Argument

Death of a Peacemaker

Death of a Peacemaker


Bullets silence whistle-blowers in Russia. Two years ago, a human rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, 34, and a Novaya Gazeta reporter, Anastasia Baburova, 25, were shot half a mile away from the Kremlin. Last summer, I attended the funeral of one of Russia’s most prominent human rights defenders, Natasha Estemirova, 50; her kidnappers threw her body on the side of a road. A few months later, a popular opposition leader in Ingushetia, Maksharip Aushev, 43, was killed. His car was found riddled with 60 bullet holes on a road outside Nalchik.

These people were united by their uncompromising reporting on human rights violations in their own country. They understood exactly what lies at the bottom of the country’s growing social problems.

This summer, one more murder was added to the list. In June, Maksud Sadikov, the tall, large-hearted rector at Dagestan’s Institute of Theology, was shot in his car in Makhachkala, leaving his wife, four children, and hundreds of students in deep mourning. Sadikov was a reformer and a peacemaker. Faced with the increasing problem of how to stop thousands of Russian Muslims from traveling to Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and other centers providing free — but more hard-line — Islamic education, his solution was to improve Islamic education at home in Russia. He imported the best teachers from elsewhere, when necessary, and hired talented Russians back from overseas universities to participate in his program, training moderate imams for Dagestan’s Islamic learning centers.

Respected by Moscow, Dagestani authorities and police, and Sufi and Salafi Muslim communities alike, Sadikov was an essential figure for negotiating peace between the religious sects that are de facto at war in Dagestan, where Muslims have been drawn into fighting the anti-Kremlin terrorism campaign that has long engulfed its neighboring republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia. When I visited Makhachkala in July, the republic’s president, Magomedsalam Magomedov, called Sadikov "irreplaceable" in the peacemaking process.

The new university management feels deeply traumatized by Sadikov’s murder; without their old rector, they say, the reforms will end. Who wants to risk their life for it? This calculation is becoming all too common. When I recently visited with journalism students at Moscow State University — where a portrait gallery honors graduates killed in recent years, including Novaya Gazeta correspondent Anna Politkovskaya and TV anchor Vladislav Listyev — only a handful of students would admit to wanting to be an investigative reporter. Nineteen Russian journalists have been killed in the country since 2001, with none of their murders solved.

And so the weekly terrorist attacks and assassinations of officials in the North Caucasus have become routine news that the majority of Russians prefer not to think about. But Sadikov was the 13th religious or civil society leader assassinated in the Caucasus since the beginning of 2010. Recent polls by the Levada Center show that only 9 percent of Russians are concerned about increasing terrorism in the country, while 81 percent worry most about rising food prices.

Sadikov foresaw the engulfing disaster in the Caucasus; unfortunately, his warnings did not bring much action.

Last year, I went to Dagestan to report a story for Newsweek about Islamic education reform in Russia. I met Sadikov by his university, right by the central mosque in Makhachkala. At the time, he was frustrated after returning from a Kremlin-funded conference with regional bureaucrats. He told me that the "dead-end five-year-plan" discussion did not result in any concrete progress for the republic: "While we are busy making speeches, our youth leave for the forest to join the hidden guerrilla war."

He spoke with strong emotion, deep wrinkles crossing his head under his traditional tubeteika cap.

"The hidden war is already on; soon it might grow into a real declared war," he said. Just one month after his death, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation reported that in the first half of 2011, the number of terrorist attacks in Russia increased by 35 percent.

At dinner, Sadikov and I discussed an article about Dagestan’s black widows that had recently been published in the Moscow-based Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. The paper ran a portrait of Maryam Sharipova, the 28-year-old schoolteacher and widow of a militia member from Dagestan who had blown herself up in the Moscow Metro in March. Next to the article, the paper featured a gallery of 21 portraits of young Dagestani widows whose husbands had been involved with the guerrilla resistance. I was going to interview some of them, and Sadikov sent his assistant, Aisha, to go with me out of concern for the women’s well-being. "I fear that the women’s lives will be turned upside down by that publication," he said.

A devoted Sufi, Sadikov could not tolerate injustice, even if the victim’s faith was different from his. The Salafi community remembers him as a man of firm and fair principles. "I do not remember anything aggressive in his words addressed to Salafi believers," one young religious activist, Idris Yusupov, told me.

Gulnara Rustamova, a leading human-rights defender for Salafi believers in Dagestan, recalled friendly meetings that Sadikov helped to organize this year between Sufi and Salafi community activists. "He was killed by somebody who did not want to see Dagestan’s Muslims united," Rustamova said. "Sadikov was against police kidnapping or torturing Muslims, even if they were non-Sufi Muslims."

This summer, when I traveled to Sovetskoe village in the Derbent region of Dagestan, I missed Sadikov’s calm presence greatly.

Shortly after the imam began the sermon before the Friday prayer for about 100 young Salafists, police marched into the mosque wearing their dirty shoes and uniforms and demanded that believers get on buses parked outside. Half an hour later, the local police station was filled with cries; each of the men detained in the mosque, including a 15-year-old schoolboy, had been beaten and his beard shaved, some in strips so they had only half of their beards left.

Seeing the men, I thought of Sadikov’s warnings against beating and humiliating believers. Speaking to religious and state authorities last spring, he said, "We should not be pushing Salafi believers out of society with our own hands."