Sharia Patrols in Kabardino-Balkaria: A Growing Trend or a Local Conflict?

2021 / 08 / 17

Aleksandre Kvakhadze, Research Fellow, Rondeli Foundation

In October 2020, eleven residents of Anzorei village, located in the Lesken district of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic were arrested by the local police. They were named as suspects in the creation of so-called “Sharia patrols” – self-organised units demanding the local dwellers behave in an Islamic way. According to the investigation materials, the local men, aged between 24 and 43, threatened and assaulted several of their non-practicing Muslim co-villagers for “non-compliance with the laws of Islam.” The defendants and relatives of the suspects deny their involvement in violence and even the existence of the Islamic patrols, while the residents of the Circassian populated Anzorei village remain reluctant to communicate with the media. Are the events in Anzorei unique local events, or it is a new emerging regional socio-religious trend in the North Caucasus?

The existence of Sharia patrols has been reported in several European cities populated by migrants from Muslim countries. Namely, there were cases of such group activities in London and the German town of Wuppertal. However, the North Caucasus has a longer tradition of grassroots Islamic movements. Self-organised groups imposing Sharia Law on a village population is not a new phenomenon for the North Caucasus. In the late 1990s, the Islamic Jamaat of two mountainous Dagestani villages Chabanmakhi and Karamakhi, also known as the Kadar Zone, established an enclave, de-facto uncontrolled by Russian authorities, which was governed according to Sharia Law. This enclave existed until the beginning of the second Russo-Chechen war. Later, in the 2000s, Jihadi militants linked to Imarat Kavkaz attempted to enforce Sharia Law on a wider group of civilians by destroying alcohol-selling markets and controlling the dress codes of women, from Dagestani celebrities or local village dwellers. Not only non-state groups, but local officials such as Chechnya’s strongman Ramzan Kadyrov were also actively introducing elements of Sharia Law in Chechnya, despite its contradiction with Russian federal legislation.

However, the case of a Muslim patrol in Anzorei is the first attempt of imposing Sharia Law on the population of the relatively peaceful Kabardino-Balkaria republic. Although Velayet KBK, a regional militant jihadi unit of Imarat Kavkaz led by charismatic Circassian Salafi preacher Anzor Astemirov (Amir Seyfullah), had a strong position in Kabardino-Balkaria in the first decade of the 2000s, Astemirov and some of his successors took a cautious stance over their relations with the local nationalists and secular groups and, therefore, did not attempt the rapid introduction of Sharia Law. The multiethnic republic, populated by Kabardian dialect-speaker Circassians, Turkic Balkars and Russians, has been less affected by Islamisation compared to its neighbouring North Caucasus republics. Furthermore, the large share of secular and/or non-Muslim population, coupled with the strong presence of Circassian and Karachai-Balkar nationalism, creates a natural obstacle to the rapid Islamisation of the republic’s population. It is noteworthy that the detainees from Anzorey represent a new generation of Muslims, lacking the linkages to the previous generation involved in jihadi insurgency. Reportedly, none of them have volunteered to the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. Instead, many of them reportedly had a stable job and no prior convictions.

One of the explanatory factors for the events in Anzorey is the increased demand for Sharia Law among the Muslim population of the North Caucasus. For instance, according to a survey conducted by Kavkazskiy Uzel in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, more than 45% of the locals prefer to live according to Sharia Law instead of secular legislation. Many regions of the North Caucasus experience a coexistence between Sharia practices, Russian legislation and local customs (adat). All these factors, combined with poor governance, large-scale corruption, absence of rule of law and lack of political opposition groups in the North Caucasus, contributes to the erosion of secular legislation and increasing popularity of Sharia Law.

Furthermore, the establishment of Sharia patrols could be a response to the state-supported so-called Cossack patrols which exist in some cities in southern Russia. Cossack patrols, aiming to enforce “law and order” in the streets, have reportedly been involved in repressing anti-government demonstrations and numerous other human rights violations.

Although Cossack and Sharia patrols share many similarities, the key difference between the two groups is that the former is an extension of the local law enforcement and receives the full support of the state, and the latter has been created from among society.

The young men involved in the Anzorey events remain in custody. Although the Muslim patrols did not spread beyond the village’s borders, increased demand for Islamic Law exists in the North Caucasus. Given the array of domestic political and economic problems in Russia’s North Caucasus, Sharia Law and the Islamic agenda could potentially become the only viable alternative for the local population.

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