a book. She first noticed it at home, she said, when she was trying to get her 7-year-old brother to stop watching TV and study.

It's a children's alphabet book, first approved by Russia's education ministry in 2000. Each page features a different letter of the alphabet, pictures of characters from folk tales and a few sentences that illustrate use of the letter.

She turns to a page decorated with a picture of Jesus Christ, surrounded by angels. Her face goes red. “Why are they teaching Jesus Christ in a Russian alphabet book? What kind of chaos must this put in a child's head?”

“I look at my brother and think, maybe it's good he's not studying.”