Fight over Islam, money and power brings violence to Russia’s Volga region
Not far from glitzy boulevards where an oil boom has sent up stadiums and high-rises overlooking the Volga River, women in headscarves wander through Islamic bookstores selling pamphlets on the institution of sharia in Russia.
Kazan, capital of Russia’s mainly-Muslim Tatarstan region, has long had an image as a showcase of religious tolerance. But that reputation was shattered by car bomb and shooting attacks carried out only hours before the start of the holy month of Ramadan.
On the wall outside the bookshop, a flyer in the local Tatar language calls Muslims to unite against the region’s top religious leader, Mufti Ildus Faizov, who was wounded in the attacks which also killed his deputy.
“Things will only get worse here and Muslims will be the ones who suffer the most,” said Anisa Karabayeva, 43, her face framed by a white hijab, or traditional headscarf.
“Will there be more bombs? Probably,” she says flatly, standing in front of a display case stocked with Korans and prayer rugs.
The attacks came against a background of anger among many Muslims who complain that the authorities in Tatarstan are restricting Islam in the name of fighting radicalism. It is a dispute that also involves a struggle for money and influence in the increasingly prosperous oil-producing region.
President Vladimir Putin, who started a new six-year term in May, has repeatedly called for national unity and religious concord in a predominantly Orthodox Christian nation with deep-rooted ethnic minorities, many of them Muslim.
For decades, Russia has endured violence in mostly Muslim provinces in the North Caucasus on its southern fringe, where tens of thousands of people were killed in two separatist wars in Chechnya after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and insurgents are still fighting to set up an Islamic state.
But booming Tatarstan – 2000 km (1,200 miles) away from the war zones – had largely avoided unrest until now.
Moderate Muslims in Tatarstan blame the violence on the arrival of radical groups, such as followers of Sunni Islam’s strict Salafi movement and the outlawed organization Hizb ut-Tahrir which seeks an Islamic caliphate.