Brutality, anger and jihad in Dagestan

Brutality, anger and jihad in Dagestan


In these narrow dirt lanes in the village of Gimry, on a normal day, little girls in hijabs can be found peeking out of tin-roof houses while little boys play at "cops and insurgents" in the street.

The village is in remote Dagestan, a region in the high Caucasus mountains on Russia's southern fringe, which is in the throes of an Islamic revival.

. AKHTY, Russia. REUTERS/Maria Turchenkova

Here in the village, more than a dozen young men have "gone to the forest" - the local euphemism for joining insurgents in their hideouts, said village administrator Aliaskhab Magomedov.

"It's a full-fledged jihad," he said. "They don't recognise my authority. Islam does not separate the state from religion."

. Kaspiysk, Russia. REUTERS/Maria Turchenkova

Throughout the 12 years since Vladimir Putin rose to power and crushed a Chechen separatist revolt, Russia has battled a simmering insurgency across its mainly Muslim Caucasus mountain lands.

This local resident's house was seriously damaged during a special antiterrorist operation conducted by Russian military forces in a building nearby.

. Kaspiysk, Russia. REUTERS/Maria Turchenkova

With Putin back in the Kremlin after a four year hiatus as prime minister, he has tried to end the violence by emphasising the unity of Russia, providing backing for mainstream clerics and cracking down hard on religious radicalism.

But the formula seems to be failing here, driving communities further into the embrace of radical religion, and sending more young men into the mountains to take up arms.

Dagestan is one of the deadliest places in Europe: in the first half of 2012 alone, the Caucasian Knot website recorded 185 insurgency-related deaths and 168 wounded.

. GIMRY, Russia. REUTERS/Maria Turchenkova

In Gimry, weathered tombstones pointing toward Mecca bear witness to the village's ancient Muslim roots. But the Islam practiced here today bears increasingly little resemblance to the village customs of old.

For centuries, the Muslim communities of Russia's Caucasus mountains practiced Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, whose practitioners chant prayers in circles. There was little of the formal Islamic legal scholarship that prevails across much of the Sunni Muslim world.

However, since the fall of the officially atheist Soviet Union, many Caucasus Muslims studied abroad. When they returned, they clashed with the religious establishment, demanding a "purer" Islam uncorrupted by local Sufi customs.

. Novosasitli, Russia. REUTERS/Maria Turchenkova

"You can't live by Sharia law where the Russian constitution rules," says Abdurakhim Magomedov, a charismatic Salafi preacher whose video sermons are popular on the Internet and whose schools in the village of Novosasitli teach 200-300 pupils.

Dozens of religious schools like Magomedov's have sprung up across the region, and the messages being taught are often from the Salafi school of Islam, which seeks to recreate the 7th century practices of the Prophet Mohammed and his successors.

. Novosasitli, Russia. REUTERS/Maria Turchenkova

The sprightly, white-bearded, 70-year-old Magomedov who first translated the Koran into the local Avar language, says that while Dagestan is not yet ready for jihad, its Muslim population must not live under secular law and Russian rule.

. GIMRY, Russia. REUTERS/Maria Turchenkova

Today in Gimry, along the single, pot-holed road to the remote scattering of houses, green signs proclaim "Allah is Great". Disputes here are ruled on by the local imam, alcohol is scarce, polygamy is common and people say there has been no theft in years - virtues they attribute to Sharia law.

. Makhachkala, Russia. REUTERS/Maria Turchenkova

Young Salafi women spend time at a public women's beach in Makhachkala, Dagestan's Caspian Sea coastal capital, where the influence of religious conservatism can also be seen. The Salafi community has its own media outlets, charities and even a football league. A sex-segregated school that opened this year already has more than 250 students.

"Five years ago, there were no Islamic clothing shops. Now every other girl wears a hijab," said Fatima Ramzanova, 19, feet curled under her on the sand of a new women-only beach in a full, black Islamic dress she wears against her mother's wishes.