Robert Fisk and the Russian war on salafism

Fisk: relied on Russian source

Writing for the Independent last week, Middle East reporter Robert Fisk highlighted an event which he claimed "may prove to be even more dramatic than the terror of Syria's civil war".

The cause of his excitement was a conference held in the Chechen capital, Grozny, towards the end of August and attended by a couple of hundred Sunni Muslim scholars. The conference, Fisk wrote, had left the Saudis "reeling" because it issued a fatwa defining Sunni Islam in a way that excluded salafism and Wahhabism – the dominant religious strands in Saudi Arabia.

This, Fisk added, was "as close as Sunni clerics have got to excommunicating the Saudis". It was "the first time, ever", he asserted, that the Saudis had been simultaneously asssaulted by Sunni leaders as well as their customary Shia foes.

As described by Fisk, this certainly sounds like an important – and welcome – development: a spontaneous groundswell of Sunni scholars suddenly rejecting Saudi Arabia's intolerant and reactionary brand of Islam. Unfortunately, though, Fisk's version of the conference gave an incomplete picture because it relied heavily on one particular source: an article published by the Russian website, RT.

Referring to the outcome of the Grozny conference, the RT article's author, Sharmine Narwani (see previous blog posts) declared:

"In one fell swoop, Wahhabism, the official state religion of only two Muslim countries – Saudi Arabia and Qatar – was not part of the majority Muslim agenda any longer."

But in case anyone imagines this might herald the start of a new and more progressive Islamic era, it's worth pointing out that the Grozny conference was convened by Chenchnya's despotic president, Ramzan Kadyrov, described in a Guardian profile as "vulgar, vicious and very rich". 

Incongruously in view of his brutality, Kadyrov is also a follower of the sufi Islamic tradition – usually regarded as gentle and mystical – which automatically puts him at odds with salafism. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Yaroslav Trofimov notes that sufis have not always been as spiritual and other-worldly as they might seem:

Historic jihads against European colonialists were often launched by sufi leaders and sufi insurgent groups today include the Naqshbandi Army in Iraq. Mr Kadyrov’s own father, the sufi mufti of Chechnya at the time, formally proclaimed jihad against Russian forces in the 1990s and personally led a large unit of insurgent fighters.

In Chechnya today, Islamic observance is enforced by the state, with women required to wear head scarves in government offices and alcohol sales outlawed.

“What makes the sufis seem moderate is that they often promote the status quo,” said Omar Ashour, senior lecturer in Middle East politics and security studies at the University of Exeter. “But the idea that they are more moderate than the salafis is ridiculous. Both of them are regressive, anti-liberal and to a certain degree anti-democratic.”

Kadyrov isn’t considered an authority on Islamic affairs – "at least not outside Chechnya" – Trofimov adds. But under his leadership, Chechnya (which is part of the Russian Federation) has made a habit of hosting international Islamic conferences targeting salafism. What made the August conference more notable than usual was that it managed to attract some well-known (but carefully selected) scholars. 

Kadyrov: a brutal and idiosyncratic sufi

According to Mairbek Vatchagaev, a Chechen historian at Jamestown University in the US, the scholars who flocked to Grozny in August had been invited by Kadyrov, ostensibly to mark the 65th anniversary of his father's assassination. But that was not the real reason. Vatchagaev comments:

"Both the hosts and the guests understood that the main topic of the proceedings would be about condemning salafism. Indeed, this is the main topic of all conferences held in Grozny."

Participants reportedly came from 30 countries, including Russia, Syria, Turkey, India, Britain, Lebanon, Egypt, South Africa and Jordan, Qatar, Morocco, Kuwait, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. To the horror of some, the Assad regime sent one of its tame muftis from Syria but Saudi/Wahhabi scholars and members of the Muslim Brotherhood were not invited. Meanwhile, the heads of two of Russia's most important Muslim bodies – the Council of Muftis and the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims – did not attend but sent representatives instead.

Despite Narwani's claim on the Russian website that the conference reflected "the majority Muslim agenda", it appears that the scholars taking part were far from unanimous. According to one report:

"Even before the formal end of the conference on August 27, disagreement was said to have arisen among the participants over the wording of the fatwa that reportedly led to the Russian delegation leaving prematurely. (One of its members subsequently declared that they had planned to leave early anyway due to unspecified other commitments.)"

The grand imam of al-Azhar in Egypt, Ahmed el-Tayeb, made similar excuses, saying he had only attended to give a speech on the first day and had played no part in drafting the anti-salafi fatwa.

Vatchagaev adds:

"One of the most moderate Islamic scholars, the General Secretary of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Ali al-Qaradaghi, spoke against the resolution passed at the conference. Well-known Moroccan scholar Hassan Dadu harshly criticised the conference in Grozny, as well." 

Although Saudis have reacted furiously to the fatwa (as might be expected), it's clear from the conference agenda that Saudi Arabia was an incidental casualty, not the primary target. The main purpose was to obtain religious legitimacy for steps to assert more control over Muslims in Russia. Analyst Liz Fuller writes:

The conference participants also adopted two further documents [in addition to the fatwa]. The first was an appeal to Putin to ban salafism in Russia and to designate as "extremism" any criticism of "traditional Islam."

It also proposed expanding the council of experts subordinate to the federal Justice Ministry, to whom courts would be required to refer any questions over whether or not a specific religious text was "extremist."

A further proposal was that the fatwa be regarded as the considered opinion of "leading Russian experts" when evaluating the activity of Muslim organisations and the preaching of individual clerics ...

The second document was a resolution calling for the establishment of a Council for Islamic Education, and also a Council of Ulema (Muslim scholars), which would rule on who is and is not a true follower of Sunni Islam.

The hostile and categorical tone of the fatwa, in conjunction with the proposals cited above, were widely construed by both clerics and secular commentators as an outright bid by Kadyrov to divide Russia’s Muslims into two categories: those who unquestioningly accept the importance he assigns to the teachings of the Sufi brotherhoods (and possibly also his own idiosyncratic and controversial version of what constitutes "traditional Islam") and those whose views are "erroneous."

Alarmingly, Fuller suggests the fatwa, coupled with Putin's express support for the conference, may have the effect of "implicitly empowering Kadyrov to rule on decisions central to the lives and well-being of millions of believers across Russia":

Addressing Chechen interior ministry personnel ... Kadyrov described the Grozny conference as having the same effect on the "unbelievers" (meaning the salafis) as a bomb exploding, given that "the most authoritative Islamic scholars proved in the course of this forum that there is no scientific basis to substantiate their pernicious ideas."

In other words, Kadyrov apparently believes he has been given carte blanche by respected clerics to take any action he likes to punish – with impunity – anyone who dares to question his own religious views.

In terms of religious ideologies, though, the conference is unlikely to change much – apart, perhaps, from increasing sectarian tensions. Vatchagaev comments:

"The salafists do not recognise the authority of any of the individuals who actually attended the Grozny conference; as such, salafists will ignore all the decision[s] taken there ... In the end, the conference succeeded in carrying out Moscow’s wish to denounce salafists, but it will have no impact on the salafists themselves."

Although the main focus of the conference was Muslims in Russia, Putin was surely aware that it would have political repercussions in the Middle East and perhaps decided there were additional benefits to be had by sowing further divisions among Arab states.

One embarrassment for the Saudis – though one they have not been keen to talk about – is the involvement of the UAE, a key ally for their military intervention in Yemen. The Taba Foundation, based in Abu Dhabi and headed by Habib Ali al-Jifri, a prominent sufi, was co-organiser of the Grozny conference. The Taba Foundation operates in the UAE with government blessing and Jifri is said to be close to Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE's armed forces.

Grand Imam Tayeb: made excuses

More important, though, are the tensions stirred up between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Regardless of al-Azhar's denial that he had a hand in drafting the conference fatwa, the Egyptian delegation did include several high-ranking scholars and it's unlikely they would have attended without the Sisi regime's approval.

The conference rewarded Egypt by specifically recommending that Russia’s Muslim clerics should be trained at al-Azhar and that all Muslims in Russia should follow the teachings of al-Azhar's grand imam. Inevitably, the Saudis – who regard themselves as the leaders of Sunni Islam – viewed this as an affront.

Saudi money, of course, has been helping to keep the Sisi regime afloat but, to make matters worse, the Saudis also thought they were beginning to build bridges (some would say "buy influence") with al-Azhar in pursuit of their sectarian campaign against the Shia.

In an article for the Arab Weekly, Ahmed Meghid explains:

Saudi Arabia has been trying to win al-Azhar to its side, spending tens of millions of dollars on pro­jects desired by the religious insti­tution and its university.

The projects included the renova­tion of al-Azhar mosque in south­ern Cairo, funding an al-Azhar television channel, financing the construction of a hostel for thou­sands of foreign students and of­fering free pilgrimages to al-Azhar leaders and scholars.

When he visited Cairo in April, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud visited al-Azhar mosque and met with Tayeb. He was the first Saudi monarch to visit al-Azhar since 1946.

As usual, the Saudis expect something in return for their largesse – and preferably something more significant than a couple of tiny islands in the Red Sea. So far, there's not much sign of them getting it. Egypt has not been helpful to the kingdom over Syria nor, to any great degree over Yemen. And now, following the Grozny conference, there are plenty of voices in Saudi Arabia demanding that Sisi be abandoned to his fate.