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 An Ariana Media Publication 08/31/2016
 Pragmatic jihad in Tatarstan

Asia Times
By Dmitry Shlapentokh

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A recent assassination attempt on a Tatar mufti, a proponent of moderate Islam, indicates the escalation of Islamist violence away from its traditional hotbed in the North Caucasus. At the same time, it demonstrates the jihadis' extreme flexibility in forging alliances with forces that supposedly have entirely different ideological make-ups.

For many years, Tatarstan and Bashkiria - two major Muslim enclaves in Russia's heartland - looked quite different from the restless Muslim Northern Caucasus. Tatarstan, which has been ruled by Moscow since the 16th century, is one of the most Westernized Muslim areas in Russia. It was not Islam as such but nationalism that had been Tatars' intellectual driving force for the first years of the post-Soviet regime. While some nationalists thought about complete independence from Moscow, most Tatars were content with a modicum of autonomy, which Tatarstan enjoyed throughout the Boris Yeltsin era.

However, with Vladimir Putin's rise, Moscow increasingly emphasized the centralism of "vertical power" and increased its pressure over what was regarded as a dangerous manifestation of separatism. First, it removed Rafael Khakimov, the ideologist of moderate Tatar nationalists and adviser to Tatarstan president Mintimer Shaimiev, and, finally, the pension of Shaimiev himself with a sort of honorary title. The nationalists were supposedly marginalized or at least became more pliable in official discourse; however, their place was taken by jihadis who, in the case of Tatarstan, displayed a pattern that demonstrated their flexibility and readiness to being engaged in broad alliances.

The jihadis started to emerge in Tatarstan in the late 1990s, and have become especially strong since the mid-2000s, when Dokka Umarov promulgated the Caucasian Emirate in opposition to the independent Chechen republic - the goal of nationalists who dominated the resistance in early '90s. Movladi Udugov, at the time the leading ideologist of resistance, noted that nationalism contradicted the major premises of Islam and for this reason should be rejected.

The transition led to the "internalization" of the resistance, which from now on could absorb not just Chechens but other Muslims of various ethnic origins from the Northern Caucasus as well as a visible number of Russian converts. While Umarov and his collaborators asserted that the transition had deep ideological reasons and nationalism was absolutely unacceptable for true Muslims, the reason for the move was in many ways different. Indeed, it had quite practical implications, for it increased the pool of potential fighters.

While nationalism had been harmful for jihadism in the context of the North Caucasus, it played quite a different role in Tatarstan and Bashkiria. The jihadis and/or those who had sympathy with their ideology started to penetrate the Volga region soon after the promulgation of the emirate and possibly even earlier and engaged with their Tatar collaborationists in a direct war with the authorities. In fact, one Tatar official noted that the jihadis had been at war with Tatarstan authorities for almost 13 years. The conflict continues to escalate.

The event is important in itself as it indicates the increasing spread of Islamism in previously stable areas of the Russian Muslim heartland. But it is also important from another perspective: It indicates the increasing coalescence of the jihadis with Tatar nationalists. Indeed, after the authorities engaged in the arrest of suspects, protests took place in Kazan, the regional capital. The interesting point here is that the Islamists - with their black banners and the slogan "There is no god but Allah!" - co-exist with the groups who want an independent Tatarstan. The reason jihadis accept nationalism in Tatarstan is also for pragmatic considerations.

While in the Northern Caucasus Muslim separatists depleted the rank and file of the fighters and actually helped Moscow solidify its position, the story is quite different in Tatarstan, where nationalists often became natural allies of internationalist jihadis. The pragmatic considerations led to actual "de-Islamization" of the resistance.

Indeed, two of the suspects in the recent terrorist attack had no beards. While shaving the beard would be regarded as a serious Muslim transgression, it was quite handy for conspiratorial reasons, for it made it possible for Islamists to blend in with the crowd. This tactical savvy, when allies against Moscow are sought in all circles, induces jihadis to make overtures even to their supposedly sworn enemies - some Russian nationalists who proclaim that Moscow should stop "feeding the Caucasus" and call for separation of the region from Russia.

The events in Tatarstan and elsewhere demonstrate the great tactical flexibility of the North Caucasian jihadis who either reject or accept nationalism, depending on political expediency - and, here, North Caucasians instinctively follow Lenin and either reject nationalism - Russian nationalism as the ideology of the czarist regime - or eagerly accept it, as was the case with the nationalism of minorities Lenin regarded as his allies in his struggle against the regime.

Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.

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