At first glance it might seem quite a stretch to find any connection between Said Efendi Chirkeisky (born Said Atsayev), the Dagestani Sufi religious leader assassinated in a suicide bomb attack yesterday and Italian anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone — beyond that he, too, died in a bomb blast. The Mafia murdered him in 1992 and, shortly thereafter, his friend and colleague Paolo Borsellino. But bear with me and indulge a moment of, bizarrely enough, optimism amidst this undoubted tragedy.
Chirkeisky died because he was a Sufi, because he was a rival source of religious authority to the Wahhabi/Salafi jihadists, because he challenged the legitimacy of their Manichean worldview. It is interesting and illustrative that, as well as law-enforcement officials, the North Caucasian terrorists are now targeting religious leaders who are hostile to their jihad or, equally sinful to them, even just not actively supportive. It demonstrates how the war is also becoming a Muslim civil war in the region.
More than 100,000 people turned out to Chirkeisky’s funeral (remember, Dagestan has a population of less than 3 million — that would be like 2.1 million Britons turning up to a funeral). The understandable first reaction is that this threatens to worsen the violence. However, it need not be quite so straightforward. The tragic murders of Falcone and Borsellino galvanized a country that otherwise had almost become apathetic, losing hope that Italy’s corrupted state could or would ever seriously take on the Mafia and back the courageous magistrates and police officers who were fighting the good fight. Italians mobilized and forced their political elite — often very much against their will and interests — at last to unleash the legions of law enforcement. Obviously organized crime is still strong in Italy, and this proved a two-steps-forward-one-and-a-half back process (thanks, Berlusconi), but nonetheless the start of the real rollback of Mafia power in Italy began with what seemed to be their great triumphs, their ability to kill these two bitter enemies of theirs.
The situation is, of course, very different in the North Caucasus. Nonetheless, Chirkeisky was an enemy of violence, an advocate for engagement with what he realized were corrupt, authoritarian and often hostile authorities in order to tame and educate them.
Ravil Gainutdin, Russia’s Grand Mufti, has warned that “A lot of strength, wisdom and fear of God are needed from the Dagestani people to maintain the situation within the legal framework, avert a bloody civil war and not allow quarrels to split society.” But it is — just — possible to see a more positive potential outcome that just averting civil war. Chirkeisky could become a martyr not to war but unity, a unifying symbol that allows new connections to be made between a state that is often only marginally legitimate and a population that has concerns, needs and a desire for change but would rather find ways other than violent Islamist jihad to address them. This is a time for President Magomedov to take some bold and conciliatory moves that might help show that his government is the population’s ally, not its oppressor. For other religious leaders — Sufi, Shafi’i, Shia — to clasp hands and stand together against a jihadism that is essentially alien to the region. (Remember, even the great regional cultural hero Iman Shamil was a Sufi, however much others try to appropriate his name to their cause.)
Do I think this will happen. Sadly, no. I think Magomedov lacks the political finesse to appreciate that this is one of those brief historical opportunities and probably the freedom of maneuver to take advantage of it. I am unconvinced the religious leaders have that level of ecumenicalism yet, unwilling to appreciate the threat jihadism poses them all. But it could and, for one bittersweet moment, I’d like to cling to that potential, that Chirkeisky did not die in vain.