Here is an excerpt of an excellent article on freedom of worship — or lack of it — in today’s Russia.

“Opinion is polarised over the extent – and even existence – of Islamic extremism in Russia, particularly outside the northern Caucasus. As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the belief in the legitimacy of violence in the pursuit of Islamic ideals is commonly referred to as “Wahhabism”, after Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab, whose teachings form the religious basis of the present-day kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The eighteenth-century theologian’s “Book of Monotheism” is currently the only theological work on Russia’s 14 July 2007 federal list of banned extremist materials.

“The head of the FSB security service in the Urals region of Chelyabinsk, for example, was cited by Russian news agency Interfax in March 2006 as saying that “the expansion of Wahhabism is spreading to Russia in stages, according to a certain plan”. Following the first stage – “distribution of Wahhabi literature and leaflets in our region”, the second – “the formation of missionary groups and the spread of anti-state ideology among their members” – has begun, according to Aleksandr Krivyakov. The final stage of the alleged plan, he maintained, is the organisation of mass disorder and the seizure of power.

“The author of two books on the recent history of the Islamic community in Russia, Roman Silantyev has similarly maintained to religious affairs newspaper supplement NG-Religii that the Islamic extremist threat is pervasive. Meaning by Wahhabism “any fundamentalist Islamic trend which presupposes the annihilation of people only because they are of another belief”, Silantyev remarked that the scale of its dissemination in Russia – outside the northern Caucasus – “is simply shocking. (..) If the state doesn’t intervene and support its true allies in the Muslim community, you can forget about interreligious peace.” An armed conflict would begin in two to three years, he suggested, in an interview published on 16 May 2007.

“By contrast, Marat Murtazin, who is vice-chairman to Mufti Ravil Gainutdin of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of European Russia (SDMER), believes that “very few people want to create an Islamic state here.” Speaking to Forum 18 in March 2007, he criticised common usage of the term “Wahhabism”. “Anyone can be labelled with it. You can call me a Wahhabi, but my convictions don’t depend upon what you say I am.” In Murtazin’s view, state representatives usually do not know what Wahhabism is. “It reminds me of the 1930s – ‘enemy of the people’ or ‘Trotskyist’. What exactly is a Trotskyist?”

“The way in which the term is used can indeed cast doubt upon the soundness of a particular accusation. In September 2004, for example, Governor Aleksandr Chernogorov of Stavropol Region yoked Wahhabism with “Jehovism” – a Soviet-era term for the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith – in describing the main threat to “those confessions which provide the foundation of civil peace”. A Russian-language website analysing the political situation in the republic of Mari-El, claimed in December 2005 that Mari nationalists were assisting “emissaries of radical Islamists [who] recently tried to split the Muslim community of Mari-El (..) and turn the Muslim diaspora of Mari-El towards fahabism [sic].” Paganism is in fact the religious tradition normally associated with the Mari nationalist movement.

“Even Vladimir Putin has modified his use of the term “Wahhabism” during the course of his presidency. Questioned about the situation in Chechnya a year into Russia’s second military operation in the rebel republic by French television channels TF1 and France 3, he explained that one of the reasons for ordering in troops in 1999 was “ideological aggression from what is known as Wahhabism”. In January 2006, however, Interfax news agency cited him as stating that “Wahhabism in itself does not pose any threat, but distortion of the norms of Islam, of Wahhabism, this of course cannot be viewed as anything other than calling for terrorism.”

“A few months beforehand, in October 2005, reported that the Presidential Administration had circulated to central television stations a list of terms to be used when covering conflict in the northern Caucasus. “Wahhabi” should be replaced by “Islamic extremist”, “jihad” by “diversional-terrorist activity” and “Chechen terrorism” by “international terrorism”, the Russian news website stated.”

Read the full article here: RUSSIA: Islamic extremists, real and imagined