In light of recent events, a trio of stories I wrote for Agence France Presse out of Dagestan about the rise of Islam in Russia.

– SB

Islam’s rapid rise giving Russia growing pains

By Stephen Boykewich

MAKHACHKALA, Russia, April 9, 2007 (AFP) – Ask Khadji Gasan Gasanaliyev, imam of an independent mosque in this North Caucasus city, what’s wrong with Russia, and he tells how a three-year-old held a gun to his head.

The bearded, excitable imam sprawled face-down on the floor, imitating a friend’s young son who threw a tantrum when Gasanaliyev was trying to lead the namaz, or daily prayer devout Muslims recite five times a day.

Gasanaliyev dragged the boy up from the floor, and in return the boy got a toy gun and pressed it to the kneeling imam’s temple.

“A three-year-old boy! Where did he learn this?” Gasanaliyev asked, his eyes wide behind a pair of thick glasses. “There is no pity, there is no kindness here…. Look at this
civilization: Women going around naked on television, even on the street, violence everywhere. This is civilization?”

Muslims all across the country are asking similar questions about the nature of contemporary Russian society — even as their rapid rise is transforming not only the face of this traditionally Orthodox Christian country, but its culture.

Mosques that were once all but empty now overflow with believers at Friday midday prayers, from Makhachkala to the courtyard of Moscow’s central Cathedral Mosque, where hundreds of men denied spaces inside kneel
on prayer rugs and newspapers.

Russia’s population has been in free-fall since the Soviet collapse in 1991, dropping by five percent to 142.5 million and sparking forebodings of the collapse of the state along with multi-billion-dollar programs to raise birthrates.

But while ethnic Russians struggle for survival, the country’s Muslim population is booming thanks to higher birthrates and a flood of immigrants from largely Muslim Central Asia. Official statistics put Russia’s Muslim population at 12 million in 1989, while current estimates are as high as 30 million.

Mix in concerns over Islamist radicalism in the Northern Caucasus, which has seen two wars and hundreds of extremist attacks since the Soviet collapse, and Muslims here face challenges that range from ignorance about
their religion to threats to their lives.

Dzhamshid Aliboyev, 26, told how he bewildered his coworkers on his first day of work in February at a Moscow auto-parts factory, where he was the only Muslim on a team of 50.

He laid out his prayer rug in the lobby for morning namaz, and “one by one, every single one of them stopped work to poke their heads in the door and stare at me. They said: ‘We’ve got a Muslim! What on earth is he
doing?'”

After several weeks of lunchtime question-and-answer sessions, “now my cell phone alarm goes off to remind me about the namaz, and they’re all excited. ‘You’re going to pray now?’ they say.”

Not all of Russia’s Muslims feel so welcome.

“Of course I’m afraid,” said Makhmud, a Kyrgyz man in his late 50s who moved to Moscow three months ago seeking work. “You see young men with shaved heads on the street or the metro, and you know that anything could happen.”

Muslims bear brunt of escalating racist violence in Russia

Muslims bear the brunt of the escalating racist violence in Russia. Racist attacks struck 539 people last year, a 17 percent rise over 2005, the Sova analytical center said in a report last week. Nearly half of the
56 people killed in the attacks were from the North Caucasus and Central Asia — both overwhelmingly Muslim.

“Xenophobia is growing very quickly here, and Islamophobia is growing along with it and will continue to, there’s no question,” said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Islam in Russia at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Underlying the threat to Russian Muslims as individuals is a deep uncertainty the Russian government feels about how to handle the quick rise of the faith.

President Vladimir Putin meets with Kremlin-friendly Muslim leaders regularly and underlines the centuries-old presence of Islam in Russia during his visits to traditionally Muslim countries.

But in Makhachkala, the capital of the Caucasian region of Dagestan, Imam Gasanaliyev’s energetic delivery turned angry when he was asked about the government’s relation to Islam.

“They hate this religion,” he said, pounding his fist on the table. “There’s no help, no support for us at all.”

It might seem an odd claim in Dagestan, where 80 percent of the population is Muslim and the government is sponsoring a mosque-building boom.

But as an advocate of what he calls “pure Islam” — as opposed to the government-friendly Islam that has dominated in Russia since the time of the tsars — Gasanaliyev hovers on the edge of what authorities see as a foreign-sponsored threat.

When the Soviet Union fell, radical Islamist influence from abroad provoked a split in the North Caucasus “between so-called traditional Islam and pure Islam — the Wahhabists, as we call them,” Dagestani President Mukhu Aliyev told journalists recently.

“We’re openly struggling against them and will continue to, because they don’t recognize the constitution, don’t recognize the authorities…they don’t recognize any language except that of the machine gun.”

For many Muslims, though, corruption among politicians and state law enforcement agencies only proves the need for a higher authority.

“They steal, they say they’re going to do things for people and do nothing — of course we trust our imams more,” said Rasul, 26, an unemployed agricultural college graduate in Makhachkala.

Gasanaliyev also charged that law enforcement deliberately targeted the most devout young Muslims, seeing them as potential radicals.

“No less than 20 or 30 young people have disappeared over the last two to three years, no one knows where,” Gasanaliyev said. “There are people like that in every mosque. The most worthy, respectable young people are
the ones who disappear.”

Back in Moscow, local and federal authorities show their two-sided relationship to Islam just as clearly.

Dozens of the faithful waited long after a recent midday Friday namaz for the results of a meeting between Russian Council of Muftis head Ravil Gainutdin, Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, and two top Kremlin aides over how
to kick-start the planned expansion of the Cathedral Mosque.

Construction of a new hall that would quadruple the mosque’s capacity has been stalled for over a year in spite of a pledge of support from Putin in January 2005. The talks this month ended with vague promises to help find additional funding.

Twenty-five-year-old Abdul-Qodr, an Uzbek immigrant to Moscow, was not disheartened. The whole world is moving closer to Islam, he said, and Russia is moving along with it.

“Just a few years ago we were amazed when Russians or Americans or French people converted to Islam. No one’s amazed anymore,” he said.

Russian mountains cradle hoard of ancient languages

By Stephen Boykewich

KUBACHI, Russia, March 27, 2007 (AFP) – Life isn’t bad in this North Caucasus mountain town. The air is pure, the view is magnificent, and the centuries-old tradition of silver handiwork guarantees jobs for all.

There is one downside for the 2,000 residents of Kubachi, however: Their neighbors a short donkey ride down the road can’t understand a word they say.

“What we speak here, the Kubachinsky language, people in Darginsk don’t understand at all,” said Magomed Akhmedov, 35, director of the village’s silverworks factory. “That’s literally five or six kilometres away.”

The extraordinary linguistic diversity preserved amid these snow-capped peaks is what led a 10th-century geographer to name the Caucasus “the mountain of tongues.”

The rocky, mostly rural region of Dagestan has one of the highest concentrations of languages in the world, between 30 and 70 in an area smaller than Scotland.

Its 2.3 million residents are divided into 34 ethnic groups and nearly all speak Russian, as the territory fell to Russia’s imperial advance in 1859. Beside it are local languages that would strike fear into the heart of any student who has ever wrestled with case endings.

Lak, the native tongue of about five percent of the Dagestani population, has 56 cases — compared to six in Russian and a mere four in German — language specialist Yunusov Abdul-Raman said.

But even Lak is beaten by Tabasaran, which is spoken by 95,000 in southern Dagestan and has 62 cases.

“It was in the Guinness Book of World Records! These are extremely difficult languages,” Abdul-Raman said.

Like many Dagestani tongues, Kubachinsky in not a written language and is not taught in schools, but was preserved through the Soviet era by the same combination of geography and tight social bonds that has preserved Kubachi’s tradition of silverworking for centuries.

“We only marry among ourselves. There are exceptions, but you can count them on the fingers of one hand,” said Akhmedov, who has directed the village’s silverworks factory since 2001. “Everyone here is related in one way or another.”

Unlike in neighboring Chechnya, which was devastated when Joseph Stalin deported its entire population in 1944, Dagestan’s mountain towns were largely spared from Soviet social engineering.

Aside from the total number of languages here — which depends on where lines are drawn between dialect and language — the diversity of their origins also amazes scholars.

Aside from the native Caucasian languages, linguists have identified Turkic, Mongol, Greek and other language families here.

The Tats, or Moutain Jews, an ethnic group of about 18,000 people living near the southern coastal city of Derbent, still speak a dialect of Persian that is over 1,000 years old.

But what seven decades of Soviet rule could not erode, the creep of Western culture is beginning to.

Children in Kubachi learn their native language only at home, since it has no written form and is not taught in schools.

The related language of Darginsky is, but has to jostle for position with Russian and, increasingly, English.

“To tell you the truth, we teach English better than our own language,” said Darzhi Kurvan, the director of a village school.

“As much as we talk about patriotism, beyond our region it’s more convenient and more profitable to know English.”

And though children usually speak Kubachinsky in the home, “we’ve noticed that in the schoolyard, most of the children speak Russian. They even bawl each other out in Russian,” Kurvan said, his wizened face breaking into a smile.

“There’s a battle for these languages going on now,” said journalist and opposition activist Magomed Shamilyev, a member of Dagestan’s majority Avar ethnic group in the regional capital Makhachkala.

Radio and television programmes are broadcast here in 14 languages, but as more of the region’s 60-percent rural population moves to cities in search of work, the smaller languages are at risk of vanishing, Shamilyev
said.

And while there is a regional law reinforcing the status of Russian as an official language, “there is no law on national languages, no law to protect and develop the languages that are disappearing,” he said.

Factory director Akhmedov is living proof of how times are changing. Asked how a simple welcome would sound in Kubachinsky, he hesitated, then let a few words of Russian slip in while he spoke.

“He spends too much time in the city,” laughed one of the factory’s workers.

After an embarrassed smile, Magomedov repeated the phrase fluently.

“There is a risk these languages will disappear,” he said, “but we
preserve them in our hearts.”

Muslim freedom fighter stirs pride, fear in Russia

By Stephen Boykewich

GHIMRI, Russia, March 23, 2007 (AFP) – One of the fiercest enemies Russia saw, Dagestani resistance leader Imam Shamil helped launch a holy war in this mountain village in 1829 — and from the sound of the shouts
in the street, the struggle was not over yet.

“If you want a war, declare a war, but this is mockery!” cried Patima, a woman in her 50s who appeared on a cobbled lane beside the mosque that villagers said Imam Shamil had helped build with his own hands.

Elite police troops had raided the town two nights before, demonstrating that in Imam Shamil’s birthplace, his anti-Russian battle was as fresh to the authorities as it was to the villagers.

Magomed Ibraimov, the pot-bellied deputy head of the village administration, first denied there had been a raid, then relented as villagers accosted him.

Special forces targeted Ghimri “because Imam Shamil and Imam Gazimagomed grew up here,” he told AFP, referring to the village’s most famous son and his childhood friend and fellow freedom fighter.

“They began the very first war against Russia, they started it all, and that’s why everybody wants to find something here.”

Today’s Russian authorities say they are combating separatists and Muslim radicals in the North Caucasus, all the way from Kabardino-Balkaria to Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan.

But inextricably mixed with these modern issues are passions stretching centuries back to the bitter resistance in these mountains to Russian imperial conquest.

Imam Shamil led Chechen and Dagestani volunteers against vastly superior numbers of Russian troops from 1829 until his surrender in 1859, earning renown as far as Victorian Britain as “the Lion of Dagestan.”

Villagers’ pride in him today is as keen as their fright over the raid.

Residents said special forces had filled the night with machine gun fire and dragged three young men out into the steep, winding lanes of the village of 3,600, saying they hadn’t been heard from since.

“There was no reason for it, no evidence, and it wasn’t the first time. We’re sick of this!” Fatima said. “Three grandmothers — forgive me for saying this — pissed themselves from fear at the sound of the machine
guns. My 72-year-old mother nearly died of fright.”

Ibraimov insisted that the radical Islam advocated by Imam Shamil had not taken root, as did Ruslan Dzhamalov, a federal migration service official based in Ghimri. But Dzhamalov also said Imam Shamil cast a long shadow there.

“It’s historical,” he said. “We Dagestanis never forget our history.”

That history, at least in the 19th century, is dominated by the figure whose imposing portrait stares out from the walls of homes and offices all over this North Caucasus republic.

About 1,000 people a day come to pray at a tiny mosque on the outskirts of Ghimri where Shamil pulled off the first miraculous escape that helped spread his fame and unite the mountains’ vast array of clans and ethnic
groups against the invaders.

Leaping from a stone house where he and Gazimagomed had taken refuge, Shamil slashed his way through rows of Russian soldiers. A sign posted impossibly far from the ruins of the house shows the distance he
supposedly cleared in one jump.

“He did it by stepping on to the shoulders of the first line of soldiers, then he flew 16 meters to that spot. Could anyone do that today?” beamed the site’s caretaker, Magomed. “He did it with the help of
Allah.”

Gazimagomed, then the first imam of Dagestan, was killed on the site. Shamil later followed in his footsteps to become the region’s third imam, and the two remain deeply beloved here.

“There’s a joke about Dagestan,” said the present imam of Ghimri, Gazimagomed Abakarov, a trim, smiling figure in a tall Caucasian fur hat.

“A programmer types into a computer: How many Magomeds are there in Dagestan? And the computer explodes. It’s the same thing here with Shamils and Gazimagomeds.”

A more serious issue is whether Imam Shamil’s example is still inspiring Islamic extremists to violence.

While Dagestan never saw the separatist fighting in the post-Soviet era that engulfed Chechnya from 1994-96 and again from 1999, guerrillas still carry out dozens of attacks each year, mostly against police.

A Chechen namesake of the 19th century imam, Shamil Basayev, often crossed the border into the Dagestani mountains before his death last year.

Officials and residents in Ghimri denied there were guerrillas there, referring cryptically to “two or three bad seeds.”

A source close to law enforcement in the regional capital Makhatchkala, however, said Islamist groups were deeply rooted in Ghimri, and that the raid had been ordered to secure the area before a delegation of foreign
journalists were brought to the region.

“They are there,” he said of the guerrillas. “They haven’t all been caught, and they won’t be.”

And while most Dagestanis say they cannot imagine a life independent from Moscow, which provides 70 percent of the poverty-stricken region’s budget, many grow uneasy when asked whether Imam Shamil was right to
surrender in 1859 and cede control of the region to Russia.

“We’re not saying he struggled in vain,” said Eduard Urazayev, the region’s minister for nationalities, choosing his words carefully. “But in the end, life is quieter and more stable for us under Russia’s wing. We
put our confidence in that.”