Until recently, it was the insurgency in neighbouring Chechnya that had posed the biggest challenge to Russian leaders. But now it is the Muslim Dagestanis whose resentments are turning violent.
In Russia's Dagestan, Salafi Muslims clash with government authorities
MAKHACHKALA, RUSSIA // The latest episode in Moscow's struggle with rebellious Muslims is unfolding here in Dagestan, a forbidding North Caucasian realm where peaks as high as 4,000 metres descend sharply to running rivers.
Suicide bombers have emerged. Each week, an average of three policemen are killed and numerous civilians become casualties. Tanks and helicopters, weapons blazing, pursue guerrillas in the woods.
Until recently, it was the insurgency in neighbouring Chechnya that had posed the biggest challenge to Russian leaders. But now, it is the traditionally independent and Muslim Dagestanis whose resentments are turning violent, finding expression in a conservative form of Islam taking root in the beautiful severity of the mountain landscape.
Authorities blame Muslim extremists for the unrest. Conservative Muslims blame government repression. The fighting sometimes appears dangerously close to civil war, with imams attacked and killed, alcohol stores blown up, and angry young men taking up arms and going into hiding - which in the North Caucasus is called going to the forest.
"They terrorised the people," a 30-year-old religious leader known as Abu Umar said of regional authorities. "And now, the people terrorise them."
Twenty years since the end of the Soviet Union, a minority in Russia has accumulated great wealth while the average citizen has been disappointed by lack of opportunity and an increasingly authoritarian government run on corruption and disregard for law. Ethnic tension has grown.
Few protest. Chechnya has been subdued. But Dagestan roils with religious disputes and anger at Moscow, mixed almost indistinguishably with vicious commercial and political struggles.
"Russia will never make Dagestan prosperous," Abu Umar said. "We are a third-class people for them. They want us humiliated, and we feel it."
On a late-summer afternoon, Abu Umar offers a tour of a self-sufficient Islamic community about 112 kilometres north-west of Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital. He is a Salafi, what Russians call a Wahhabi and consider synonymous with extremism.
The walls are already up on the three-story madrassa, or religious school, where Salafis say they intend to provide social services, sports, education and opportunities untainted by corruption. As a bulldozer rumbled, Abu Umar pointed out the spot reserved for an orphanage to care for children he says the government neglects.
Islam arrived here in the late Middle Ages, becoming a moderate Sufism infused with local customs. But religion was mostly forced underground during the officially atheistic years of the Soviet Union. In Dagestan, believers buried their Qurans in the forest and suffered silently as their mosques were destroyed.
When religion began to re-emerge in Russia as the Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s, Salafism - a puritanical form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia - began to drift here through Afghanistan. The disillusionment and chaos of the 1990s, as Russia struggled to replace communism with democracy, provided fertile ground for it to take hold.
Salafis believe a Muslim has a direct relationship with God and should study the words of the Prophet Mohammad. Sufis in Dagestan follow the instruction of their sheikhs, who stand between them and God and have anywhere from 500 to 20,000 deeply loyal followers.
Salafis dislike the Sufi alliance with the government. Sufis run the government-sanctioned Spiritual Board of Muslims, to which the official clergy belong. They also support a secular state. Salafis do not.
Violent and unsolved deaths have become a routine part of life here. At a Makhachkala sports centre, a tiny grandmother describes how the director of the judo programme was gunned down recently, just after getting a bigger job at another club, targeted perhaps by a professional rival.
Residents can point out the spot at the beach where a bomb went off last year, a protest against women in bathing suits that cost one woman her leg.
Police have killed 100 people they identified as rebels since the beginning of the year, Interior Ministry officials said in June, and human rights activists accuse police of killing first and then finding a crime to assign to the body.
Local journalists estimate that 1,000 to 1,500 armed men are in the forest at any one time, with perhaps 5,000 others prepared to join them. The forest shelters organised terrorism as well - the US government has offered a US$5 million (Dh18.4m) reward for information leading to Doku Umarov, a Chechen terrorist with Al Qaeda connections suspected of hiding in Dagestan.
In Dagestan, all policemen are targets, because they represent government authority and because they are accused of treating the population brutally. In one Makhachkala district, police line up for morning roll call behind heavy fortifications, metres from where a suicide bomber smashed into a gate, only to be rammed by a police van. Six police officers died as both vehicles exploded.
Said Amirov, mayor of Makhachkala since 1998, has survived 15 assassination attempts, one of which severed his spine and left him unable to walk.
"There are people who try to live outside the law," the mayor said, "and I don't let them do what they want."
Mr Amirov heads prime minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party in Makhachkala. He said he is busy building the housing and infrastructure required for a city of 710,000 whose population is expected to grow to a million. The birth rate in Dagestan is much higher than in the rest of Russia, and people are moving to the city looking for work.
"We want a secular state here, as part of the Russian Federation," he said. "If those in the forest stop fighting and drop their guns, they can rejoin the peaceful population. They are our people, too."
* The Washington Post