Russia at Increasing Risk of Muslim-on-Muslim Violence

September 24, 2015
Belongings of Salafists in Novy Kurush set on fire by Sufis. Photo by

Staunton, September 24 Statements by Russian officials and pro-Kremlin commentators that Salafi Islam is spreading in Russia and now threatens “traditional” Russian Islam are by themselves exacerbating tensions to the point of violence between the two — clashes Moscow may hope to exploit or to justify repression but that may cost it control of the situation.

An object lesson of these risks is provided by a series of events over the last month in the predominantly Lezgin village of Novy Kurush in the Khasavyurt district of Dagestan. This summer, a Salafi imam arrived, recruited a following of some 80 predominantly young people, and called for the restoration of “’pure Islam.’”

The local Sufi imam, Mukhammad Khidirov actively fought them, preaching against Salafist ideas and seeking to mobilize his flock, the majority of the 8,000 people in the village, to oppose the Salafis. Apparently for his trouble, Khidirov was murdered on September 9, a death that has significantly raised the level of tensions there.

Yesterday, approximately 1,500 Sufis took to the streets, drove the Salafis out of the local mosque, burned its contents in the streets, and sealed its doors. That action came after police identified two Salafis as the probable murderers but so far have proved unable to track them down. The police have found weapons among other Salafis.

Because many in Russia and elsewhere see the Salafis as a threat – that trend of Islam includes but is broader than what many refer to as radical Islamism – they may welcome the actions of the villagers of Novy Kurush especially because the local police seem incapable of maintaining order.

But that is almost certainly a mistake: if ever more people for whatever reason take the law into their own hands, such moves will almost certainly guarantee an increase in the kind of chaos that radical Islamist groups thrive on not just in the North Caucasus but in the Middle Volga and elsewhere.