Yesterday we highlighted a story about attacks on pro-government Islamic clerics in Russia’s Tatar region. Today comes word in the Moscow Times that arrests have been made in the case, and the news is not good. From the Moscow Times report on the arrest of alleged mastermind Rustem Gataullin and accomplices in the murder of a prominent Muslim cleric Valiulla Yakupov and the attempted assassination of the Chief Mufti of Tatarstan, Ildus Faizov:
After Faizov was elected chief mufti of Tatarstan in 2011, he took over management of the financial operations of Idel-Hajj, which assists Muslims on pilgrimages to Mecca, the statement said.
Faizov and Gataullin came into conflict over Faizov’s role in the firm, and Gataullin threatened Faizov, the statement said.
Gataullin also has links to radical Wahhabis, Kommersant reported.
Faizov and Yakupov were seen as anti-Wahhabi, and Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov on Thursday indirectly blamed Islamic militants for the attacks.
Investigators did not comment on how Faizov’s business dealings might relate to the attack on Yakupov, whose funeral was held in Kazan on Friday.
Thursday’s attacks represented the first major assault on Muslim leaders in Russia outside the North Caucasus, where a string of moderate religious clerics have been killed over the past two years.
(“Wahhabi” is often used in Russia where “Salafi” would be used in US press reports, meaning radical and possibly violence prone Islam.)
The Moscow Times report supports the worst-case interpretation of this incident we worried about yesterday. Leading “moderate” and pro-Russian government clerics inside the country are profiting from their privileged status, in this case perhaps by either selling hajj permits or otherwise extracting money from their position of controlling the pilgrimage business. The perception of systemic corruption by moderate forces discredits non-violent and tolerant Islam and promotes radicalism inside Russia.
Targeting pro-government Islamic clerics for murder has been an effective tactic for the radicals in the Caucasus, where the Russian government is fighting a growing threat and has been losing the ideological battle. With this attack, the tactic has spread for the first time outside the historically unstable Caucasus region into what most Russians consider Russia proper.
The news that arrests have been made so quickly in the case will reassure many Russians that the government is still in charge in Tatarstan, but the story strengthens the perception that Russia is vulnerable to terrorism and is engaged in a life and death struggle with radical Sunni Islam.
This perception helps explain Russia’s stand in Syria and its support of Iran: they are part of its struggle with Saudi-backed Sunni extremism. Western support for Syria’s Saudi-backed rebels and western support for the Saudi struggle against Iran can, from this perspective, be seen either an example of western geopolitical naivete or as an example of an implacable hatred of Russia.
In any case, this developing story points to a worsening situation inside Russia and highlights the fragility of Russia’s ideological defenses against violent religious extremism. There are no easy answers and there is no quick fix.