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Salafi imam of Pankisi, Bekkhan Pareulidze, sat down with OC Media for an exclusive interview, in which he discussed the region’s religious divisions, the outflow of young Kists to Syria, and the role civil society has to play in the valley.
Since the 1990s, Pankisi Valley, in the northeast of Georgia, has attracted international attention as a wild and dangerous place, due to it’s association with Chechen fighters, drug trafficking, and violence. Although nowadays Pankisi is a peaceful rural area like many others in Georgia, it has hit the headlines once again following the escalation of the war in Syria. Several high ranking members of the Islamic State have come from Pankisi, including former ‘Minister of War’ Tarkhan Batirashvili, better known as Omar al-Shishani, with many others joining the group’s ranks in Syria.
In the past, a local ‘Council of Elders’ has enjoyed the highest authority in the valley. However, changes in the valley’s religious landscape have weakened this authority, with the valley’s Salafi community increasingly questioning the council’s role.
Pankisi Valley is populated mainly by ethnic Chechens called Kists; virtually all are Sunni Muslims. Traditionally, the majority of these have subscribed to Sufism, also referred to as ‘traditional Islam’ because of its heavy reliance on Chechen traditions. However today, the majority of people in the valley identify as Salafi, followers of an ultra-conservative movement within Sunni Islam claiming to follow the most correct interpretations of holy scriptures and rejecting traditions they consider ‘non-Islamic’. We spoke to the leader of Salafis in Pankisi, Imam Bekkhan Pareulidze, our conversation is below.
OC Media: Pankisi is often associated with terrorism. Why do you think that is?
Bekkhan Pareulidze: The main reason terrorism has often been associated with us since 2000 is that the number of fighters in Pankisi and the horrible situation here then prevented the government from exerting control over the valley. People were kidnapped, there was drug dealing, and other terrible things were happening, and so the image still sticks with us and we cannot get rid of it, despite the fact that we have greatly distanced ourselves from these kinds of things in recent years.
I also think that organisations here benefit from such an image of the valley. They claim there is tension here and attempt to get many donations in order to work here. This is what I see here these days.
OC Media: More than 25 men from Pankisi have died in Syria over the last few years. Why do young men from Pankisi go to Syria?
Bekkhan Pareulidze: These are the young people who aren’t able to establish themselves in this country, they have no future perspectives. They usually go either to Turkey or Ukraine or to Europe. The majority of those who end up in Syria leave through Turkey. Young people who realise they do not have any future in the valley; that there are no jobs here and that despite being born and raised here in Georgia, they are perceived as second class citizens, they feel disappointed and leave.
And then, just like others from other countries, they end up in Syria. Most of the people there [in Syria] ended up there for the same reasons. But another group — they are sure that the war there is because of God, because of the people in Syria. They see how women, elderly people, and children are brutally killed, and they went to help these people. I also think that compared to other countries, there are less people from Georgia in Syria.
OC Media: According to some reports, Salafis here in the valley have been receiving financing from Arabic countries. What can you say about this?
Bekkhan Pareulidze: I think that they should provide evidence, why do they think it is true? They won’t be able to provide any argument, as there is no argument.
We, the Muslims of Pankisi, aren’t dependent on any outside forces. We don’t receive financing from any ‘dark’ organisations. We are Muslims and we live just like others. We work like others and we earn an income and all of this is transparent. Maybe they assume this because some young people from Georgia go to Arabic countries to get their education, and so they have some relations with these states, but it is wrong to think that they get financing from these states.
OC Media: In your opinion, how divided is the community in Pankisi when it comes to religious denominations?
Bekkhan Pareulidze: Our community is not split, but there are people, who aspire to make the impression that people here are divided. There are also individuals, older people, giving interviews to journalists speaking as if there is religious radicalisation in the valley, that there are some problems, but they need this because they are afraid to lose the power or assistance they get from the government, to lose their image.
I think the older people shouldn’t act like this. There are several people who usually speak like this, they speak of people being divided and this is very bad.
I can assure you that we aren’t divided. We are one, and how can we speak about any kind of separation? Sometimes there are disagreements from time to time, but it doesn’t mean we are split. Only organisations and these elderly people promote this opinion as they do not want to lose grants.
OC Media: What is the role of the Council of Elders in Pankisi and how powerful is it?
Bekkhan Pareulidze: The Council of Elders used to be a non-governmental organisation, which has turned into a governmental organisation, a council. We respect the elders of our valley, we ask for their opinion on different topics. Despite our different views we have good relations with them. Of course there are exceptions, but all in all, we have good relations.
The government tries to use them in the valley. However, they do not have any real power or role in the valley today. But the government tries to strengthen this organisation, give them some leverage. There is no confrontation here and there cannot be. That only happens on the level of individuals, but not between groups.
OC Media: What role do Salafis play when it comes to the general situation in Pankisi valley?
Bekkhan Pareulidze: The situation has improved over the past few years without a doubt, and if anyone is interested, they can see what the role of Salafis was in eliminating the ills which no longer exist in Pankisi. Salafis played a great role in this.
If people were abducted, if there were drugs or murders. Today you won’t find a single person, who would sell or buy drugs; it is difficult to find a person who drinks alcohol or smokes in the streets. Of course they exist but not as it used to be in the past. You will never hear a story about a man murdering his wife or family violence. Even the Public Defender has said that they have never had a single appeal from the valley on family violence. If you look at bordering cities and villages, the situation is very different, and Pankisi is better in these regards.
The situation is very stable in Pankisi, and religious leaders deserve a lot of the credit for this. When we finished our studies and returned to the valley, we began fighting and preaching against the community’s ills. Of course the police also deserve some credit, but mostly it was because of the religious leaders. The police are in other regions too, but such things still happen there. We worked hard on this and we will continue doing so, because this is Islam – rejecting wrongs, ills.
Of course there is no community or nation which doesn’t make mistakes, but what we see is that there are more positive things.
OC Media: How justified are early marriages, which are banned under Georgian law?
Bekkhan Pareulidze: I want to remark that this doesn’t happen often in the valley. It is very rare and it is not a common problem. We never promote this, as if early marriage is good. This problem is not on our agenda, but there are cases where young people marry before turning 18. In such cases, the girl agrees and the parents agree, and if they confirm this agreement to me, then I, as a religious leader, cannot decline to marry them. No one can do this, because if everybody agrees and they come to me it is my religious duty to register it by the customs of our religion. However I cannot remember such a case.
It would be better if they would grow up, become mature, and when they know exactly what they want, then marry. This is my opinion.
OC Media: There are people in Pankisi who complain about being harassed by the police, mostly when they want to cross the border and problems related to this. Why do you think this happens?
Bekkhan Pareulidze: Salafi or not, no matter who crosses the border, most people from the Pankisi Valley have problems. It seems more like discrimination to me. They stop you only because you are Kist. No matter if you are Salafi or you have any connection with them.
I cannot understand why this happens — in order to prevent people going to Syria? Or as a tool to harass us? I sometimes hear people saying ‘you Kists are off your leash now’ and I think they want to act like they are in charge of us and that they can do anything to us.
I don’t understand why, but it is very unfortunate. We say we are a free country, but at the same time a person cannot freely move around. I can understand that if you committed some crime or you are a suspect, this can happen, but the entire Pankisi Valley, all Kists, cannot be criminals. People should know why they are stopped at the border, in the airport, why people watch you in a weird way, and you don’t know the reasons and you feel humiliated.
OC Media: What kind of engagement would you desire from civil society or the government in the valley?
Bekkhan Pareulidze: I want to tell non-governmental organisations and the government that they shouldn’t listen only to those who create a bad image of us. They shouldn’t believe only one source or take steps before seeing a full and clear picture. I keep speaking about this all the time, that there are organisations in Pankisi surviving only on lies. They keep claiming that we are a threat to the valley, that they need help, and these lies help them to receive funding, they turn a small problem into a giant problem.
Do not trust a single source. It would be better if they organised meetings with all parties and make a decision only after that. There are social problems just like in other regions of Georgia. The main problems for us today are unemployment, education, and raising awareness. This is very important for us. It would be very nice if they would take steps to solve some real problems. There is no radicalisation, Wahhabism or any other problems like this and of course we do not support radicalisation either.