Prague, 26 February 2003 (RFE/RL) — On 17 May 2001, the IPR circumvented legal restrictions to become the first Islamic political organization registered by the Russian Justice Ministry in accord with new laws governing party operations. Originally the group had applied for registration under the title of the Party of the Muslims of Russia. However, ministry officials were concerned that the name would lend the organization a monoconfessional appearance contrary to the law on political parties, which prohibits monoconfessional and mononational parties. However, after the name was changed to the Islamic Party of Russia, it passed administrative review on the ground that “Islam is an ideology, a culture, and a lifestyle of many people in the world.”
The IPR is led by Magomedgadji Radzhabov, an ethnic Avar from Daghestan who chairs the Mesed Bank. Radzhabov also leads Russia’s True Patriot Party, which claims 35,000 members, and a Daghestani social movement known as Nur. Several other residents of Daghestan play leading roles in the IPR, which held its constituent convention in Moscow on 25 March 2001. That convention seated representatives from 49 subjects of the federation, the majority of whom were members of the diaspora from Daghestan that has spread throughout Russia.
On the basis of both historical or cultural considerations, one might argue that Daghestan is the most Islamic — or even the most religious — subject of the Russian Federation and, probably, the one in which religion plays the most significant political role. Islam, which appeared in Daghestan as early as the eighth century, emerged as a political factor in the course of Caucasian wars of the 19th century. At that time, Daghestan developed an Islamic ideological system known as Muridism, which proved capable of organizing efficient, long-term resistance to Russian expansion. In the course of this struggle, Muridism was also able to establish political institutions that united the highlanders of the Northeastern Caucasus. Later, in pre-revolutionary Russia, the chairman of the Islamic Alliance of Russia was the sheik Saypula Bashlarov.
With the collapse of communist ideology and institutions over the last decade, Islamic structures were revived as modes of religious activity and were also rapidly included in the system of social intercourse that provided society in Daghestan with norms and procedures for social reorganization. Islam reemerged as serious political force in Daghestan, and Muslim leaders from Daghestan frequently played broader political roles. In 1990, an Avar from Daghestan with Wahhabi fundamentalist proclivities named Akhmad-Kadi Aktaev founded the Islamic Party of Revival in the USSR. In the mid 1990s, a Lak from Daghestan, Nadir Khachilaev, became the leader of the Islamic Alliance of Russia, as well as a deputy in the State Duma and a representative of Muslims at the highest levels of Russian power.
In an interview published in the republican newspaper Nur-ul Islam in June 2001, Radzhabov said: “Islam is not only a religion, but also an ideology and a lifestyle of millions of Russian citizens. In the larger picture, it is also a basis for culture and policy.” In an interview with MK-Daghestan that was also published in June 2001, Radzhabov commented on the political function of Islam in modern society, remarks that merit quoting at length:
“Many say today that religion must not venture into politics…. Such people have not even the remotest idea about Islam, since Islam gives us answers to all life’s questions…. Previously, representatives of Islam found it difficult to provide exegeses that teach Islamic values and to talk about Islam openly as the divine law on Earth that makes a person happy. There weren’t enough people preaching about it in the mosques. As a result, we are now witnesses to moral decline, widespread drug addiction, and high levels of criminality in our society. Today it is necessary to forge a connection between Islamic justice and politics, and on behalf of Islam, our party has its voice in the Duma and in the other organs of power at all levels…. Today Islam has the opportunity to realize it’s own ideas in practice and to make decisions for the sake of Almighty God and for the goodness of the people,” Radzhabov said.
“Islam, as a religion contains in itself the answers to all of mankind’s political and social questions,” Radzhabov said in the same interview. “Therefore, by naming the Islamic Party, I, first of all, would like to elevate the image of Islam and incorporate the prescriptions of Islam into the life of our society.”
With reference to Russia’s growing Islamic population, Radzhabov pointed out that “we shall protect the interests of each fifth citizen of the Russian Federation.” Prior to the release of 2002 census data, informed observers have offered estimates of Russia’s Muslim population that range from 13 million to 30 million or more. The official Russian government estimate is 19 million. Not surprisingly, Radzhabov favors a higher estimate. Here, as with his claims about IPR membership, his figures may require scrutiny.
According to Radzhabov, the IPR aims at a “grassroots base among low-level primary organizations in the regions,” suggesting that local mosques will play a crucial role in the party’s tactics. The leaders of the IPR’s regional branches sit on the party’s central organ, the General Council. The General Council elects the Presidium of the IPR. As the current leader of the Party, Radzhabov is simultaneously the chairman of the General Council and chairman of the Presidium.
Nonetheless, funding appears to depend largely upon Radzhabov’s personal contributions, along with proceeds from party dues. Radzhabov says that he is “counting on voluntary donations from wealthy people.” According to Radzhabov, the IPR will field a large number of candidates in the March republican National Assembly elections, and he hopes his party will capture more than 75 percent of the seats. Candidates will run on a shared platform that upholds Islamic values, opposes political corruption, and rejects the common practice of vote buying that often has included exchanges of in-kind services.
While the 75 percent target seems optimistic, the IPR is likely to benefit from a protest vote against political corruption and particularly against recent controversies involving Daghestan’s head of state, Magomedali Magomedov. It appears that the leaders of the IPR are moderate Muslim traditionalists who are likely to take a pragmatic approach in working with other political groups.
Robert Bruce Ware
Robert Bruce Ware is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who conducts fieldwork in the Caucasus.
Copyright (c) 2003. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.