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Window on Eurasia: Official Groups Don’t Control Muslim Youth in North Caucasus

Russian government officials and Muslim leaders are concerned by the increasing number of Muslim youth organizations in the North Caucasus that are not subordinate to the government-backed Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs) there.

But the political and religious authorities diverge on what should be done about this, with the former calling for greater use of police power against these groups and the latter urging an expansion of Muslim education in order to prevent young people from heeding the calls of extremist groups.

At a roundtable in the Kabardino-Balkaria capital of Nalchik this week, Beslan Mukozhev, the head of the police agency there charged with combating religious extremism, said that there are now 22 Islamic youth groups there that are not subordinate to the local MSD ( 

Many of these groups espouse radical positions, Mukozhev said, and at least some of them have members who are known to engage in illegal actions of one kind or another. They are to be found not only at the local university, he continued, but also in many of the republic’s secondary schools.

Mukozhev reported that law enforcement personnel have had some success in reining in these groups, noting that the militia were able to identify and arrest the leader of one such group, a physical education teacher who had been sought in connection with an armed attack on a government installation.

But despite those successes, he suggested, the militia and security agencies in general need to do more to ensure that these independent Muslim youth groups do not continue to expand in size and number and thus undermine public order in Kabardino-Balkaria and elsewhere in the North Caucasus.

Speaking at the same roundtable, Khazretali Dzasezhev, the deputy chief of the republic’s MSD, acknowledged the problem but offered a different diagnosis and cure. Dzesezhev said that many young people in the region know little about Islam and thus are willing to listen to those who cover their illegal activities with Islamic slogans.

To counter them, the MSD leader said, both the government and the Muslim hierarchy need to increase religious instruction of young people, so that youth in the North Caucasus will be in a position to distinguish between genuine Islam and the false version of the faith offered by extremist groups.

Many other participants at this Nalchik roundtable – including a Russian Orthodox priest, a Jewish rabbi, students from the university, and a representative of the Russian Federation’s Interior Ministry office in the Southern Federal District – expressed their support for Dzesezhev’s ideas.

But Elena Mashukova, the chief legal advisor of the Kabardino-Balkaria State University, pointed out that existing Russian legislation creates a number of hurdles that  those who want to promote more training on Islam in state schools will have to overcome for this program to become a reality.

Religious instruction in schools and universities is possible under Russian law, she said, if the authorities secure both the agreement of the young people themselves and the support of their parents and if the program of instruction receives the approval of the local organs of self-administration.

Given the fears of many officials that such training will make young people even more susceptible to extremist influences and the attitudes of officials like Mukozhev that the best way to counter such groups is through the application of police power, securing the approval of local governments for such training will not be easy.

But unless something like what Dzesezhev has proposed is approved, there are few reasons to think that the Russian police will in fact be able to cope with the rise of such independent Muslim youth groups and every reason to believe that they will contribute to the further destabilization of the situation throughout this region.