MOSCOW - It has been another rough few weeks for religious understanding in Russia.
Last week in the North Caucasian region of Dagestan, an influential Islamic cleric was killed in a suicide bomb attack at his home. In addition to Said Afandi Al-Chirkavi, 74, the bomb killed seven others, including the suicide bomber, and the victim's wife and a 12-year-old boy who was there with his parents, both of whom also died.
The people assembled in Al-Chirkavi's home were all religious pilgrims, and the older woman who entered his home and sat near him in the afternoon last Tuesday claimed to be a pilgrim as well. But she had come with a bomb hidden under her clothes, and the explosion killed Al-Chirkavi immediately.
Although female suicide bombers are not particularly rare in Russia’s war-torn North Caucasus, this one was unusual, because she was ethnically Russian and a convert to Islam.
This is the second attack on moderate Muslim leaders in Russia in the past several weeks, signs that more extremist factions are gaining inroads -- and becoming more violent.
In fact, just as the attack in Dagestan was taking place, Russian President Vladimir Putin was visiting Tatarstan, one of the predominately Muslim areas of Russia that unlike the North Caucasus has been relatively peaceful. But Putin’s visit was in response to an attack on the Mufti, or Islamic leader, in Kazan, and the assassination-style killing of his deputy.
Ildus Faisov, the Mufti, managed to survive a bomb that went off in his car on July 19 with only a broken leg, but his deputy was shot at point-blank range in his home just an hour before three bombs went off in Faisov’s car. Although it is still not clear who was behind the attacks, it is well known that Faisov had enemies among Salafist extremists.
The similarities with Al-Chirkavi are hard to ignore. Al-Chirkavi was a Sufi leader, following the type of Islam that is considered “traditional” in the area, in contrast to the Salafists, also known as Wahabis, a movement that has been introduced in the past 20 years, mostly as a result of influence from Saudi Arabia.
Tatarstan has been reeling from the attacks. Observers are worried that the region may be pushed into civil war, with tensions mounting even before Al-Chirkavi’s death. Some think that war may in fact have been the goal of the attack, and that groups behind Al-Chirkavi’s death actually wanted his supporters to pick up arms in an attempt at revenge. Al-Chirkavi had been a major supporter of reconciliation attempts among the different Muslim factions in the region.
Meanwhile, Putin did his best to calm waters in Tatarstan, visiting the largest Koran in the world, a 800-kilogram mammoth tome prepared with the help of Italian masters, and meeting with the wounded Faisov. Putin officially presented the cleric with the Order of Friendship, a national medal, and posthumously gave his deputy the Order of Courage.
During the presentation, Putin, speaking about extremism in Russia, said that religious extremists have no future, and that “they will not get anywhere in any region of Russia.”