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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Holy Russian Jihad

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The war in Iraq is gradually fading from view, overtaken by fresh events. In the political life of Russia, the war was marked by several noteworthy developments.

While political parties and society at large generally exhibited passivity, one of Russia's main Muslim organizations -- in case you missed it -- declared jihad against the United States and its partners in the anti-Iraq coalition.

That's right. Jihad was declared last month at a rally of the United Russia party in Ufa. The declaration was made by Supreme Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin, head of the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims, or TsDUM, one of Russia's two main national Muslim organizations. According to Tadzhuddin, the decision to declare jihad had been made the night before by TsDUM's 29 member muftiyats, or regional Muslim councils.

"We will create a foundation funded by donations and use this money to buy arms for the fight against America and to buy food for the Iraqi people," Tadzhuddin said. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow immediately denounced the declaration, and sharp criticism followed from the Prosecutor General's Office, the Justice Ministry, the rival Council of Russian Muftis headed by Ravil Gainutdin, various muftiyats and the leadership of Tatarstan (though not Bashkortostan, whose capital is Ufa). TsDUM explained that by "jihad" Tadzhuddin had in mind an exclusively spiritual confrontation. Mollified by this retraction, the muftis of Perm and Sverdlovsk, among others, signed on to the call for jihad. Tadzhuddin meanwhile carried on with his saber-rattling in Ufa.

Some observers have explained TsDUM's action as an expression of overwrought popular emotion. But the whole story actually makes perfect sense. On the eve of the war, Tadzhuddin traveled to Baghdad as part of a delegation of Russian religious and political leaders. The possibility of jihad was then discussed at a TsDUM plenary session in Ufa. The delegates resolved to declare jihad, and moved to create a Supreme Muslim Council of Soviet successor states responsible for making the final decision to declare holy war. By that point the mufti of Moscow and the Moscow region, Makhmud Velitov, had already gone public with the declaration of jihad, though that didn't seem to worry the Prosecutor General's Office.

The denunciations of Tadzhuddin's organization that followed focused almost exclusively on the leader himself, casting him as mentally unstable or worse. They failed to mention, however, that regional muftis had supported the decision to declare jihad.

It's also curious that the Center for the Coordination of Muslims in the North Caucasus, where anti-war protests were particularly well attended, did not support the call for jihad. The exception was Dagestan, where the religious leadership created an organization to support Iraq.

As in a good classical play, the jihad story maintains the unities of time and place, with no room for chance. It was in early April that President Vladimir Putin, first in Tambov and later in Moscow, began his shift to a pro-American stance, speaking of the need to further develop Russian-U.S. cooperation, despite difficulties in relations.

That the declaration of jihad was made in Ufa at a United Russia rally was also no coincidence. The party of power plays the Muslim card with regularity. Both Gainutdin and Tadzhuddin, rivals for the leadership of Russia's 20 million Muslims, enjoy the support of the Kremlin. They are members of the Interfaith Council of Russia, created in 1998. Tadzhuddin, as a leader of Russia's second-largest religious group, also enjoys the support of the Russian Orthodox Church. And he is not averse to returning the favor, as witnessed by his recent decision to rechristen TsDUM the Central Islamic Spiritual Directorate of Holy Russia.

Who benefits from all of this?

For Putin, it is a chance to make sure that the United States understands the difficulties he faces as the head of a country with a huge Muslim population, and that it appreciates the firmness of his response. And with elections right around the corner, it is calculated to garner support for the party of power from radical Muslims in Tadzhuddin's organization, as well as from pragmatic Muslims who side with Gainutdin. In this scenario, Tadzhuddin plays the role of Igor Ivanov for Muslim voters.

Jihad was declared not just in 1941, against fascist Germany, and in 2003 against the U.S.-led coalition. You may recall that a Chechen mufti named Akhmad Kadyrov declared jihad against Russia in 1995.

He now heads the pro-Kremlin government in Grozny, and stands a good chance of becoming the president of Chechnya in the upcoming election.

Nikolai Petrov, head of the Center for Political and Geographical Research, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.