By YAROSLAV TROFIMOV
Wall Street Journal
Sept. 22, 2016
International conference in Russia’s Chechnya leaves out Saudis, creating fresh religious strife — this time within Islam’s Sunni sect
Political conflicts in the Middle East between the Saudi-led camp of Sunni powers and a rival Shiite camp led by Iran have already morphed into a religious war. Now, a theological dispute within Sunni Islam is causing another regional political rift — a result of an initially obscure conference in Russia’s Chechen Republic.
Chechnya’s strongman Ramzan Kadyrov — just re-elected with a modest 98% of the vote — is a follower of the Sufi current of Sunni Islam. The diverse and more mystical version of the Muslim faith is one long at odds with the puritan Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia and based on the teachings of 18th-century cleric Mohammed ibn Abdel Wahhab.
Normally, Mr. Kadyrov, a former Islamist rebel known for his fierce loyalty to President Vladimir Putin and for using his Instagram account to solicit citizens’ help in locating a missing cat, isn’t considered an authority on Islamic affairs, at least not outside Chechnya. But buoyed by Russia’s new influence in the Middle East after last year’s intervention in Iran-allied Syria, he managed to bring some of the Muslim world’s most famous luminaries to a conference in late August in the Chechen capital of Grozny.
The conference, co-sponsored by an Islamic foundation in the United Arab Emirates, was attended by the imam of Al-Azhar Grand Mosque in Cairo, advisers to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, influential Yemeni cleric Habib Ali Jifri and the mufti of Syria, among others. Its mission was no less ambitious than determining who qualifies to be a Sunni Muslim.
Representatives of Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment, dubbed “Wahhabis” by critics, weren’t invited and neither were members of the broader Salafi current of Sunni Islam that seeks to return the religion to its “pure” origins at the time of Prophet Muhammad and his companions. (Chechen authorities have banned Salafi Islam and routinely imprison locals for praying or dressing the “wrong” way.)
Not surprisingly, the Grozny conference’s resolution defined Sunni Muslims as followers of the four traditional schools of jurisprudence and praised Sufi practices, implying that Wahhabis and Salafis fall outside the pale.
As news of the Grozny resolution (since disavowed by some key participants) filtered out in the Middle East, this attempt at excommunicating Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam’s holiest shrines, and millions of Salafi Muslims elsewhere caused a predictable outcry.
That is especially so because Iran has long used similar theological arguments to delegitimize Saudi Arabia, with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif penning a New York Times op-ed just this month to depict the crisis in the Middle East as a “contest between Wahhabism and mainstream Islam.” Mr. Zarif is one of the architects of the nuclear deal that led to an improvement in ties between the U.S. and Iran.
Scores of Saudi clerics and countless ordinary Saudis took to social media to express their outrage in the weeks after the Grozny event.
“On a public level, the Saudis are very upset and think that the kingdom is being conspired against by the Russian-Sufi axis and the American-Shiite axis, and they are expressing their anger and fear,” said Saleh Alkhatlan, a professor of political science at King Saud University in Riyadh.
The Saudis and the Salafis weren’t the only ones dismayed by the Grozny decision. The Muslim Brotherhood, which is neither, has expressed its “deep sorrow” and said the Chechen gathering “ignited fires of discord among Muslims around the world.”
The backdrop of the Syrian war fueled some of that outcry.
“It isn’t seen as moderates against Salafis. It is seen as Sisi supporters and Emirati supporters going to Russia at a time it is bombing Syrian civilians. It left a bad taste and they are seen as traitors and sellouts,” said Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington.
It is true that some of the Middle East’s bloodiest jihadist organizations — particularly Islamic State — follow extreme versions of the Salafi doctrine and rely on some fatwas by Abdel Wahhab. But following a certain theological doctrine doesn’t necessarily translate into a propensity for political radicalism, let alone violence. Salafis, Sufis and Shiites have all spawned violent groups, adding to the region’s mayhem.
Saudi Arabia’s “Wahhabi” religious establishment puts the stress on obedience to the king and outlaws participation in any jihad not proclaimed by the legitimate ruler. Most Salafis elsewhere belong to the “quietist” current that shuns political activism, let alone violence.
The Sufis, meanwhile, aren’t always about just spiritual growth. 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.”