Hijab Wars


In Dagestan, where government forces are pitched against insurgents, and the official priesthood against the Salafites, the third front concerns women. Marina Akhmedova reports from the region on the totemic role of the hijab in these events.

Marina Akhmedova
16 July 2012

‘Slave of Allah, it’s good to see you back!’ the girl in the dark hijab exclaims. Her modest face lights up with pleasure. She might have been greeting a long lost relative. A twitter goes up as I walk past the mannequins in the Islamic shop in downtown Makhachkala. One is decked out in a bright green hijab. The next in violet with a crescent-shaped diamante clip. The third hijab is brown and star-spangled. ‘Would you like to try it on?’ the girl asks softly. ‘It would suit you’, she persists. ‘Fine, sister,’ she chirrups as I head for the door. ‘But you’ll be back soon’.

Outside on the busy street I divide the women into those who did and those who didn’t go back. Those who did fall into two categories. Some are wearing dark gloomy hijabs, others - bright ones fixed with spikey crescent moons. As thorny as the issue of the hijab in Dagestan. June saw the second murder of a school head who forbade his pupils to come to school with covered heads.


The republic of Dagestan continues to remain one of the most explosive areas of North Caucasian region of Russia.  The hijab remains a particularly thorny issue in the republic (photo: Natalia Seliverstova, RIA Novosti agency)

Officially, the Society of Ahlus-sunnah Scholars [members of Sunni branch of Islam] declares that its supporters believe in one God, struggle for the purity of the faith and do not divide Muslims into traditional and non-traditional believers. Unofficially, especially in the federal press, they call it the ‘Salafi Society’, ‘the radical wing of Islam’. The presence of the beards appears to support the unofficial version, though its representatives point out that their beards are no longer than the patriarch’s.

The Society’s press secretary Ziyaudin Uvaisov tells me that in some Dagestani schools you’re punished for wearing the hijab, and in others not. ‘There are schools where the head is even trying to stop the teachers from wearing the hijab. They’re threatened with the sack,’ says Ziyaudin. ‘The ministry of education may not have issued instructions to this effect, but it encourages it.’

‘In lots of religious villages the pupils all go around like that, in hijabs,’ someone interrupts. ‘They teach the sexes in separate classes. As they should. Islam says boys and girls should be kept apart. They learn better that way too. If people want to..’

‘You don’t approve of the present approach to teaching?’

‘It’s not bad, except for a few things,’ Ziyaudin replies. ‘Ideological matters – Darwin’s theory, for instance. They ought to give the girls separate gym lessons, and let them wear headscarves. But when the head lays down the law in this reactionary way, when he’s so disrespectful, it’s hardly surprising that they hit back. It’s inevitable..’

‘I thought your mountain adat say you should respect teachers,’ I say.

‘We do – we stand up when a teacher comes in,’ chips in yet another man, ‘But if the teacher behaves improperly...’

‘They were educated under the communist system, that’s why’ the press secretary interrupts. ‘I’m the head and you’ve all got to obey me. He’s used to being..’

The door opens, cutting him off. I expect to see yet another beard, but in walks Maxim Shevchenko.

‘A woman’s been killed in Dagestanskiye Ogni, they opened fire on six children,’ he says. ‘Do you want to go there?’

A f*k up in Dagestanskiye Ogni

Dagestanskiye Ogni is a small town in southern Dagestan. Not the sort of place you’d expect to be a hotbed of Wahhabism and separatism, until recently. When we get there, the posse of men who came with Shevchenko go into the yard of a house. The residents come and tell us about the special operation, which happened at night, a few hours before our arrival. They point to the neighbouring yard.

‘Dagestanskiye Ogni is a small town in southern Dagestan — not the sort of place you’d expect to be a hotbed of Wahhabism and separatism. Until recently.’

The house is shut up. There’s not much sign of a shoot out having taken place there or in the yard. The men walk round looking at the bare walls. ‘Hey,’ one of them whispers into a mobile. ‘They said the house was a ruin, but it’s untouched and we’ve brought Shevchenko. ..There’s been a f** up..’

A woman in a hijab comes and stands in the yard, hands clasped, back half turned away from us.

‘Were you in the house with your children?’ asks Shevchenko loudly.

‘I was asleep,’ she answers in a lifeless voice.

‘Where did the firing come from?’ ‘

‘I don’t remember. There was so much noise,’ she turns even further away, tucking her chin, which is tightly bound by the hijab, into her shoulder. ‘The children were yelling. Then a woman in the courtyard screamed. I was with another woman. There were two more here – one they killed, the other was wounded.’

‘Where did they kill her? Was she in the house?’ asks Shevchenko.

‘No..The wounded woman was lying here in the yard. We carried her into the house. Then I heard they’d killed my younger brother.’

‘Your younger brother?’ I ask her.

‘Yes,’ she jerks her chin up off her shoulder.

‘Have you seen him?’ Shevchenko goes on.


‘They’re all dead! Dead! And you’re..!’ a bare-headed girl in the crowd burst out.

‘I’m a member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation,’ Shevchenko tells her. ‘We must investigate, find out whether the operation was legal, whether there was an infringement of human rights.’

She identifies herself as the dead woman’s sister and walks to the far side of the yard.

‘They were unarmed,’ she begins, when I approach her. ‘She’d brought food to her husband. She only found out he was a fighter after they were married. When the shooting started they were frightened and ran in there,’ she points, wrenching her hand away from her face. ‘She had a 3 month old baby. We don’t know what’s happened to him. She used to see her husband every 3 months when she brought him food. That’s all...’

She looks round at the crowd of men. Her eyes are dry now. She is wearing heavy gold jewellery. Over there, where the hedge is broken down you can see how they’d been trying to escape across the allotments. If the girl’s body was found there, where her sister’s pointing, then the other women must have run in the other direction.

‘She was young, beautiful.’ her sister wails. ‘No, she didn’t want to die. She was always on a diet, she loved trinkets. She loved life. The bastards..bastards..’ She clenches her fists and her jewellery tinkles. ‘They kill the young to line their pockets. She hadn’t done anything. She only brought him food.’

‘Remember what Medvedev said - even those who make soup for them..’ I start saying.

‘But she was only 19!’ she interrupts. ‘She longed to get out, she couldn’t bear it, she wanted to give herself up, but her friends wouldn’t let her. “They’ll mistreat you, hit your tummy, you’ll lose the baby.” It was fear that kept her there. She was worn out. She had nowhere to go...I ha...te...I hate the government!’ She closes her eyes and sits listening to the men. Then she suddenly jumps up and runs off.

‘The people that brought them food were armed,’ says a tall, thick-set man who’s just arrived. He’s the head of the local ROVD (department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs). ‘We’d received information that these people were going to commit a diversionary terrorist act, or that they were planning one..’

‘Plan-ning one?!’ the dead woman’s sister explodes. ‘They’ve been there all year, haven’t they? Nothing’s happened..I suppose you think it’s funny!!!’ she yells. ‘Funny! Where’s the 3 month year old baby, then?!’

‘What baby?’ asks the boss. ‘So why couldn’t you keep your sister under control?’

‘Have you got children?’ she responds.

‘Of course,’ he said, after a slight pause.

‘Allah help you keep them under control!’ she screams. ‘It’s your fault these young people are going to the forest, because you’re all thieves, you all take bribes!’

‘Calm down!’ the men say to her.

‘I’ll calm down when they kill your daughter! You say I didn’t keep her under control. How sure are you that you’ve got yours under control?! May Allah grant that your children go to the forest! She begged you, in the name of Allah. But you didn’t give them a chance. If someone asks you in the name of Allah not to kill them, you don’t!’

The visitors walk over to the place where the dead woman had lain. The blood is not yet dry, her hijab lies where the wind has blown it. Her mother hurries to it. A baby’s dummy and diapers lie by a greasy spot.

‘The visitors walk over to the place where the dead woman had lain. The blood is not yet dry, her hijab lies where the wind has blown it. Her mother hurries to it. A baby’s dummy and diapers lie by a greasy spot’

‘Why didn’t you arrest them?’ I ask the ROVD boss, who is gazing at the spot. ‘That will be investigated in due course,’ he answered wearily. ‘They returned fire. She was wearing fatigues, she was wearing a suicide bomber’s belt.

‘Why did you open fire, rather than arresting them?’

‘Ask special operations,’ he replies, then adds resentfully: ‘I serve my country. And they’re killing us.’

Operation ‘Cybersquad’

I’m waiting in a cafe for Nadira Isaeva, formerly editor-in-chief of the local opposition paper Chernovik [Rn. 'rough draft', link in Rn.]. The cafe’s called ‘Room’. There’s no music, but it’s got wi-fi. The waitresses wear long skirts and hijabs. There’s no alcohol on the menu either.

As always in Dagestan, there are two versions of the story as to why the Editor-in Chief of Chernovik was fired. Officially, Isaeva resigned of her own accord. The unofficial version is that she was sacked after an operation calling itself ‘Cybersquad’ published compromising material on the web about leading journalists and public figures in Dagestan. This included phone conversations between Nadira and her husband, who was in prison at the time. Unoffically, they say that ‘Cybersquad’ is the work of the FSB. Officially, they say its authors are journalists unjustly sacked by Nadira.

Isaeva arrives dressed in a dark hijab, looking depressed. I lose my nerve and decide not to ask her about ‘Cybersquad.’ ‘Dagestani society seems to me to be sick,’ I begin, ‘And the first symptom of that sickness is that people don’t value human life any longer...’

‘Yes, it’s an irrevocable process,’ agrees Nadira. ‘The number of special operations always goes up when there’s a new man at the helm in the security department. They find new boeviki (militants) when a new boss from Russia is appointed. They find the bodies of people who’ve been kidnapped, bodies with gouged out eyes, broken arms, legs, fingers. Heads of schools become the puppets of the Sixth Department [the Extremism and Criminal Terrorism Department of Dagestan’s Interior Ministry]. Who really controls the State Exam Board? The Fraud Squad.

‘Right from the start of this long and very public conflict the men at the top have refused to say where they stand. They don’t care that students are buying their way through exams. They don’t mind about the low level of education, or grade inflation. All they care about is the hijab.’

They say school heads are being forced to tell them which pupils are wearing the hijab. They’ve co-opted our school heads. In Shamkhala, a suburb of Makhachkala, the head, a woman, was waging war on the hijab, citing school regulations. In September 2010 they shot her in her own home. The Dagestani Ministry of Education is to blame for her death. Right from the start of this long and very public conflict the men at the top have refused to say where they stand. No,’ laughs Nadira, ‘they don’t care that students are buying their way through exams. They don’t mind about the low level of education, or grade inflation. All they care about is the hijab.’

‘But our police don’t come from the moon – they’re part of the same society..’

‘Isn’t that the problem – the fact that they need someone to fight against?’ she looks at me sardonically from under her hijab. ‘If you want to get ahead here you’ve got to be seen to be fighting extremism. The old tricks are the best. And people use them.

‘So why do you wear the hijab?’

‘If you have to ask you wouldn’t understand. If you understood, you wouldn’t ask.’

‘Fine, I don’t understand..Tell me – why did they sack you?’

‘You want to know about the Cybersquad... For me, that’s like the hijab question. The whole poison pen letter saga was dreadful - the security services were obviously behind it. But I see it as a kind of tribute to my effectiveness. Almost all the human rights defenders and journalists who matter in the republic were mentioned in it – but I was the first. Nothing came of the criminal proceedings instigated against me and my four colleagues for extremism, Article 282. Plus I got to see how primitive our security services really are...You’re right, things have got really bad in Dagestan..The trouble is that Dagestanis no longer feel that they’re citizens of Russia – that Russia which is crushing their houses with its tanks. We are no longer part of that mad Russia. If Russia were a normal country, it wouldn’t need to use force to maintain its borders..’

On the streets of Makhachkala, behind houses, garages and trees there are people wearing fatigues, carrying rifles. [Russian Interior Minister] Nurgaliev has flown in. No one’s paying any attention. Parents are taking their girls out of the state schools. They’re doing it because the girls aren’t allowed to wear the hijab. They’re enrolling them in medrasas instead. So the Islamisation goes on. Nadira says it’s pointless fighting the hijab. Better to ignore it. But you can’t just impose the hijab on the whole country, any more than you can stitch Dagestan into the body of Russia. Sooner or later the fabric will tear unless it’s sewn carefully, with tiny stitches.

It began with the journalists! 

On my way to the village of Sovietskoye I fell into conversation with a woman. She’s wearing a grey hijab. She’s been wearing it for the last ten years. Two years ago, following the Moscow bomb attacks, she was compelled to tear off her hijab and trample on it. 'I was disgusted that a Muslim woman could do such a thing!’, Firuza says to me. ‘My sister was just going into the metro at Lubyanka when the explosion happened. She was in hysterics when she called me: ”I was almost blown up! I hate you and your hijab! Your ‘sisters’ have blown up the metro!” That’s when I tore it off and trampled it...

Firuza falls silent. She’s going to the village of Sovietskoye too, but she doesn’t say why.

‘Are you a Salafi?’ I ask.

‘Not yet, but I agree with them about lots of things,’ she replies, looking at me defiantly.

People in Dagestan are no longer really afraid of admitting their Salafi sympathies. Even a year ago no one would have made such an admission to a stranger. What it will be like in a year’s time I can only imagine.

‘I was so ashamed,’ she goes on. ‘I felt so dirty, like a fallen woman. It makes me cry, even now. It’s hard to explain, but we hijab women all feel like that... Lots of women are wearing the hijab now. But there aren’t many of them who understand the inner hijab.

‘And what is it?’

‘It means total submission to the will of Allah and observing Islamic custom. Islam does not approve of all these coloured hijabs with fancy decorations which attract attention,’ she shakes her head: ‘You’ve got to keep thinking about death. It is inescapable, but when you come before the Almighty you’ve got to be without sin...Let me tell you a story,’ she fixes her eyes on me again. ‘I was in a lift with a man and a woman the other day. She was wearing this gaudy, see-through lace dress, you could even see her underwear. And when we got out, the man came up to me and said: “Sister, if you hadn’t been in the lift, I wouldn’t have been able to resist touching her”…

‘Because he was a pig.’

‘My dear,’ she covers my hand in hers. ‘All men are pigs..Forgive me, brother,’ she apologises to the driver. ‘That’s just the way they are.’

I can’t tell how old my travelling companion is. Thirty, perhaps, or forty. She is small and thin. Her face is small and sunburned and her hands are light.

‘Society has declared war on people like us,’ she goes on. ‘When I took off my hijab they said “At last, you’re a person again”. But all that year I felt awful. When I fell asleep I’d get these terrible dreams...You wouldn’t understand. You’ve got to be a practising Muslim woman to understand. So in the end I put it on again. And I pray Allah I’ll never take it off again.’

‘People in Dagestan are no longer really afraid of admitting their Salafi sympathies. Even a year ago no one would have made such an admission to a stranger.’

All I know about my travelling companion is that she wears a hijab and prays five times a day. But I bet that if I were to ask her if she would like to see Sharia law in Dagestan, she’d say ‘yes’. If I were to say you can’t have Sharia law in a secular state I expect she’d say the Caucasus should leave the Russian Federation. ‘Do you think we should have Sharia law?’ That is the question which moderate Muslims can’t handle. They can’t say ‘yes’, as they live in a secular state. And they can’t say ‘no’. What kind of Muslim would that make them? Russian nationalists and the Salafis are the only people who aren’t afraid to say ‘yes’ to independence in our country. The difference is that the Salafis pay for it with their lives.

The village of Sovietskoye. Shortly before the murder of the school director, in May, during Friday prayers men from the local ROVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) burst into the local mosque, which is considered Salafi, rounded up the congregation and, as the local press put it, beat them up for several hours.

Firuza and I walk to the gate of the school director’s house. They shot him one night, in bed, in his sleep. I knock. No one answers. I push the gate open and walk into the yard. The front door is wide open. A young woman carrying a baby comes out. Her eyes are deeply scored with lines.

‘I’m fed up with you journalists!’ she replies, after hearing me out. ‘It’s all your fault! Go away.’ A man with glassy eyes comes out of the house, followed by another one. ‘You just don’t get it, do you?’ they ask. ‘Journalists aren’t welcome here.’

‘So much for your famous Caucasian hospitality!’ Firuza exclaims in a thin voice. ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourselves – call yourself Dagestanis!’


In May 2011 police raided a mosque in Sovetskoye village, Dagestan.  The mosque itself was desecrated and a group of faithful seriously beaten. 

The woman eyes the hijab and me up and down. ‘She’s Russian,’ she says ‘We don’t have to be hospitable to them.‘

I walk down the village street, after asking Firuza to keep her distance. I knock on the teachers’ front doors. But when they hear I’m a journalist they look frightened and ask me to go away. ‘We’ve got children. Have pity on us,’ they whisper. ‘It was you journalists who started all this.’

However, at one teacher’s house I am invited in. ‘Forgive us, times are hard,’ whispers an elderly teacher with a grey moustache, glancing round to check that no one’s seen me coming to him. ‘Your opinion can cost you your life,’ he goes on. ‘Maybe they were up to something…’

‘They? Who – ?’ I ask him, also in a whisper.

‘Oh,’ the teacher presses his palm to his lips. ‘I don’t know. Not many of our pupils wore the hijab. And I expect it was their parents who made that decision. But we don’t have the right to impose our opinion on them. It all started that Friday when they rounded up the children. Then they summoned the head to ask why the students were at the mosque during school time. He gave an interview. It all began with the journalists. I respect religion. Everyone’s got the right to their own belief. I’ve got mine...’

‘And is it true that teachers tell on their pupils?’

‘Absolute nonsense,’ he says, barely audible, glancing round at his daughter.

I go to the mosque. There I am met by the imam. Young, tall and thin.

‘Aren’t you afraid they’ll kill you?’ I ask him.

The imam sits on the floor and looks at me with doe eyes. He is twenty four years old. A computer programmer. He had been looking for work in Dagestan for a long time. There was none. So he became an imam.

‘Why?’ he says quietly. ‘I’ve done nothing wrong. They say we force them all to wear hijabs, that we threaten to take them to the Sharia court...’

‘And is that true?’

‘No-o-o,’ he says, laying his hand on his chest. ‘So why should they want to kill me? Why did you say that?’

‘You’re proseletysing Islam.’

‘Yes, we pray and here in the mosque we do preach Islam. Of course do– that’s why we get together.

‘What happened on the 13 May?’

‘That Friday the troops rushed into the mosque. They stood out there in the courtyard in two rows with their guns. They shouted “Come on, Velikhanov, out you come.” That’s my surname. But I wasn’t there that day, they were,’ he indicates the teenagers who are sitting beside him. They look about sixteen.

‘And what did they do to you?’ I ask the boys.

‘Well, they took us to the police station, beat us up, cut the sign of the cross into our hair, like this,’ one of them makes a cross on his head. ‘The ones with beards, they chopped them half off. They swore at us “Why did you come to the mosque?”

‘Had the head teacher forbidden you to go to the mosque?’

‘Yes, he said we had to do our lessons.’

‘Well, that’s right...Isn’t it?’

‘Forgive us, times are hard,’ whispers an elderly teacher with a grey moustache, glancing round to check that no one’s seen me coming to him. ‘Your opinion can cost you your life’

‘Now they’re saying on the internet that he was killed because of us,’ says the imam. ‘But he started it. He told the pupils that if they came to school in the hijab again he’d strip them naked … When I heard he’d been murdered, I was really scared. I knew they’d take it out on us.’

‘You were at his school. Surely you must be sorry for him?

‘But why was he against us going to the mosque?’ the pupils ask. ‘So they’re above the law and can humiliate us as much as they like, is it? They said such awful things. Why can’t we have law and order, like in Russia? Why did they beat us up for six hours?

‘The Prophet told us to abide by the law of the Koran,’ said the imam helplessly. ‘We can’t change that.’

‘Do you support Dagestani independence?’

‘That’s a complicated question, provocative-‘

‘It’s a very simple question. Yes or no?’

‘We’re part of Russia.’

A simple Muslim

My next meeting is with someone whose name I don’t know. He asks me to call him ‘a simple Muslim’. When I ask the people who set up our meeting who he is, they answer: ‘You wanted a religious leader? You’ve got one.’ The simple Muslim is not dressed in combat gear. He’s wearing a loose shirt and flat white skullcap. He looks at me intently with his large dark eyes, as if he’d like to swallow me up, wrap me up in a hijab and induct me into the secrets of the religious world which I can see blazing in his eyes.

‘The head teacher was murdered,’ I venture.

‘Alhamdulillah..’ he murmurs, interrupting.

‘Allah be praised? Are you serious?’

’He was an educated man, not one of those idiots,’ he replies. ‘And he said something which insulted us. Look,’ he does not raise his voice. ‘Do you understand our attitude to death? It’s very different from yours. We know, as clearly as I know that you’re sitting in front of me, that death comes when our time is up. That’s the only reason.’

‘You mean..’

‘Life has ended. That’s the only reason for death,’ he stops me. ‘When they kill me, those close to me will know that my time on earth was up, that I’d have died anyway. You think your life depends on you, that if you keep out of the firing line you’re less likely to die. ‘

‘Is it true that you rejoice where someone close to you dies?

‘There are fathers and mothers who do celebrate when they hear that their son or daughter has been killed. ‘

‘The other day I met some relatives in that position. They didn’t seem to be feeling like that...’

‘Yes..those women...Yesterday we buried our sister. The one they killed in Dagestanskiye Ogni,’ he says, and I realise we’re talking about the same family. ‘It made me so happy..’

‘Of course. You don’t care about her...’

‘No, because of how she died...The women you’re talking about, they’re not proper Muslim women. Some parents reject their dead children, they don’t come to their funerals, don’t take their bodies from the morgue...Yesterday they were lamenting and shouting,’ his tone is smoothly censorious, ‘tearing their hair and scratching their faces...’


According to a report by Caucasian Knot, a local mosque was closed following the murder of headteacher Sadikullah Akhmedov in Sovetskoye village. The mosque was considered by police to be a hotbed of radical Islam (photo: Caucasian Knot).

‘That’s normal for someone who’s grieving.’

‘It’s blasphemy. Our life is a vale of tears...’

‘If that’s what you tell the young, you’re just pushing them into it, into killing themselves.’

‘Of course..But not into death...You think like an ordinary person.’

‘I just think like a person.’

‘..like a person who considers that everything ends when life ends. We know life is transitory, that eternity is stretching before us.’

‘So why not let them live out this transitory life..’

‘We can’t do that...You just don’t understand... How long we live is preordained. I can die at the age of 35, after scratching a wretched living,’ he raises his voice, ‘taking it out of the mouth of children, pensioners. Or I can achieve something holy, sacrifice myself for Allah’s sake. Either way I’ll die at 35. But when they come to weigh up my deeds, I will be rewarded.’

‘Have many of your friends..fellow believers have died?

‘Quite a few.’

‘So why are you still alive?’

‘Because I have been called to fight on the ideological front.’

‘But they died, and you’re alive...’

‘Again you’re not listening to me. That’s when they were preordained to die. The cops killed my own brother... He wasn’t a rapist or a murderer... Do you think that didn’t affect me?

‘Why did you say “Allah be praised” when I mentioned the teacher’s murder?’

‘When they punish that fool from Oslo you’ll be pleased. I’m pleased too that a man like that isn’t going to go round inciting the cops against our fellow believers any more.’

‘Did you celebrate when the Domodedovo explosion happened?’

‘If Doku Umarov had asked me, I’d have said – it’s haram, a sin. But he didn’t. It’s got nothing to do with me.

‘But they’re your sisters, surely - Mariyam Sharipova and Dzhanet Abdurakhmanova?’

‘They’re still my sisters. They killed kafirs. There are Muslims, and there are non-Muslims.’

‘So to you it doesn’t matter if they blow people up, as long as they’re not Muslims?!’

‘As I said, I think it’s haram, a sin.’

‘But you still consider them to be sisters...’

‘Of course.’


‘They’re my sisters.’

‘To you we’re just zombies, we Muscovites. Morning and evening we go into that metro, to work and back again. Back home, where our families are waiting for us. There’s no need to blow us up.’

‘The simple Muslim is not dressed in combat gear. He’s wearing a loose shirt and flat white skullcap. He looks at me intently with his large dark eyes, as if he’d like to swallow me up, wrap me up in a hijab and induct me into the secrets of the religious world which I can see blazing in his eyes.’

‘No? You Muscovites didn’t mind when they killed forty thousand in Chechnya. Have you read what they write about us kavkaztsi on the internet? People with computers, people who know how to write. City people. 90% of them hate us. Do they have no idea what’s going on here?’

‘You feel joy when you’re burying your fellow countrymen – you admit it. And you expect people in far-off Moscow to feel your pain.’

‘It wasn’t me who killed those Chechen children. I’m not Budanov’s brother. Blame his father and brother – they brought him up. The dregs of Russia have all passed through Chechnya.’

‘But it wasn’t policeman they blew up in the metro, was it?’

‘Every one of those policemen has a mother, father, aunt, grandmother. Who didn’t repudiate them. You really are zombies. You must be zombies if you allow our children to be murdered... We kavkaztsi have got to get it into our heads that the Russians occupiers are our oppressors. That’s what I tell my people. But they just don’t get it.’

‘That’s hardly surprising. Think how much central government money they pour in here...

‘That money doesn’t reach us’.

‘Your Dagestani government is to blame for that’.

‘Your Russian government buys people’s loyalty - that’s the problem. Dagestanis have got to wake up, we’ve got to liberate them’.

‘What’s stopping you?’


‘You’re a fanatic, you know’.

‘Does it make me a fanatic that I want independence?’ he smiles into his abundant black beard. ‘How come you were all so crazy about the film Braveheart, where Mel Gibson shouts “Freedom!” You didn’t call him a fanatic. You called him a brave heart’.

‘He was fighting for independence. You’re fighting for an idea.’

‘When we read what you write about us in Russia we laugh. Do you think I had something to do with that girl’s death, the one they buried yesterday? Well, I didn’t. She was a fool, she came to show her husband the new baby. They don’t understand that they’re being watched. She led them to him. She got killed, but her husband knew how to look after himself.’

‘Why do they go to the forest?’

‘Because they’ve decided it’s the only way they can put things right. The surest, shortest path to paradise is to become a suicide bomber.

‘Surely some of them must be in it for the money? To put the squeeze on businesses?’

‘Shame on you?!’ he comes back sharply. ‘What makes you think they’ve got money?!’

‘Well..they’ve got to buy their weapons somehow...’

‘Weapons cost nothing! They’re everywhere! Everywhere! That’s no problem! All you need is a few Snickers bars, somewhere to hide and local support. When Braveheart shouts “freedom” it’s beautiful. But when we say “freedom” they destroy us.’

‘Come to think of it, you must have gone to a Soviet school. And a Soviet college too. So what’s it all about – this unbridled hatred of your country?

‘We don’t need Russian hand-outs. I don’t need your mountains of gold. I just want my own plot of land, my independence. Your cartoon stereotypical images of us are a joke.’

‘How about just asking your brothers not to kill teachers...?’

‘He was no teacher. He was a functionary. He made these pronouncements – and we judged him by his words. The boys killed at Ogni belonged to the group who’d gone there to kill him. They were good lads – they didn’t wear masks because they wanted his wife to see that they weren’t the boys from the local mosque.’

‘Tell me this – as a neighbour, how would you rate me? Am I that bad?’

‘However much I hate what’s bad about you, your actions, it’s not the same as hating you. Unless you do something that harms me, I pity you. I’d like to save you. If you’d only listen to me, submit to Allah, your creator.

‘Well, I...do believe in God...’

‘Satan has got you in his grip. I’m sorry for you - you’ll go to hell.’

‘Your problem is you’re utterly intolerant of other people.’

‘We want our preachers to have a chance to tell the good news about the one God – that’s what we ask of Putin.’

‘What if we don’t want to listen?’

‘We’ll keep talking, even if you throw stones at us. Even if you stop up your ears we’ll keep talking. Others need it, even if you don’t. Lots of Russians are coming over to Islam. You do not keep God’s laws. Your democracy allows homosexuality. You’ve embraced it - we say it’s disgusting.’

‘Well, no one’s forcing homosexuality on anyone.’

‘We won’t let you have anything to do with it either..What God do you believe in?’

‘I thought we shared a God.’

‘Where did you learn about Him? Tell me. Perhaps I do believe in the same God as you.’

‘It seems to me that...’

‘It seems to you?! I can’t accept that!

‘How am I going to tell you about my God if you won’t let me get a word in edgeways? ...Yes, it seems to me that he loves me and knows exactly who I am.’

‘What makes you think that? That he loves you?’

‘Well..that’s how I feel. When I look at the night sky, for instance...And you know, that’s really enough for me, to feel that. I don’t need doctrine. Faith which is reinforced with doctrine is no longer faith.’

We are silent for a while. I expect he needs time to digest the blasphemies he’s heard. ‘These are fantasies. Yours is not a true faith. You’re going to burn in hell.

‘And I expect they’ll kill you. ‘

‘We understand that. I know I’m going to die. But only Allah knows where and when the angel will come for me, the angel who has been told where to find my soul.’

‘You should have forgiven him – the head teacher.’

‘We can’t know his heart, but we heard his words.’

So it comes full circle. The chain of events which began when they beat up the worshippers in that village mosque. Which ended in the murder of the head teacher. And led to the special operation in Dagestanskiye Ogni. Beyond the immediate framework of these events, there are the rewards, the decorations. On the day of his visit Nurgaliev asked for a list of those who’d taken part in the special operation. So he could reward them. Beyond it too is another scenario: what if one of the guys who was beaten up was so offended that he went to the forest? And if the security forces do kill the imam, it will not be because of his preaching, no, but because he wasn’t able to become a computer programmer.

In the drama which has been playing itself out for some time in this little republic it no longer matters who is the hero and who – the villain. What matters is that it’s become profitable for one lot of people to kill another. The people of Dagestan will tell you that Russia is the director of this drama. As long as the security services keep fighting the boeviki, as long as the Salafites keep fighting the official priesthood and the women in hijabs keep fighting those without, the country can rest easy – there’s going to be no revolution. But if that day comes, the flag it flies will be the hijab.

Since Hijab Wars, first published in Russian last summer in Russky Reporter, Akhmedova has stopped writing about Dagestan’s insurgency. In December 2011, Khajimurad Kamalov, founder of Makhachkala’s foremost opposition paper, Chernovik was murdered. The death of her friend and colleague affected Akhmedova deeply. When more than 20 insurgents were killed in the borderland between Dagestan and Chechnya in the spring, she was asked to write about it. It was a significant development, the first time government forces had killed so many insurgents in one operation. But she refused. With Kamalov’s death something had changed for her. She found that she no longer recognised the distinction between the ‘siloviki’, fighting for the government and the ‘boeviki’, or insurgents. ‘Now I just see them as people of one land, people with more in common than either can imagine, people crushed by the same catastrophe. So for me it no longer matters which side his murderer came from.’ Since then Akhmedova has written only about the peaceful life for which she longs, that of the shepherds grazing their flocks on the border between Dagestan and Chechnya. For more on the investigation into Kamalov's murder, click here

About the author: Marina Akhmedova is a novelist and journalist who lives in Moscow. The latest of her 3 novels, Diary of a female suicide-bomber, was published in Moscow in 2011

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