28.07.23 Review

Halal or haram? The war in Ukraine is deepening the divide between 'official' and 'unofficial' Islam in the North Caucasus

As the Russian 'Spiritual Administration of Muslims' align with the authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church in promoting the war, there is significant opposition from imams and Islamic leaders. They argue that Islamic principles forbid Muslims from engaging in conflicts between non-Muslim nations or any wars that do not aim to defend their homeland and faith. Some Muslims even perceive Russia and the Putin regime as adversaries of Islam, which has pushed them to actively support Ukraine. To maintain the current power balance, dissenting Islamic leaders who stand against the official Islamic stance face repression. However, if anti-war sentiments grow and new waves of mobilisation occur, the religious divide will intensify. This situation may lead to radicalization in the North Caucasus, where the convergence of political and religious divides is becoming increasingly evident.

According to a report by the analytical centre CEPA, titled ‘Halal or Haram?’ the spiritual administrations, also known as muftiates, of Russian Muslims have become an integral part of the bureaucratic machinery under the Putin regime. Their functionaries essentially act as officials who support the Kremlin's political agenda. These muftiates remain loyal to the regime not only because they receive official recognition from it. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, official Russian Islam witnessed a decline in support among young people, who increasingly embraced Salafism as a religion of social protest.. This movement rejected institutions like the spiritual administrations. In response to the rise of Salafi Islam, the muftiates found allies in the state.

Just a week after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, many members of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims not only declared that participation in the war in Ukraine is considered 'halal' (permissible) but also insisted that imams under their authority adopt the same stance. Despite this official unanimity, the Muslim community are far from united regarding the war. According to the CEPA report, a Chechen who follows views influenced by teachings from Saudi Arabia might staunchly oppose any Muslim involvement in the war or may even support Ukraine based on their religious convictions. Conversely, a supporter of Russian 'official' Islam is more likely to back Putin's regime and interpret the war in Ukraine according to Russian propaganda, which highlights alleged military and spiritual threats to Russia and its Muslim population from NATO and the 'collective West.'

Generally speaking, IIslamic teachings do indeed forbid Muslim involvement in wars between non-Muslim nations and any conflicts that do not serve the purpose of defending their homeland and faith. As a result, religious figures from Central Asian countries issued statements warning their citizens against participating in the war in Ukraine, relying on these interpretations of a Muslim's 'military duty.' For Russian Muslims, the key question is whether they view the war in Ukraine as a means of 'defending their homeland and faith.'

The repressive Chechen regime is known for its highly politicised interpretation of the issue. Shortly after the start of the war, Salah Mezhiev, the mufti and chairman of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Chechnya, recorded a statement that justified Muslim involvement in the conflict. He drew a comparison between the fighters to the companions of the Prophet Muhammad who 'fought in the Ethiopian army against its enemies under the command of a Christian' and claimed that they would die as martyrs. This assertion directly echoes the promise made by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church that Christian soldiers who died in Ukraine would be absolved of their sins.

Ramzan Kadyrov has referred to the Russian invasion as a 'jihad' and has described it as a 'war between satanism and Christian-Muslims'. Likewise, the speaker of the Chechen parliament, Magomed Daudov, stated that Russian Muslims fighting against Ukraine are 'defending Islam.' As the conflict has progressed, 'jihad' has become the central 'argument' in the campaign to mobilise residents of Chechnya for the war. Mass prayers in mosques were conducted to support the Russian troops, and public servants were coerced into enlisting. In this particular narrative, Muslims and Christians are portrayed as allies in the struggle against Western Christians, and religious differences are downplayed in the face of ideological enmity.

However, in the rest of the North Caucasus, there is no consensus on these matters. For example, Ahmed Sagov, who claims to be the official representative of the muftiate of Ingushetia, was among the first to voice support for Putin's invasion. In response, Ingush activists labelled him a 'false mufti' and demanded that he be prohibited from representing the Ingush community. They consider Isu Khamkhoev as their legitimate mufti, who fell out of favour with the authorities in recent years and has chosen to remain conspicuously silent regarding the war in Ukraine. The CEPA review highlights that many Ingush imams share a similar stance, expressing reservations about Muslim participation in the war. However, taking such a position attracts criticism from the authorities. For instance, the Prime Minister of Ingushetia, Magomed Yevloyev, criticised an Ingush imam who referred to Muslim involvement in the war in Ukraine as 'haram' (forbidden action). As a result, Yevloyev himself became a controversial figure in the eyes of the Ingush society.

Meanwhile, Islamic leaders in the North Caucasus who oppose the official stance have been compelled to leave the country. For instance, Dagestani preacher Abu Umar Sasitlinsky, currently residing in Turkey and facing accusations of financing terrorism in Russia, condemned the pressure imposed by Russian authorities on Muslims in the Caucasus. He has declared that those who willingly sign contracts and serve in the Russian army should no longer be considered Muslims since the Russian Armed Forces are involved in the killing of fellow Muslims in Syria and other countries. Additionally, he has stated that those who die while serving in Ukraine will not attain the status of martyrs. Another prominent Dagestani Islamic figure, Abdullah Kosteksky, who is also accused by the authorities of involvement in terrorism, has argued that Muslims are prohibited from fighting in the armies of 'taghuts' (an Arabic term denoting tyrannical authority). According to the experts from CEPA, Abu Umar Sasitlinsky and Abdullah Kosteksky have a significant following in Dagestan, rivalling that of the Dagestani mufti, Ahmed Abdulaev, whose views align with the official position.

Thus, the primary 'Islamic' schism emerges between those who, in alignment with the establishment, view the war as the 'defence of the homeland' against spiritual and military proxy aggression from the West, and those who see it primarily as a clash between non-Muslims and forces incompatible with Islam. As a result, they demand that Muslims refrain from participating in the war. Finally, some Muslims, who consider Russia and the Putin regime as enemies of Islam, are fighting on the side of Ukraine.

The announcement of 'partial mobilisation' in September of last year garnered support from muftis but faced resistance from the general population. It was in the North Caucasus that the country's largest protests against mobilisation took place, although these were subsequently suppressed. The existing balance of power is maintained through repression against Islamic leaders who oppose the official Islamic stance. However, if anti-war sentiments continue to grow, and new waves of mobilisation occur, the religious divide is likely to deepen, leading to radicalisation in the North Caucasus, where the intertwining of political and religious divides is becoming increasingly apparent.