New conflict brews in southern Russia

Police in Stavropol Push Muslims Toward Radicalism
North Caucasus Weekly
May 23, 2014 — Volume 15, Issue 10

Russia is an extremely diverse country, but unlike in the United States, legislation is uniform across its entire territory. In the Russian Federation, the distinct features of regions and ethnic differences are often ignored. Nevertheless, Moscow treats different regions quite differently in terms of its relationship with its appointees on the ground. In Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov builds several mosques every year, including large ones that can accommodate up to 10,000–15,000 people (http://www.regnum.ru/news/society/1802579.html). At the same time, in some of the nearby territories, it is almost impossible for local Muslims to receive permission to build a mosque.

Now, the main mosque in the city of Pyatigorsk, in the Stavropol region, is under threat. Tensions between the Muslim community and the authorities in Stavropol rose as a court ruled that a mosque that was built in the central part of the city should be demolished. The Stavropol region mufti, Muhammad-Haji Rakhimov, addressed Muslims in the North Caucasian Federal District, expressing concern about the situation surrounding Pyatigorsk’s main mosque. In December 2013, a Stavropol court ruled that the mosque’s minaret be demolished, which the parishioners promptly did in February 2014 (http://www.ansar.ru/sobcor/2014/02/27/48166).

The argument about the mosque has been ongoing for years. The formal reason for shutting down the mosque is that the overflow of parishioners during Friday prayers often blocks the streets (http://ria.ru/society/20121129/912741349.html). Instead of building another mosque and resolving the issue of overcrowding in the city’s main mosque, the authorities decided to shut it down and allot land for a new mosque on the outskirts of the city. The allotted land is not even within the administrative limits of Pyatigorsk: it belongs to the village of Vinsadovo in the Predgorny municipal district. It is unclear how the mosque in Vinsadovo will be considered Pyatigorsk’s main mosque. The process of allotting land for the new mosque took the authorities two years. The decision was taken after the mufti, Muhammad-Haji Rakhimov, who was approved of and appointed by the authorities, addressed President Vladimir Putin. In his emotional address, the mufti warned that the destruction of the mosque would escalate the conflict. “Bulldozers that approach the mosque to destroy it will attract thousands of Muslims from across the North Caucasus, and the government will have to use tanks, not bulldozers to calm them down,” the mufti proclaimed (http://newsru.com/religy/14may2014/pyatigorsk.html).

The mufti must have underestimated the emotional appeal of his statement and reconsidered it later, given that his statement disappeared from the website of the Spiritual Board of Muslims three days later (http://dumsk.com/item/5540-obrashchenie-muftiya-rakhimova-k-prezidentu-rossii). Muhammad-Haji Rakhimov made his statement on May 13 (http://www.regnum.ru/news/kavkaz/1801312.html), and on May 15, the authorities signed the deal to allot land for the new mosque (http://stavropol.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/242705/). The mufti was happy to receive land even outside of the city. The Spiritual Board of Muslims is probably hoping to use the mosque in the center of Pyatigorsk as an administrative building or a religious school.

The authorities’ prompt reaction is understandable, given the tense situation in the region. Kabardino-Balkaria with its Yarmuk jamaat is right next door, Dagestan with its Sharia jamaat is also nearby. Stavropol region also borders Karachaevo-Cherkessia, where Salafis have been suppressed, but not eliminated. So, Moscow must have ordered the regional authorities to resolve the issue within 24 hours, fearing Cossack riots. When Moscow gives an order, even the Cossacks keep quiet. Ruslan Kurbanov, a senior fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, thinks that middle range bureaucrats are to blame for human rights violations (http://ansar.ru/person/2014/02/14/47794). However, Russia is not a country where the local authorities can afford to do something against the wishes of the Kremlin.

Of the Stavropol region’s total population of 2.794 million in 2014 (Russian State Statistical Service), 300,000 are Muslims, according to the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Stavropol region. The region has only 20 mosques and several prayer houses. In the city of Stavropol, there is not a single mosque, and attempts to turn a private house into a mosque were suppressed by the authorities. The city’s old mosque has been used as an art gallery for the past 70 years (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/222673/). The situation in the Stavropol region city of Kislovodsk is the same.

The policies of the regional authorities push Muslims into the opposition. Muslims are often persecuted in the Stavropol region purposefully and systematically. Arrests, crackdowns on mosques, kidnappings of imams, beatings of Salafis, a ban on hijab for school-age girls and many other practices have become routine in this region (http://www.ansar.ru/sobcor/2014/02/06/47558). Local Cossacks regard the flow of mountaineers into Stavropol region as a significant nuisance (http://portal-kultura.ru/articles/best/19470-russkiy-iskhod/).

All these circumstances are forcing Muslims in the region to regard the government as their enemy, and some of them are joining the underground movement. This conflict is emblematic of the local authorities’ ignorance of the threat of unofficial Islam that is developing outside of the mosques. This attitude results in heightened risks for the region, as radical Muslims are likely to act against the government in order to force it to change its policies.

–Mairbek Vatchagaev

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