Islamic State and Georgia's Muslim community

In the mosque. Village Chantliskuri, Kakheti Region, Georgia.
Teaser Image Caption
In the mosque. Village Chantliskuri, Kakheti Region, Georgia.

The emergence of the Islamic State implies significant political and geographic transformation. Georgia as a territory is not in the spotlight of these changes unless appropriate conditions take shape, in particular, if they win a big number of supporters.

It is the personality factor that determines the nature and content of the problem for Georgia. Correspondingly, there are two issues of interest: First, how does the different social, political, religious, and cultural system of the Islamic State become advantageous and attractive for residents of this country? And second, how can a situation be created (resulting in an increase in the number of followers) where the community attempts to resolve their own problems with the help of the Islamic State.

"Literate Islam" versus "traditional Islam"

Islam in Georgia, as well as in any other country, has never been static. In the Ottoman era, its spread was a response to existing challenges. For this reason, mixed religious norms were widespread in the region for quite a long time and the canonical form started taking shape in a relatively later period.

The local literate forms of Islam that emerged gradually finally fell victim to repressions under Soviet rule. Therefore, in the USSR, the existing knowledge was maintained only orally and mostly secretly within a limited group of people. It was on this basis that the religious awakening in the 1980s took place. Islam was adapted to everyday life in Georgia, its non-dominant status, and ethnic and cultural traditions.

Another approach emerged in the 1990s. It was literate Islam based on norms imported by young people who had received education in religious schools abroad (mostly in Turkey). The introduction and establishment of the "canonical" religious system was characteristic of not only the post-Soviet area. Therefore, "old", "unacceptable", or "traditional" rituals gradually disappeared from everyday life.

Since the end of the 1990s, these two groups have contended with each other for leadership, resources, and their own identity though generally they have accepted each other's existence. Georgian Islamic folklore and traditions gradually became non-canonical.

Islamic community in Georgian religious policy

State policy is yet another factor. Before 2004, the Muslim community was not a legal entity, but maintained influence thanks to their leaders. In 2004, the community became a legal entity and a full-fledged participant in the processes, but this participation was regulated and even restricted. In particular, the activities of the Muslim community were not regulated by any law before its registration, which meant that they could freely obtain and manage resources. The registration changed the situation. The new demands were painful for this free community that was not accustomed to regulations.

At the same time, Georgia's religious policy was oriented only on the settlement of existing problems. Such an approach becomes obvious when analysing the activities of the State Agency for Religious Issues, the Muslim Board, and other organisations. Strategies elaborated in this format are often short-sighted, because they are elaborated by officials and other interested people who lack sufficient knowledge and do not involve ordinary members of the Muslim community. Accordingly, the strategies fail to reflect all problems the community is facing and the ways for their resolution.

What does it mean to be a Muslim in Georgia?

These processes gave rise to new problems for ordinary Muslims, because they were part of the community only during prayers and their participation in rituals. In the meantime, to become full-fledged members of the community, youths used to attend religious schools from an early age. They received basic education in local schools that did not care much about philosophy or making educational programmes uniform, because the qualification of teachers was effectively not checked. Having completed secular and religious schools, young Muslims chose either to remain in their villages[1] or go abroad to receive free spiritual education,[2] or receive a secular education in Georgia.[3] This resulted in the formation of quite a numerous group of young clerics, who mostly spoke Turkish. The numerous clerics, theologians, or just educated people, who returned from abroad proved to be non-competitive in the secular or religious posts available locally.[4] Even if subjective factors are ruled out in employment, the aforementioned young people did not have sufficient knowledge and skills compared to those who received education locally, in order to find jobs. A small number of youths managed to use their potential in private businesses, but most of them either returned to their traditional environment or started to search for new prospects.

Under the influence of these factors, Muslims who failed to achieve personal success in their career or to satisfy their spiritual and social needs became dissatisfied with existing traditional norms, viewing various threats and searching for various methods for eliminating injustice, including radical ones.

Search for new prospects and the Islamic State

The idea of the Islamic State helping and saving oppressed and unprotected Muslims has proved to be attractive for those who did not agree with existing norms, did not like existing reality, and wanted to change it. In other words, it was impossible to achieve overall well-being (within the Muslim community) and bring one's own life in order. Small groups of those who wanted to introduce such major changes emerged in Georgia at this stage.[5] However, if the current situation does not change and dissatisfaction grows, the number of supporters is also going to be affected, because Islam makes all Muslims equal both during joint prayers and in facing common challenges. For various reasons, it will become attractive for Muslim youths who have been relatively loyal to the state up to now, but are nevertheless dissatisfied. Individual incidents may take place before that happens, but not large-scale conflicts. In other regards, the country will remain part of an "invisible war" and individual fighters who want to fight will continue to struggle to achieve concrete results and objectives.

Existing and possible supporters of the Islamic State

New religious ideologies require clear and result-oriented strategies in order to make an impact. Therefore, if an "oppressed community" (or part of it) is unable to protect itself through relevant organisations, Muslim leaders, or the state, they naturally start to search for a new path. At the same time, it has become clear that the Islamic State finds it desirable to attract youths who possess certain characteristics. Under this heading we also include prospects for the natural increase in the Muslim community of Georgia, which should be paid particular attention due to the low marriage age and high birth rate. It is also noteworthy that the goals and objectives of the Islamic State have proved to be attractive even for educated and self-actualised youths. In spite of this, the number of people who have become involved in these processes has remained insignificant up to now.

In my opinion, this is due to the fact that Georgian Muslims have to deal with a number of "traditional factors" that have remained in play against "alien" religious systems. However, as noted above, they can easily be overcome by means of educational programmes. Therefore, the more traditional a community is, the more unlikely it is that various trends will proliferate there and create preconditions for the emergence and development of conflicts. The adoption of new views has remained a matter of individual choice.

To a certain extent, the same is true of the Azerbaijani community in Georgia, who regarded themselves as part of the Azerbaijani state and religious system. In conditions of the current relations between the two states, the community is under dual political influence. However, as is the case among Georgian Muslims, a group of active fighters has taken shape under the influence of individual dissatisfaction.

The crisis in Russia's North Caucasus has facilitated the demonization of the Pankisi Gorge, which is populated by ethnic Chechens (Kists). The population of the gorge has been a surveillance object for quite some time now. In addition to the aforementioned factors, this provokes additional anger and protest sentiments. Nevertheless, support for different world views is due to individual choice, rather than a desire common for everyone. However, the experience of fighting for the religion in the past and the existing model of recruitment have led to the emergence of new conditions. In our opinion, a model similar to the "Palestinian resistance" will take shape here in due course. People there are under the impression that constant struggle against enemies (including the enemies of Islam) is their mission in life and a matter of dignity. In our opinion, this process has become milder recently, but inappropriate state policy may serve to "popularise" it again. The strengthening of such sentiments is quite unlikely within the Georgian and Azerbaijani Muslim communities for the time being.

Finally, a country that regards its European future as a priority should be studying current challenges and elaborating strategies on a constant, phased, and cyclic basis. For the time being, the Georgian authorities often prepare security-oriented strategies without such observations and appropriate thinking, which make these challenges even more dangerous.

[1] They found the traditional environment and limited opportunities for personal development there.

[2] They went mostly to Turkey, where they learned the language in addition to spiritual education subjects, which provided better opportunities for employment.

[3] This provided insignificant prospects for employment not only for Muslims.

[4] There were no vacancies in mosques and madrasas.

[5] This is true of the country's three Muslim communities: Georgian, Azerbaijani, and Kist (Chechen).