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Reconsidering radicalisation and terrorism : the New Muslims movement in Kabardino-Balkaria and its path to violence

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Journal of Religion, State and SocietyThis paper was produced as part of the Religion, State and Society special issue on young Muslims in Britain and Russia. The paper has three aspects which will be of interest and use to readers.

Firstly, it describes the history and move to violence of the Kabardino-Balkarian Jamaat (Kabardino-Balkarsky Dzhamaat) (KBJ). Emerging in the early 1990s its leaders, Musa Mukozhev and Anzor Astemirov, while denouncing the state-supported folk-Islam in favour of a return to the 'pure Islam' of the Prophet's time, discouraged and denounced violent practices in the name of Islam. From 1998 onwards, after the violent actions of a splinter group, the KBJ and its members suffered indiscriminate and brutal actions by the police and authorities, which both de-stabilised the movement's leadership and shut-off avenues for legitimate radical expression. In 2004 the leaders played a part in the formation of a terrorist group, Jamaat Yarmuk, which violently attacked government agencies and staff in the republican capital of Nal'chik.

Secondly, in addition to the above case-study, by scholars who know the region and language well, this paper uses the above example to show how the path to violent radical behaviour cannot be explained through simplistic labelling of groups as 'extremist', 'radical', 'Salafi', 'Islamist', 'Wahhabi' or other similar terms which were used by the Russian government and media at the time (and indeed still are in many countries). The authors point to the need to understand the local context in which radical beliefs are developed and expressed, and the benefits of comparative studies of these details to better understand the significance of causal elements.

Thirdly, and perhaps of most interest to readers not seeking to learn more about this region of the Northern Caucasus, is how the authors demonstrate this comparative approach in practice. Drawing on a range of academic literature about New Religious Movements (NRMs) they argue that the KBJ should not be seen as indicative of 'Radical Islam', but rather as an example of an NRM. The authors argue that the contemporary focus on 'radicalisation' tends to delegitimise non-violent radical beliefs, proscribing social and political behaviour which "have long been part and parcel of the youthful desire to make a difference" in liberal democracies. The authors point to NRM studies that show that frequently members of NRMS are not victims of, but actually pro-active participants in, these movements who join out of their own choice. NRM studies also shed light on how NRMs can potentially move to violence through a cycle of reciprocal mistrust and hostile actions with the surrounding society and authorities. For such groups, violence is a relational and processual development, and understanding the context of that development could help prevent their repeat in future cases.

The authors showed that the KBJ continuously interpreted their beliefs in reaction to the experiences within the group and between it and the wider society. They argue that this understanding could be extended (though are careful to suggest limitations) to other similar groups, to show how tensions between NRMs, Islamic or otherwise, could lead to conflict. This paper is an example of good theory based on local knowledge and a nuanced understanding of a particular case. In providing examples of NRM research relevant to the topic, it also provides a good starting place to consider how extensive academic work in this field could be used to inform research into radical groups.

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