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Attacks target voices of moderate Islam in central Russia

Attacks in Russia's Tatarstan republic today killed one Muslim cleric and seriously wounded a second, underscoring a rising threat to a moderate brand of Islam.

By Correspondent / July 19, 2012

Emergency Situations Ministry rescuers examine a car of Tatarstan's chief mufti Ildus Faizov after a bomb attack in Kazan, about 450 miles east of Moscow, central Russia, Thursday, July 19. A top Muslim cleric in Russia's Tatarstan province was shot dead and another was wounded by a car bomb in two attacks that local leaders said were related to the priests' criticism of radical Islamists, investigators said Thursday.

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Moscow

A leading Muslim cleric was shot dead and another seriously injured by a car bomb in the mainly Muslim Volga republic of Tatarstan Thursday, in attacks that police and most experts believe were almost certainly carried out by radical Islamists.

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The violence threatens to shatter more than just the peace in the oil-rich central Russian region (see map), whose majority population constitutes one of the biggest single concentrations of Sunni Muslims in Europe.  The two victims are leading proponents of the officially sponsored brand of Euro-Islam, which preaches tolerance, democracy and acceptance of modern secular life.

The republic's chief mufti, Ildus Faizov, who was hurled from his car by a powerful blast, had been leading efforts to expunge Saudi-trained clerics and extreme Salafist textbooks from local mosques and religious schools.

Deputy mufti Valiulla Yakupov, gunned down on the porch of his home, was an Islamic scholar who was widely regarded as the main strategist in the fight against religious extremism. When the Monitor interviewed Mr. Yakupov in his office in Kazan back in 2003, he appeared confident that Tatarstan -- where over a third of the population are ethnic Russian and Orthodox Christian -- would be able to avoid the sectarian violence and religious intolerance that was destroying other communities in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.

"Islam is facing major changes in the coming period, and this is very much needed," he said at the time. "Some parts of the Muslim world look like reservations for dictators and totalitarian ways. We hope for a different future."

The official RIA-Novosti agency quoted a source in Tatarstan's security forces as saying they were treating the attacks as a single crime. "It’s evident that these two crimes are directly linked and, most likely, they were performed by the same group," he is quoted as saying. "We are probing all versions, from professional activities to the involvement of so-called religious fanatics."

Stability shifting to instability

Experts say Tatarstan's stability has been slowly unraveling, below the radar screen, for some time.

"What happens here seems minor against the background of the permanent war going on in the northern Caucasus," says Rais Suleymanov, head of the center of religious and ethno-religious studies at the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies in Kazan.

"The absence of due attention to the processes going on here means that the processes have not been properly followed or understood in recent times.... We see that Tatarstan is heading down the path leading to a situation like that in Dagestan. In the late 1990s, the same thing happened there, traditional religious leaders were being killed," he says.

In the past decade, Moscow has crushed a separatist-cum-Islamist insurgency in Chechnya, restoring stability at the cost of handing over the tiny republic to almost total control of local strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. However, Islamist militancy has metastasized around the mainly Muslim north Caucasus, making regions like Dagestan and Ingushetia look like permanent war zones.

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