KAZAN, Russia — Authorities in Tatarstan, a predominantly Muslim region of central Russia, have sounded the alarm about radical Islam spreading to a region previously praised as a model of religious tolerance.
In November, three Islamists were killed in an armed clash with police that was unprecedented in the region. This prompted fears of the appearance of an armed insurgency similar to one in Russia's North Caucasus, where Islamist rebels are waging a bloody war with the authorities.
"These insurgents from radical religious movements have arms, financing and support from foreign protectors," the region's interior minister Asgat Safarov warned after the attack.
Tatarstan touts itself as an example of harmonious co-existence of Islam and Orthodox Christianity, with a huge mosque standing beside an Orthodox cathedral in the capital city of Kazan on the banks of the Volga.
Despite the warnings by officials, Tatarstan has seen no other violence linked to radical Islam, other than one failed bombing, and has cracked down on those suspected of links to extremism.
Four men were convicted in April of "belonging to the extremist organisation" Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami, or Islamic Party of Liberation, which was banned in Russia in 2003.
They were sentenced to several years in jail, even though they were only accused of distributing radical literature.
The authorities say the main threat comes from followers of Salafism and Wahhabism, who practice a radical form of Islam and whose ideology is now preached in some of the mosques in Tatarstan.
The insurgency in Russia's North Caucasus -- which is comprised of the regions of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria -- claims to follow this fundamentalist form of Islam.
"The Salafis and Wahhabis constitute a very great danger. There are no moderates among them. They all finish one day by taking up arms," the newly elected mufti of Tatarstan, Ildus Faizov, said in an interview with AFP.
He said he believes the "traditional Islam" of Tatarstan is threatened by these extremist forms, spread first by preachers who came in from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt after the fall of the Soviet Union, and later by Tatars who have studied abroad.
"Many students who are trained in the Arab world come back heavily influenced by an ideology that is alien to our Islam," stressed Marat Gatin, an official in charge of relations with religious groups in the administration of the president of Tatarstan.
Elected in April after the resignation of his predecessor, who was judged too lenient towards Islamists, mufti Faizov has mounted a crackdown on extremists among the Muslim clergy of this republic of four million inhabitants.
From now on, imams are no longer freely elected by parishioners but chosen from a list of candidates picked by the mufti, and numerous imams have already been dismissed.
One of the first to be let go was Nail Sakhibzyanov, an imam from the Almetyevsk district, considered a bastion of radical Islam.
"On April 30, the FSB (security services), police and local administrators gathered the district imams at the town hall and forced them to publicly vote me out," he told AFP in the Rizaetdin Fakhretdin central mosque in Almetyevsk.
"It was the FSB who sacked me, not the faithful."
Sakhibzyanov said he sees nothing wrong with associating with Wahhabis and other fundamentalist followers of Islam, whom he believes are mistakenly accused of being a threat. "We are all Muslims," he stressed.
In Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan , where it is rare to see a woman wearing full Muslim dress or even a headscarf, some are sceptical that Islamists could pose any real threat.
"There are disagreements over doctrine, but there is no growth in extremism. Tatarstan will not become another North Caucasus," said the imam of Kazan's Sultan mosque, Kamil Bikchentayev.
Referring to the "tradition of tolerance towards Islam in Tatarstan," he also refused to condemn Wahhabis or the jailed members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, whom he said "were convicted simply for having read books."
In Moscow, Alexei Malashenko, an expert at the Carnegie centre, poured scorn on what he dismissed as a witch hunt against a non-existent threat.
"In Tatarstan, they are getting rid of radicals who in fact do not exist," he said. "It is ridiculous to talk of a threat from Salafis."
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