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A preacher and his thugs: Why Ramzan Kadyrov's supporters pledged to kill a federal judge’s family

Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, and his associates have threatened to behead judge Saidi Yangulbayev's family and have already abducted his wife. They claim that their actions are motivated by a desire to protect the honor of a 19th century preacher, who actually advocated against violence. However, experts and insiders from Kadyrov's inner circle claim that this supposed defense of the preacher is merely a convenient pretext to suppress dissent and bolster an interpretation of Islam that enables Kadyrov to reconcile his religious beliefs with a libertine lifestyle.

  • Chronology of Conflict

  • Convenient and inconvenient Islam

  • Faith and Money

  • Terrorists vs. extremists

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Chronology of Conflict

Starting in December of 2021, a large number of Chechen activists, opposition figures, and human rights advocates began reporting that their relatives had been abducted by security forces. Among the victims were the approximately 40 family members of former federal judge Saidi Yangulbayev, with whom Ramzan Kadyrov has been embroiled in a conflict since 2015. That year, Kadyrov's security forces abducted both the judge and his youngest son Ibrahim, whom the Chechen authorities accused of being involved in the administration of blogs critical of the republic's leader. After being taken to Kadyrov's residence, both men were subjected to torture, and Ibrahim was subsequently charged with extremism. Due to the partial decriminalization of the relevant statute and the intervention of the Commissioner for the Protection of Human Rights, Ibrahim was eventually released.

However, Ibrahim did not cease operating the opposition blogs, and in late 2021, a new phase of conflict erupted. It began with the abduction of Judge Yangulbayev's relatives and continued with the kidnapping of Zarema Musaeva, Ibrahim's mother and the judge's wife, by Kadyrov's security forces. Kadyrov himself threatened that the Yangulbayev family would be either incarcerated or murdered.

Following the European Court of Human Rights' request for an immediate explanation from Russia, Chechen authorities claimed that the incident involving the Yangulbayev family was not an abduction, but rather a lawful detention. Meanwhile, an audio recording surfaced online, allegedly featuring the voice of Ibrahim Yangulbayev criticizing Islamic preacher Kunta-Khadji Kishiev. The Chechen government maintains that the recording is genuine. Subsequently, various Chechen officials, primarily from security agencies, as well as State Duma deputy Adam Delimkhanov, recorded videos in which they threatened Yangulbayev with retaliation and beheading.

Convenient and inconvenient Islam

The feud between Kadyrov and the Yangulbayev family is not solely a response to criticism; it is also rooted in deep-seated religious disparities. Kadyrov's family adheres to a brand of Islam that venerates sheikhs, whereas many of his detractors subscribe to a more austere, almost Shariah-compliant version of the faith - Salafist Islam, which precludes supplication to Allah through intermediary sheikhs.

According to a source within the Chechen government, as quoted by The Insider, “Prior to the emergence of the Internet, the majority of Chechens believed that Islam comprised a distinct denomination (Chechen Sufism) and recognized the existence of saints, including the aforementioned sheikh preacher Kunta-Khadji Kishiyev, who allegedly walked the earth 150 years ago, disappeared, and is expected to reappear to faithful believers. With the advent of the Internet in the early 2000s, a new generation of young people who identify as adherents of the Sunna of the Prophet or Ahl as-Sunna wa-l-Jama'a - known as Salafists - has emerged in Chechnya. They assert that it is prohibited to visit the tombs of saints and to seek intercession through them, and that it constitutes a sin to recite zikr (prayer rites) or to perform religious rituals that were introduced after the Prophet Muhammad's death, as these practices are not part of “pure Islam.””

Kadyrov has been steadfast in his opposition to the increasing prevalence of Salafism, the government official says.
“The Kadyrov government has constructed numerous religious sites that venerate the late 18th and 19th century ustaz (teachers, preachers) as saints. This particular branch of Islam allows for music and dancing, and provides justifications for practices that are prohibited in pure Salafist Islam. Conversely, Salafism imposes many lifestyle restrictions.”

According to The Insider's source, the leaked audio recording was not a coincidence but a deliberate move. “The Kadyrovites were aware of the existence of Salafist supporters and had always combated them using various means such as propaganda and violence. They used the leaked audio message of Ibrahim Yangulbayev criticizing the sheikhs to further convince the public that the Yangulbayev family was a threat to the sacred beliefs of Chechen society. This move aimed to justify the ongoing repression against the Yangulbayevs and further delegitimize their opposition.”

Kadyrov has made it clear that he opposes Salafism and has spoken out against it on numerous occasions. He has gone so far as saying: “I prohibit any dialogue with Salafists, their actions lead to discord. We must not and will not tolerate Salafism or Wahhabism.”

In August 27, 2016, a fatwa was issued in Grozny declaring that only followers of the Sufi tariqa were considered true Muslims, and that supporters of Salafism were classified as dangerous sectarians. The fatwa also stated that all Muslims in Russia were required to accept it. Later that year, in November, Kadyrov traveled to Saudi Arabia, a country where the majority of the population are Salafists, to meet with Crown Prince Mohammad ibn Salman Al Saud. Reports in Arab media that the trip was meant to be an apology were denied by the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Chechnya.

The question of the religion of the Yangulbayev brothers remains unanswered as they did not disclose their religious beliefs. “In our family, religion is a personal matter for each individual,” said Abubakar Yangulbayev in an interview with The Insider. “We don't impose any particular faith on anyone, and I prefer not to disclose my religious affiliation to avoid being labeled.”

Faith and Money

Kadyrov has ample reasons to be apprehensive of Salafism since he clearly isn't prepared to relinquish his luxurious lifestyle. Even according to official data, he is presently the wealthiest among all the heads of Russian regions. His income exceeds the total declared income of nine governors from the list of the richest. In 2021, Proekt reported that the total value of real estate registered to Kadyrov's wives was nearly 800 million rubles ($10,632,000), much of which he did not disclose in his declaration. Earlier, Proekt claimed that Kadyrov, along with State Duma deputy Adam Delimkhanov, possessed assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In the midst of Kadyrov's conflict with his government's critics, his 14-year-old son was seen at a rally organized by the authorities stomping on Yangulbayev's portraits while sporting a watch estimated to be worth 37 million rubles ($491,730).

Kadyrov has repeatedly expressed gratitude to Allah for financial blessings, portraying himself as a devout Muslim who practices true Islam and respects Islamic awliyahs and ustaz (saints, teachers, preachers). Journalist Anna Nemtsova wrote about Kadyrov's religious fanaticism back in 2011. “He told me how he dreamed of entering the Kaaba leading a group of men during a hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia; he claimed to have arranged the trip with a Saudi prince and, despite regulations permitting only one person to enter the Kaaba at a time, he and his group were allowed in,” recalled journalist Anna Nemtsova in an interview with The Insider. “Tears were streaming down his face as he recounted the experience. He said, “We enter as in my dream, and I see swallows flying under the ceiling. I was euphoric.” When I asked others if such a thing was possible, no one could confirm it.”

While Kadyrov embraces a luxurious lifestyle, the Quran denounces such indulgence when obtained through dishonest means, which is associated with the characteristics of the unjust and non-believers. The teachings of Ustaz Kishiev's, for whom Kadyrov is willing to commit murder, centered around forgiveness and non-violence. Furthermore, revenge and blood feuds are not Islamic concepts, as the Quran does not even contain the word “revenge.”

Terrorists vs. extremists

Alexei Malashenko, a political scientist and Orientalist, claims that the followers of Islam in Chechnya are in disarray. “Salafists represent a politicized version of Islam that opposes traditional Islam, which is formally supported by Kadyrov, even though Kadyrov himself is a radical. They have all become mixed up, especially Kadyrov. See, for example, Kadyrov's statement regarding the shooting of Charlie Hebdo journalists.”

However, according to the expert, despite Kadyrov’s radicalism, his departure would not solve all the problems:

“In Chechnya, it is difficult to obtain truthful information from people, except for a few opposition members and human rights activists. Many individuals there have negative feelings towards the leader, but they are hesitant to express them. Chechen society is founded on clan consensus, which is distinct from the political worldview of one individual being deemed the most important. The culture of Chechnya is based on an agreement between clans. The leader's behavior has irritated many and he has eliminated many representatives of various clans. If there is any change, such as something happening to Kadyrov (say, coronavirus), it may have devastating consequences because revenge may be taken on his supporters.”

Malashenko finds it difficult to predict the consequences of the current scandal with the Yangulbaevs.

“I believe that Putin is responsible for letting Kadyrov get out of hand, but now he is unable to control him,” the expert says. “Putin is not afraid of Kadyrov, but he fears that chaos will ensue in Chechnya if Kadyrov is removed. And the things that Delimkhanov says… Chechnya is stuck in a cycle and it’s in a desperate situation, with the Middle Ages being revived.”

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