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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On the Roots of Extremism

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As we struggle to understand the motives of Islamic extremism and methods for coping, it may be helpful to consider the experience of Dagestan, the southernmost Russian republic that lies between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea. When Islamic extremism was exported from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, Dagestan was the second place where it arrived. Throughout the 1990s Dagestanis struggled with the extremist movement that they call Wahhabism.

Political Islam became a force in the Soviet Union during perestroika when the Islamic Party of Revival was organized in Tajikistan. A Dagestani man named Akhmed-Kadi Akhtayev, who was residing in Tajikistan, became the IPR chair, and soon returned to Dagestan, where he founded a spiritual and educational institution known as Islamia. With funding from organizations and individuals in the Persian Gulf, Wahhabi missionaries and activists worked to spread their views throughout the republic.

More than 90 percent of Dagestan's 2 million plus people are Muslims. Yet while Islam has been an important social force in Dagestan for centuries, its practice is traditionally tolerant. Dagestanis are proud of their multicultural heritage, including Christian and Jewish minorities, and sexual equality is generally comparable to that in Western societies. Yet as Wahhabism began to take hold in Dagestan, Wahhabis demanded that fellow villagers uphold their puritanical strictures.

The spread of Wahhabism in the Caucasus is fed by a deep disillusionment with the prospects for economic development, and by widespread despair over the moral and political decay that is rapidly overwhelming societies in the region. Though Wahhabism rejects secular political authorities, its radical social agenda sometimes resembles an ideological, more than a religious, movement.

From 1996 to 1997, as Wahhabism spread through Dagestan, violent clashes between Wahhabis and traditional Muslims began near the village of Karamakhi. By the end of 1998, Dagestani authorities had lost control of this area in the heart of the republic. Throughout the next 18 months, as Dagestani and Russian officials sought to negotiate with Islamic separatists in the Karamakhi vicinity, violence between Wahhabis and traditional Muslims erupted elsewhere in Dagestan.

Meanwhile Akhtayev became a religious authority in Chechnya. In April 1999, he helped to organize the Caucasian Conference in Chechnya, where Chechen warlords, such as Shamil Basayev, called for the "liberation" of Dagestan. In August and September 1999, Basayev and Khattab led militant extremists in invasions of Dagestan. Many Dagestanis were slaughtered, villages were destroyed and 32,000 people were displaced. The Dagestanis spontaneously organized citizen militias and appealed to Moscow for military assistance. The invaders were driven out of the republic, Karamakhi was leveled and Wahhabi leaders were killed, imprisoned or forced into hiding.

On Sept. 16, 1999, the same day that the invaders were expelled, the Dagestani Assembly enacted legislation outlawing Wahhabism and extending new administrative powers to the republic's traditional Islamic organization, known as the DUMD. In order to control Wahhabi influence, the DUMD was charged with regulating Islamic activities in Dagestan.

Yet as an ill defined, loosely organized spiritual movement, Wahhabism proved difficult to regulate, and the DUMD has been competing with secular political authorities for greater power. Since the Dagestanis fought Wahhabism in order to prevent an Islamic state, it is ironic that the DUMD is, in some ways, tending toward one.

Meanwhile, Moscow has rebuilt Karamakhi and provided Dagestan with a sixfold budgetary increase. It has also sought to stimulate Dagestan's economic development by giving the republic a central role in the transfer of oil and gas reserves from Caspian fields to Western markets. Dagestan is showing early signs of economic recovery.

What can we learn from Dagestan? First, there are many approaches to Islam. For nearly a decade traditional Muslims in the Caucasus and Central Asia have been under attack by religious extremists. Russia and the West alike must recognize this important distinction and reject anti-Caucasian and anti-Islamic prejudices. Second, sustained efforts to settle peacefully with extremists proved pointless in Dagestan, where citizens endured horrendous acts of aggression until they finally achieved a military solution. Third, Dagestanis preserved their freedoms from extremist assault only to diminish those freedoms themselves in their subsequent efforts to ensure their security. Fourth, extremism feeds upon political corruption, economic despair, moral decay and spiritual disorientation. Its andidotes are political justice, economic opportunity and ethnic and religious toleration.

If the world is to triumph over Islamic extremism, then we must avoid the former and ensure the latter.

Robert Bruce Ware is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.