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Painting All Muslims With a Broad Brush

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On behalf of all Muslims living in Russia, Geidar Dzhemal, head of the Islamic Committee of Russia, has called for an end to the persecution of Muslims in the country. Otherwise, he warned, Russia will lose the Caucasus.

It is untrue, however, that Muslims are persecuted in Russia, much less in the Caucasus. Visit a Friday service in any of the hundreds of mosques in Makhachkala, for example, and you will see thousands of people praying freely. The persecution is directed at those who profess Wahhabism.

It is also untrue that you can't distinguish Wahhabis from Sufi Muslims, the traditional branch of Islam in the Caucasus. It is just as easy to find the difference between these branches of Islam as you can between Catholics and Protestants. Ask a Muslim how many raka'ah -- a set of 11 ritual procedures when reciting prayers -- he reads on Friday services. If he answers "two," he's a Wahhabi; "six" and he's a Sufi. It's a basic question, like the difference between Communion in Catholic and Protestant churches.

It is true that those who give up drinking and smoking and who are engrossed in their thoughts of God are not rebels plotting against the state. It is ridiculous to interpret their prayers as a subversive act aimed at Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's overthrow. After all, look at where Putin is compared to Allah.

But it is also untrue that Wahhabism is a peaceful religion for those who merely "pray differently." First, too many of its Russian adherents -- beginning with the founder of the Russian movement, Bagaudin Kebedov -- have openly declared that their mission is to kill "infidels."

Second, while there is generally a surprising tolerance between Islam's various branches, this is not so with Wahhabism. In the North Caucasus, nobody ever heard that members of the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam claimed that adherents of the Shafi'i movement were not true Muslims, or that the various orders of the Sufi faith did not recognize each other's legitimacy. Followers of the great Chechen ulema Kunt-Kadzhi whirl while reading prayers, but the Avartsi believers do not. And what of it? They don't call each other munafiq, or religious hypocrites, over it.

This is not the case with the Wahhabi. Take even the most peaceful of them, and they will inevitably say that the traditional ribbon tied onto the tombs of the sheiks is a heathen practice, that reading six raka'ah during the ritual prayer instead of two is unacceptable and that everybody who prayers differently is an apostate and a hypocrite.

Nonetheless, the followers of traditional Islam wield far greater administrative power. They also enjoy the support of the authorities. The Kremlin-installed Chechen president, son of a mufti and fanatical Muslim, Ramzan Kadyrov, persecutes the Wahhabis in the same way that Saint Ignatius of Loyola persecuted the Protestants.

Unfortunately, the Kremlin has chosen to side with the traditional Muslims in this theological dispute. But this is indefensible. A secular government should not take a position on how many raka'ah Muslims should read during their ritual prayers.

People who read two raka'ah should not be blacklisted and convicted unless it can be proven in court that they have engaged in illegal activity, such as taken up arms against authorities.

But this is not a case of persecuting Muslims. This is a case of one group of Muslims -- for example, the fanatical supporters of Kadyrov -- persecuting a different group of Muslims, the Wahhabi. Similarly, you can't say that Henry I, Duke of Guise, persecuted all Christians during the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in 1572, because he targeted only one branch -- the Huguenots.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.
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