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.
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.
Chechen Islamist leader Doku Umarov, who styles himself "emir" of the north Caucasus "caliphate," is blamed for organizing at least two bloody terror attacks in Moscow, including twin suicide bombings in the city's crowded metro in 2010, and another deadly suicide bombing in Moscow's Domodedovo airport the next year.
Militant call to focus on Tatarstan
According to Russian experts, Mr. Umarov issued a religious decree last year calling on north Caucasus militants to focus on Tatarstan and other areas with concentrated Muslim populations such as Bashkortistan, to move there and begin destabilizing operations.
"It is not by chance that these attacks happened today, on the eve of Ramadan," says Mr. Suleymanov. "Local Muslims are stunned, shocked, and terrified. People are even scared to come to a mosque.... The radicals want to demonstrate that they are already a force, and to intimidate moderate leaders. What they really want is to say to the state is: We conduct terrorist acts to show that we are strong, we can dictate, and you have to make concessions."
Experts say that the oil-fueled prosperity that made Euro-Islam look attractive a decade ago has petered out, while militants from the north Caucasus can point to Chechnya as an alternative model where military confrontation with Moscow ultimately resulted in a local regime where sharia law effectively trumps the Russian Constitution.
A decade ago Chechnya was in ruins following two futile wars to win independence from Russia. Today, Chechnya is undergoing a stunning rebirth, largely bankrolled by a Kremlin that's happy to pay for the appearance of peace and careful to keep its nose out of the republic's internal affairs.
"For a long time, it looked like Tatarstan was the best model for a Muslim republic within Russia to develop its national statehood," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
"But now, Tatarstan's mild, multiconfessional model looks vulnerable. A new generation of Muslim clerics, trained in Saudi Arabia, regard the older generation as traitors. The benefits of the Tatar model are receding. Euro-Islam may have worked at a time of economic growth, when everyone was happy. But now with economic problems multiplying, radicalization is taking place.... This crisis has been simmering under the surface for a long time," he adds.
For Moscow, Thursday's attacks hint at the spread of north Caucasus-type instability to Russia's own Volga heartland.
"The basic problem in Tatarstan is the erosion of popular support and loss of trust to the official religion," says Alexei Vlasov, director of the center for the study of social and political processes in the post-Soviet space at Moscow State University.
"We saw the very same kind of process unfold in the northern Caucasus in the 1990's, and we know what it led to. There are good reasons to fear that a similar process is going on now in Tatarstan," he adds.