Most of the Islamic universities in the North Caucasus are concentrated in Dagestan and Ingushetia: a total of eight out of 11. And despite the fact that these two republics demonstrate very different approaches, the results are too often the same; poor education and risk of student extremism.

In Dagestan, Islamic universities are funded by patrons who are generally wealthy, local Muslims. Education here often amounts to memorizing the Quran and learning the basics of the Arabic language. In general, the set of disciplines studied is narrow. This limits graduates’ competencies, reduces the range of career options, and creates difficulties with subsequent employment.

In addition, gaps in general knowledge and a lack of critical perception skills increase the potential exposure to radical ideas. In Dagestan, education is free, and full boarding is provided in several universities. Such universities, therefore, attract a cohort of students with a poor academic performance from low-income families. Consequently, Dagestan universities focus very little on the production of highly qualified specialists, but instead emphasize social and educational work with young people from the risk zone.

Education is hedged by strict prohibitions. Often, students cannot leave the university building without supervision, and do not have private spaces or the right to express their opinion on any issue. In addition, students are not allowed to use any means of electronic communication.

During field research at one of the Dagestani Islamic Universities, I witnessed a scene in the library when the rector found a cellphone in a book. The gadget had been hidden in a pre-cut square hole (this idea will be familiar to anyone who has watched a certain genre of movie.) Similar tricks are used by prisoners. The discovery caused a major scandal to erupt, with the rector threatening the guilty students with expulsion from the university.

One sphere where students have no restrictions, is sports: “The Imam must be strong” is a motto for Islamic universities in Dagestan. There are fully equipped gyms in every university and many madrasas of this North Caucasian republic. It might be asked whether it is wise to deny critical thinking skills to a cohort of young and religious men who are offered the outlet of advanced physical development.

A somewhat different has is developed in Ingushetia. Islamic universities here are financed by the Ministry of Nationalities, and students pay for their education. In addition, much more attention is paid to religious subjects in secular secondary schools. Ingush universities are dominated by those from families with an average income. Accordingly, students entering Islamic universities are better prepared, they are freer to communicate and discipline is less severe. However, the Ingush universities are more ideological, since they are overseen by the authorities who insist on rigidly instilling patriotic education and following any course chosen by the republic’s leadership. In particular, attempts are made to instruct students that their religious duty should follow these prescribed themes.

Thus, Ingush Islamic universities are funded by government funds and student fees, while their Dagestani counterparts funded by donations from patrons. The latter is therefore less of a burden on regional budgets, and gives university administrators and sponsors decision-making power on course curriculums, forming a “gray zone” in terms of the ideological orientation of educational programs.

Remember too that the North Caucasus has been a troubled region populated by peoples with a historically ambiguous attitude towards the policy of “big” Russia (an insurgency in the region by extreme Islamists was largely crushed by Russian security forces by 2016.) The distortions in educational approaches described here not only have a negative impact on the quality of education, they can also cause the radicalization of students. 

Alisa R. Shishkina is a Resident Fellow at the Future Russia Initiative with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She is a Senior Research Fellow of the Laboratory for Sociopolitical Destabilization Risk Monitoring at the Higher School of Economics and a Research Fellow at the Institute for African Studies, which is part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Her current research focuses on Islamic education in Russia.

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