KADAR DISTRICT, DAGESTAN, RUSSIA — To this cluster of cliff-hanging villages in the Caucasus Mountains, high over the Caspian coast, a stranger named Mohamed Ali brought something quietly explosive.
"For millennia we always lived here in peace," says Shapi Gadzhiev, a villager, "until this devil."
"History will count him as an enemy of Dagestan," says Mukhtar Magomed, leader of Dagestan's traditional Islamic orders. "We did everything possible to evict him."
"He was a great teacher," says Muhamed Muhamed, another villager, wearing a Muslim skullcap and a thick white beard. "Those who want to drink and carouse wanted him out."
In the lawlessness and economic chaos of the post-Soviet Caucasus, religion is a suddenly powerful force, bringing an unpredictable blend of moral authority and righteous fury that slices right through clans, villages, and families. This is one of the volatile frontiers of reawakening Islam.
About four years ago, Mr. Ali arrived at a Muslim school on the flatland below, near the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala. People hungry for guidance thought he was a Saudi Arabian and teaching a higher way of Islam.
"He made Islam simpler. He opened people's eyes to many things," says Kamal Botyrev, who identifies himself as simply "a fighter for Islam."
But at some point, local clergy realized he was teaching an Islam at odds with the mystical, Sufi sect that is traditional here. He was in fact from Jordan, not the Islamic homeland of Saudi Arabia. Some began spreading word that Ali was under contract by British intelligence and, as one elderly villager asserted, "a pure Jew." He meant it as a slur.
Ten years ago, there were only 27 mosques in Dagestan, and the Caspian Sea was nearly enclosed by the officially atheist Soviet Union - save for the Islamic Republic of Iran on the southernmost shore. Today, there are 1,800 mosques in Russia's Dagestan, some of them big enough to allow for thousands of worshipers at once.
The Sufi system of clerics and monastic orders, called tarika, is closely tied to political authority here. It has helped keep peace over the centuries between the scores of clans and ethnic groups that inhabit these mountains. Tarika imams dominate the spreading structure of religion here, but they see a new threat in their midst.
A new sect takes root
When the spiritual teacher Ali was finally evicted from his school near the coast below, some of his followers brought him here to this set of mountain villages for protection. He kept to himself. Many locals never met him, barely saw him. And because his following was growing, the local elders evicted him again. Last anyone here knows, he was in Azerbaijan to the south.
But his followers are apparent, and the tension that surrounds them has reached the brink of guerrilla war. They grew up here, like everyone else, but the men grow their beards long and pin their pant legs tight at the ankles. The women cover themselves in black chadors. They conduct themselves with a certain quiet discipline that only outrages their detractors more.
Locals call them fundamentalists, fanatics, and mujahideen. They warn of the chaos of Afghanistan or the religious-police state of Iran. They also call them Wahhabis, an Islamic sect prominent in Saudi Arabia that claims to seek a more pure reliance on the Koran and prays directly to Allah, rather than through mediating clergy.
"They call me a Wahhabi," says slight, soft-spoken Samartin Mamayev, who listens as his beliefs are loudly denounced by a neighbor. "I don't know what that means.' "
Last summer, the head of the local administration was murdered. The case is unsolved, but many locals and Sufi clergy in Makhachkala blame the so-called Wahhabis.
Then in May, a clash developed that involved as many as 1,000 people and ended with at least one person dead and three wounded. People on both sides say that the violence began as an argument in the street. A car drove by a funeral procession in town and something was said. Something was said in return, and friends and relatives were summoned to turn insult into injury. What began as a family or clan altercation took on the coloration of a religious war.
Another confrontation came to the brink of violence when the leaders of the village of Kadar decided to evict 12 Wahhabi families from their houses last spring. They could shave their beards, stop wearing chadors, and stand behind the tarika Sufis in the mosque, or they could leave. A delegation of Wahhabis drove up from Makhachkala with a simple ultimatum: "Leave these people in peace, or we will defend them." They left no doubt they were speaking in military terms.
"We have a steel will and enormous discipline," says Kamal Botyrev, who led the delegation.
An uneasy peace
The Wahhabis also receive military training from Jordanians at camps in the mountains of neighboring Chechnya. (Many Jordanians are ethnically Chechen or Dagestani.) Rumor has it that all Wahhabis have been through such training. Mr. Botyrev says that is an exaggeration. "Some, just due to their age, couldn't go through it," he says.
Chechnya, the Russian republic just a few miles west of here, has half-heartedly embraced sharia, Muslim religious law, in an effort to control banditry. Islam became a rallying cry in Chechnya's 1994-95 war for independence, but was not a driving force.
The 12 families returned to Kadar, but more recently, the larger neighboring village voted to evict the Wahhabis, says Magomed Jangishayev, a so-called Wahhabi and chairman of the Caucasian Islamic Center here. "We have no defense from the government, so we may need to defend ourselves."
For the moment, matters are tense but quiet.
"The elders have calmed things down," says the current head of the local administration, Akai Javatov. "I have brothers, cousins, nephews, and neighbors who are fanatics. We work together."
The current imam of the main mosque here, Mohamed Ibakov, is the neutral choice between imams from either faction. He says that the problems grow from the social upheaval of the transition out of socialism. Tensions and resentments rise as some get rich, and some carry on as before and grow poorer. Then they call the tensions religious. Like the recent deadly brawl: "The fight started over some insult. Later it was given a religious explanation," he says.
The great unifying leaders, the heroes of this region's past, have been religious warriors - Elisha Mansur in the 18th century and the great Imam Shamil of the early 19th. Both led religious wars of independence against the Christian Russians.
Tarika imams see themselves as inheritors of these local Sufi heroes. Wahhabis are a direct threat to them, challenging their religious authority and their positions heading mosques.
"Wahhabism is a poison," says tarika leader Mukhtar Magomed. It will first destroy Muslim unity, then install a sharia state, he warns. Wahhabis only number between 1,000 and 3,000 in Dagestan, by outside estimates, "but how many people started communism?" he asks with foreboding.
Civil government seems assured
Iranians have failed to spread their revolution, even to Azerbaijan, which is predominantly Shiite like Iran. Rather, Turks and Saudis are building huge mosques and madrasas, or Islamic schools, all over the greater Caspian region of the former Soviet Union.
The Turks tend to be Sufi, and they always dispatch Turkish imams to run the mosques they build. Saudis are Wahhabis, and they have paid for at least 300 Wahhabis in Dagestan to make pilgrimages to Mecca.
Wahhabis are sympathetic to the arch-fundamentalist Taliban movement in Afghanistan, and in fact Wahhabis were key players in the chaotic Afghan political scene from which Taliban emerged.
There is little sign, even in these mountains, that fundamentalism could spread very far here and overthrow civil government, as in Iran or Afghanistan.
Both sides tout the ultimate value of sharia values and sharia government. But both sides also acknowledge that the hearts and minds of Dagestanis must first rise to the spiritual level necessary to live voluntarily under a sharia state.
"Without sharia consciousness, it would turn into a totalitarian state," says Magomed Jangishayev.
* Tomorrow: Dagestan's clashing cultures.