Monday, December 9, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Non-Traditional Muslims and Jihadists Overlap But Don’t Correspond in North Caucasus, Study Finds

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 9 – Many in the North Caucasus and other parts of the Russian Federation who are best described as followers of non-traditional Islam are not violent Jihadists and many violent Jihadists are not followers of non-traditional Islam, according to a study being conducted by the Gaydar Institute of Economic Policy.

            Irina Starodubrovskaya, who is the leader of this study, says she is presenting her findings earlier than she intended because they are so at variance with what many people and officials believe and because a correct understanding of the problem is absolutely essential to dealing with it (

            Lacking a clear understanding the nature of the relationship between non-traditional Islam and Jihadism, she says, the Russian authorities often force as a solution and fail to see the ways in which it is counter-productive, driving many who have no interest in violence toward terrorism and, still worse, radicalizing the children of those that the authorities have abused.

            Starodubrovskaya and her team of scholars, journalists and other experts interviewed people in Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkesia in the North Caucasus and also but in a more limited way in Tatarstan in the Middle Volga.

            She points out that the term “non-traditional Islam” is not entirely adequate because there are various Islamic traditions in various regions, but she suggests that it does “reflect a very important characteristic of the situation – the alienation of part of the youth from the religious traditions of their ancestors.”

            “The problem of fathers and sons,” Starodubrovskaya says, “is typical of contemporary societies but it is not legitimized and is harshly suppressed in traditional societies” of the kind that have existed in the North Caucasus. That makes the emergence of this kind of conflict there especially difficult and harsh.

                Not all families have been affected by this, she continues, but many have. The changes in society over the last two decades have been enormous and many young people are having to search for their own way, one that they often define in contrast to the one their parents and grandparents followed.

            When a young North Caucasian looks around, what does he or she see?  Chaos, confusion, the absence of career opportunities to those without connections, corruption and injustice, money as the goal of all activities, and a yawning gap between Islam as his or her parents practiced it and Islam as he or she has come to understand it.

            “It is completely natural in such conditions that a demand for a more just society with clear rules of the game and priority given to moral values should arise among young people,” the Moscow researcher says, especially given the sterile nature of Islam under the Soviets who reduced it to rituals rather than belief and action.

            “The denial of traditional Islam in the overwhelming majority of cases meant the denial of official Islam,” and given that the two were closely tied to the state, she writes, young people thus gained “the additional opportunity to protest against the state which had not given them clear rules of the game and moral guidance ... or ensured social justice.”

            And the Russian state’s response to any such protests – the use of official violence – only “intensified their alienation,” leaving them open to radicalization and recruitment by emissaries of Jihadism in some but far from all cases.

            Many young people viewed their newly-acquired “non-traditional” Islam as something they should apply only within their families or promote via legal means within the system.  Only some followers of non-traditional Islam “have become Jihadists and are ready by force of arms to struggle for the establishment of their ideals.”

            At the same time, many who become Jihadists do so for non-ideological reasons – for money or because they have no hope of a fulfilling career. And that leads to yet another important conclusion, Starodubrovskaya says: Not only are non-traditional Muslims necessarily Jihadists but Jihadists are not necessarily non-traditional Muslims.

            This is clear if one considers the patterns of development in Daghestani villages after 1991.  First, some young people either because they went abroad to study or to the cities came to reject the traditional rural hierarchies. Then, a generational conflict broke out, followed by a split, followed by “the gradual closure of the community of non-traditional Muslims,” followed by radicalization and a willingness to use force.

            Significantly, the Moscow scholar says, “the transition of the conflict into the stage of use of force, judging from everything, does not directly depend on the level of the radicalness of those religious views with which young people returned after studying in Muslim countries.” Instead, it depends far more on relations and reactions within the village.

            Once one recognizes this, Starodubrovskaya says, one can see what needs to be done  and “more important” what must not be done.  For someone with a terrible headache, “the guillotine” may seem to be a solution, but it is one that ultimately doesn’t work, especially in this case when non-traditional Muslims and Jihadists don’t correspond.

When force is used against those who only want to apply their non-traditional Islam within their families or by legal means, members of those groups are pushed into the third and instead of being further separated from it. And that in turn leads most probably to “the growth of the terrorist underground.”

At the same time, assuming that all those in the terrorist underground are animated by non-traditional Islam or even Islam at all often leads to policies which strengthen the Jihadists ideologically and thus make it even more difficult to split off those who may have gone into the forests for other reasons.

“Force inevitably gives birth to force,” Starodubrovskaya concludes. “As a result, a vicious circle arises, one from which it is extraordinarily difficult to escape even when “one understands some of the reasons for the conflict and successfully addresses those. And as she shows, that pattern once in place continues from generation to generation.

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