Robert Fisk and the Russian war on salafism

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Fisk: relied on Russian source

Writing for the Independent last week, Middle East reporter Robert Fisk highlighted an event which he claimed “may prove to be even more dramatic than the terror of Syria’s civil war”.

The cause of his excitement was a conference held in the Chechen capital, Grozny, towards the end of August and attended by a couple of hundred Sunni Muslim scholars. The conference, Fisk wrote, had left the Saudis “reeling” because it issued a fatwa defining Sunni Islam in a way that excluded salafism and Wahhabism — the dominant religious strands in Saudi Arabia.

This, Fisk added, was “as close as Sunni clerics have got to excommunicating the Saudis”. It was “the first time, ever”, he asserted, that the Saudis had been simultaneously asssaulted by Sunni leaders as well as their customary Shia foes.

As described by Fisk, this certainly sounds like an important — and welcome — development: a spontaneous groundswell of Sunni scholars suddenly rejecting Saudi Arabia’s intolerant and reactionary brand of Islam. Unfortunately, though, Fisk’s version of the conference gave an incomplete picture because it relied heavily on one particular source: an article published by the Russian website, RT.

Referring to the outcome of the Grozny conference, the RT article’s author, Sharmine Narwani (see previous blog posts) declared:

But in case anyone imagines this might herald the start of a new and more progressive Islamic era, it’s worth pointing out that the Grozny conference was convened by Chenchnya’s despotic president, Ramzan Kadyrov, described in a Guardian profile as “vulgar, vicious and very rich”.

Incongruously in view of his brutality, Kadyrov is also a follower of the sufi Islamic tradition — usually regarded as gentle and mystical — which automatically puts him at odds with salafism. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Yaroslav Trofimov notes that sufis have not always been as spiritual and other-worldly as they might seem:

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Kadyrov: a brutal and idiosyncratic sufi

Kadyrov isn’t considered an authority on Islamic affairs — “at least not outside Chechnya” — Trofimov adds. But under his leadership, Chechnya (which is part of the Russian Federation) has made a habit of hosting international Islamic conferences targeting salafism. What made the August conference more notable than usual was that it managed to attract some well-known (but carefully selected) scholars.

According to Mairbek Vatchagaev, a Chechen historian at Jamestown University in the US, the scholars who flocked to Grozny in August had been invited by Kadyrov, ostensibly to mark the 65th anniversary of his father’s assassination. But that was not the real reason. Vatchagaev comments:

Participants reportedly came from 30 countries, including Russia, Syria, Turkey, India, Britain, Lebanon, Egypt, South Africa and Jordan, Qatar, Morocco, Kuwait, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. To the horror of some, the Assad regime sent one of its tame muftis from Syria but Saudi/Wahhabi scholars and members of the Muslim Brotherhood were not invited. Meanwhile, the heads of two of Russia’s most important Muslim bodies — the Council of Muftis and the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims — did not attend but sent representatives instead.

Despite Narwani’s claim on the Russian website that the conference reflected “the majority Muslim agenda”, it appears that the scholars taking part were far from unanimous. According to one report:

The grand imam of al-Azhar in Egypt, Ahmed el-Tayeb, made similar excuses, saying he had only attended to give a speech on the first day and had played no part in drafting the anti-salafi fatwa.

Vatchagaev adds:

Although Saudis have reacted furiously to the fatwa (as might be expected), it’s clear from the conference agenda that Saudi Arabia was an incidental casualty, not the primary target. The main purpose was to obtain religious legitimacy for steps to assert more control over Muslims in Russia. Analyst Liz Fuller writes:

Alarmingly, Fuller suggests the fatwa, coupled with Putin’s express support for the conference, may have the effect of “implicitly empowering Kadyrov to rule on decisions central to the lives and well-being of millions of believers across Russia”:

In terms of religious ideologies, though, the conference is unlikely to change much — apart, perhaps, from increasing sectarian tensions. Vatchagaev comments:

Although the main focus of the conference was Muslims in Russia, Putin was surely aware that it would have political repercussions in the Middle East and perhaps decided there were additional benefits to be had by sowing further divisions among Arab states.

One embarrassment for the Saudis — though one they have not been keen to talk about — is the involvement of the UAE, a key ally for their military intervention in Yemen. The Taba Foundation, based in Abu Dhabi and headed by Habib Ali al-Jifri, a prominent sufi, was co-organiser of the Grozny conference. The Taba Foundation operates in the UAE with government blessing and Jifri is said to be close to Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE’s armed forces.

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Grand Imam Tayeb: made excuses

More important, though, are the tensions stirred up between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Regardless of al-Azhar’s denial that he had a hand in drafting the conference fatwa, the Egyptian delegation did include several high-ranking scholars and it’s unlikely they would have attended without the Sisi regime’s approval.

The conference rewarded Egypt by specifically recommending that Russia’s Muslim clerics should be trained at al-Azhar and that all Muslims in Russia should follow the teachings of al-Azhar’s grand imam. Inevitably, the Saudis — who regard themselves as the leaders of Sunni Islam — viewed this as an affront.

Saudi money, of course, has been helping to keep the Sisi regime afloat but, to make matters worse, the Saudis also thought they were beginning to build bridges (some would say “buy influence”) with al-Azhar in pursuit of their sectarian campaign against the Shia.

In an article for the Arab Weekly, Ahmed Meghid explains:

As usual, the Saudis expect something in return for their largesse — and preferably something more significant than a couple of tiny islands in the Red Sea. So far, there’s not much sign of them getting it. Egypt has not been helpful to the kingdom over Syria nor, to any great degree over Yemen. And now, following the Grozny conference, there are plenty of voices in Saudi Arabia demanding that Sisi be abandoned to his fate.

Originally published at

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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