Aleksandre Kvakhadze, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
On August 20th, the mountainous Dagestani village Aghvali was on the verge of conflict between the local community and religious activists from another region. The riot police deployed to the village managed to prevent violence. The conflict had emerged between the local Muslim community and Dagestan’s Muslim Spiritual Directorate (hereafter: DUM) over the position of Imam in the local village mosque. The conflict started on August 16th, when a group of 20 gathered in Aghvali mosque. The current Imam of the mosque, Ramazan Isaev, had invited a lecturer from the Imam Ashari Khasavyurt Islamic University, Shuayb Aliev, for a public discussion on religious topics. Aliev responded to Isaev on his social media account, accusing him of linkages with “third persons” and unlawful replacement of the local Imam. Although Aliev came to Aghvali and was prepared to participate in the public debate, the proposed religious discussion ended up in a fight. The next morning, the riot police surrounded the village in order to prevent further escalation. Tens of cars with representatives of the DUM and its active supporters from other regions arrived in Aghvali. Villagers gathered near the entrance of the village in order to prevent uninvited guests from coming in. The tension in Aghvali represents an example of the relationship between the local Muslim community and the official spiritual bodies in Russia’s Muslim regions.
Aghvali in the Islamic Landscape of Dagestan
Aghvali village, with a population of 2781, is home to ethnic Avars and is located in Dagestan’s Tsumada district – a mountainous region sharing a border with Georgia. The region itself is multilingual, and apart from Avar, used by locals as the lingua-franca, the Tsezi, Khvarshi, Andi, Tindi, Chamalal, and Bagvalal languages are also spoken in some villages. Despite its small size and population, many Tsumada-born Muslim clerics have achieved high positions in the republic’s spiritual hierarchy. For instance, the founder of the Khasavyurt Islamic University, Muhammad-Said Abakarov, who ran an illegal Islamic madrassa in the 1970s, was born in Tsumada district. The chancellor and the majority of the lecturers of this institution are also originally from the respective region. The majority of Imams in village mosques in the Tsumada district are also alumni of the Khasavyurt Islamic University. In short, the university in Khasavyurt has produced a large and powerful group of Muslim activists. The University strictly sticks to the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam and the Ashari aqidah (belief system), which does not contradict the official line of DUM. Nevertheless, the higher echelons of Dagestan’s DUM is in conflict with the Tsumada group, viewing its members as potential rivals.
The DUM of Dagestan
The DUM of Dagestan is the only recognised spiritual body responsible for the Muslim communities in the republic. Nowadays, Dagestan’s DUM leadership is mostly dominated by ethnic Avars – predominantly students of the Sufi Sheikh Said, Afandi Chirkeyskiy, who died in 2012 in a suicide bombing attack. According to Dagestani expert Akhmed Yarlykapov, Dagestan’s DUM is one of the most influential Islamic organisations in Russia, controlling not only the spiritual life of Dagestan, but also competing with Tatar and Chechen spiritual boards in running mosques in Russia’s large cities with a high concentration of Muslim work migrants.
Nevertheless, not all Muslims in Dagestan agree with the DUM’s policies. The organisation has been criticised in two main directions. The first contested issue is a number of Sufi rituals permitted and performed by the members of DUM. Salafis condemn practices such as pilgrimages to Sheikh’s tombs or the cult of saints, and do not consider the leaders of DUM as Muslims. The DUM of Dagestan has been implementing heavy-handed measures against Salafis, especially in the control of mosques. The second reason for the DUM’s criticism is its loyalty to the central and local authorities. To date, the DUM of Dagestan has never criticised Dagestan’s or Russia’s federal government. Furthermore, DUM has become a part of the vertical of power in Russia, with involvement in business and corruption schemes. All these factors negatively impact DUM’s reputation in Dagestan.
Nevertheless, the village communities (jamaats), centred around the local mosques have become vibrant grassroots groups and important non-state stakeholders in their home regions. In many regions, local jamaats have been involved in the mobilisation of villagers during land disputes, or in advocating some infrastructural issues. The absence of potent political opposition in Dagestan makes local jamaats one of the few bodies capable of advocating the community’s problems. Yet, the local government and Dagestan’s religious authorities are trying to impose total control over religious life in the republic, and, as such, the DUM cannot tolerate any independent group, even if there are no contradictions in doctrinal issues.
The tension in Aghvali demonstrates a complex socio-political process taking place in Dagestan. On the one hand, the local spiritual directorate tries to exert its influence within the republic and beyond; on the other hand, the local self-organised groups are becoming more active in protecting their settlements from external influence and advocating their problems at the republic level.