In several parts of the Muslim world authorities have been tempted to promote Sufism, the mystical Islamic movement, as a way of counteracting Islamist ideologies.
This strategy is also in play in Dagestan, in the Russian part of the Caucasus, although not everyone—including Sufis themselves—is enthusiastic about giving a religious monopoly over to one strand of Sufism, reports Geraldine Fagan of the Forum 18 news service (May 25). The state may now have come to realize that attempting to control Muslim life is futile in the long term and it might consider relaxing the policy, Fagan writes in a second article (June 3).
Before the Soviets came to power, Dagestan was known as a strongly religious area. Religious revival had already started in the 1970s, before the end of communism. Sufism is prevalent, but Salafism, stressing a return to the purity of original Muslim teachings, opposes some of the former’s practices and has gained some ground (probably less than 10 percent of Dagestan’s population). Sufis themselves are not united: a number of sheikhs appeared at the end of the Soviet period, and the legitimacy of some is contested by others.
Salafism tends to be viewed with suspicion by state authorities—not without reason, since radical Muslims were engaged in armed insurrection in the late 1990s. “Wahhabism” was officially outlawed in 1999. Sufis resolutely opposing Salafism have been granted control of Dagestan’s Spiritual Directorate (founded in 1998). According to Forum 18, it is not an absolute domination, but it has reduced public space for other Muslims, not all of them militants. Only a minority of Sufi sheikhs recognize the directorate. The directorate exercises control over religious publishing and education, including material sent from abroad, although control is not always strictly enforced.
While other Sufi sheikhs can find ways to cooperate with the Spiritual Directorate despite reservations on some issues, this is impossible for Salafis, who strongly disagree with Sufi practices. Recent developments seem to indicate that authorities have come to understand that criminalizing Muslims other than those associated with the directorate can be counter-productive—insurgent activities have only increased in recent times. Repression is apparently becoming more targeted against people actually involved in militant activities.
A distinction between moderate and radical Salafis might help to counter radicalization more effectively. Dagestan’s religion law allows only one umbrella organization per confession. In Dagestan, as in some other former communist states, religious diversity is perceived as a challenge with political consequences for national cohesion and security. Time will still be needed to adjust to the facts of contemporary pluralism, but security concerns add to the complexity of the task.
(Forum 18, http://www.forum18.org. For some background information, see also Mikhail Roshchin, “Sufism and Fundamentalism in Dagestan and Chechenya,” Cahiers d’études sur la Méditerranée orientale et le monde turco-iranien, July–Dec. 2004; http://www.ceri-sciencespo.com/publ ica/cemoti/textes38/roshchin.pdf)