RFE/RL Ingushetian Authorities Step Up Pressure On Respected Cleric
July 29, 2013
After an interval of almost one year, the authorities in Ingushetia appear to have resumed their efforts to sideline and silence Khamzat Chumakov, a widely respected cleric who in recent years has repeatedly criticized human rights abuses and corruption within the republic's leadership.
Independent websites have even claimed, without citing a source, that Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov has issued orders to kill Chumakov and to have Magomed Mutsolgov, head of the human rights organization Mashr, jailed.
Chumakov served in the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, according to retired general and first Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev, then spent 13 years studying Islamic theology at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. He returned to Ingushetia in late 2007 and has served since then as imam of the mosque in Nasyr-Kort on the outskirts of Nazran, the former Republic of Ingushetia capital. He lost a leg when a bomb exploded under his car in September 2010.
Chumakov has acquired cult status far beyond the boundaries of Ingushetia thanks to his sermons denouncing bloodshed and Islamic extremism and exhorting his listeners to remain true to Ingush national values. He categorically rejects as artificial any differentiation between "traditional" and "nontraditional" Islam, meaning Sufism and Salafism. At the same time, he pulls no punches in criticizing official corruption.
Chumakov claims that between 8,000 and 9,000 people regularly gather at his mosque for Friday Prayers. His sermons circulate on DVD, and his website, launched in March 2012, reportedly receives up to 10,000 visits a day. The republic's population is just under half a million. If that figure is not an exaggeration, it probably includes Ingush living elsewhere in Russia or in Europe, and also some Chechens.
Ingushetia's leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov
Ingushetia's leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov
On July 21, Internet providers in Ingushetia blocked access to Chumakov's website. Two days later, he was summoned to a meeting with Yevkurov at which, according to Yevkurov's spokeswoman, the disagreements between them were resolved. Independent websites, however, claim Yevkurov demanded that Chumakov quit criticizing the republic's leadership and step down as imam. They say Yevkurov also forbade Chumakov to set foot in the Nasyr-Kort mosque but that Chumakov refused and headed there after the meeting to conduct the optional night prayers during Ramadan.
On July 25, Chumakov went of his own volition to the Interior Ministry's Center for Combating Extremism, where he was reportedly invited to cooperate in an investigation of the corruption allegations he has leveled against government officials. Chumakov had been summoned to the same agency in early December 2012.
Then, on July 26, security personnel surrounded Chumakov's mosque on the pretext that a bomb had been planted in the building in what angry parishioners construed as a crude attempt to prevent him from delivering his regular Friday sermon. Members of the congregation addressed an open letter to Yevkurov protesting what they termed unacceptable and unconstitutional efforts to restrict their freedom of belief and expressing their support for Chumakov.
Chumakov for his part has addressed a statement (dated July 27) to the Republic of Ingushetia's prosecutor-general and interior minister (both men are Russians) warning against any attempt to discredit him and create a pretext for his arrest by planting weapons or narcotics in his home or car.
Why Yevkurov may suddenly have decided to silence Chumakov is not clear. The republic's parliament voted two months ago to abolish direct elections for the post of republic head, thereby averting the participation in the election of Aushev, who remains hugely popular. All that remains is for the legislature to rubberstamp Yevkurov's nomination for a second term on September 8.
Two factors may partly explain Yevkurov's animosity towards Chumakov. One is the latter's popularity among, and influence over, Ingush youth. Chumakov has consistently sought to deter the younger generation from "heading for the forest" to join the North Caucasus insurgency as the only way to demonstrate their alienation from a government that condemns all but the wealthiest and best-connected to disenfranchisement and long-term unemployment. (Yevkurov himself admitted in a recent interview that 40 percent of the able-bodied population has no jobs.)
On July 29, Yevkurov dismissed the head of Ingushetia's State Committee for Youth, Islam Tsechoyev, for his failure to implement a program aimed at providing young families with housing.
The second is that Chumakov was greeted with acclaim and respect during a visit to Europe several months ago during which he addressed believers in Austria, Germany, and Belgium. By contrast, an Ingushetian government delegation headed by Yevkurov was pelted with tomatoes and eggs in Antwerp in November. And not a single local businessman showed up for a planned meeting in Brussels to woo prospective investors.