On 25th December of 2019, Adam Shantadze was elected as a new mufti of western Georgia in the Administration of Muslims of All Georgia in Batumi. Due to a forced election process, the elections took place with confrontation. Following the end of elections, three staff members – Revaz Mikeladze, Temur Gorgadze, and Otar Nadiradze left the Administration as s sign of protest. According to them, the elections were held under the pressure from State Security Service and in negligence of democratic procedures, a candidate favorable to the Security Service was thus voted in the office. It should be noted that numerous doubts[1] on the Administration of All Muslims of Georgia being influenced by the State Security Service, were expressed during the previous years as well, including the issue of the mufti election.[2]

The present article analyzes several aspects of the management policy in the Administration of All Muslims of Georgia. The article puts the main focus on the illegal influences and possible control practices over the Administration of All Muslims of Georgia. In that regard, the evaluation  is based on several interviews which were recorded with Temur Gorgadze and Revaz Mikeladze, who left the Administration of All Muslims of Georgia in sign of protest, as well as with the head of the Georgian Muslims Union, Tariel Nakaidze and with the head of the World Alliance of Georgian Muslims and former mufti, Kemal Tsetskhladze.  

The article also analysis the Charter of the L.E.P.L Administration of All Muslims of Georgia and those risks of political instrumentalization which are observed in the organization management structure.

 

  1. Administration Structure and Risks of Political Instrumentalization in the Charter

The Charter of L.E.P.L. Administration of All Muslims of Georgia (hereinafter “The Administration”) which defines the procedure of organization and the election rule of governing bodies, is in itself a problematic and vague document. It contains high risks of undemocratic organizational management as well as manipulation with the election and governing procedures.

The organizational arrangement of the Administration suggests that it is difficult and contains multiple layers. The management of the organization is divided into two parallel systems according to administrative and religious content. According to the Charter, the organization has a constituent assembly and an executive director which are the highest organs of the organization and are responsible for the main administrational decisions inside the organization. While dealing with third parties, the organization is represented by the executive director in an independent and single-handed manner (although he is not allowed to interfere in religious matters). Alongside this, the organization disposes of a parallel level on religious management. In particular, 3 religious authorities operate in the Administration according to the geographical and confessional logic (muftis of western and eastern Georgia (on behalf of Sunni Muslims) and sheik (on behalf of Shia Muslims)) and 3 religious Councils, constituted with the same rules. The highest religious authorities and religious councils are mainly oriented on the religious activities of the organization.

The highest organ of the organization is the constituent assembly with the competency to make amendments to the Charter, to appoint the executive director as well as to register the religious councils (their composition) when corresponding higher clergy (muftis and sheiks) are being submitted. The Charter does not determine the number of members of the constituent assembly and is variable. It is noteworthy that, the Charter does not define the term of the office of the executive director, elected by the constituent assembly.  The executive director’s duties are separated from the religious activities and amounts the Administration’s organizational, financial, HR as well as management of various additional entrepreneurial activities and the organization of ongoing elections. He is a fully-fledged representative of the Administration while dealing with third parties, independently and single-handedly from the leadership.

There are three high religious authorities in the organizations (muftis of Western and Eastern Georgia and a Sheik), which are elected by religious councils. Similar to the religious authorities, three councils are taking into consideration the inner Islamic confessional and at the same time geographic division. The staff selection  of the religious council represents a problem. The Charter does not define the number of council members. The criteria that determine which candidate can become a religious council member are unclear and quite general. In this regard, the Charter takes into account the three following criteria: 1. Having a religious education; 2. The acceptance of the candidate by the relevant region’s parish; 3. Politeness and law-abidingness. The religious councils’ registration is carried out by the constituents. However, the Charter does not define in which cases it is possible to elect new members to the religious council.  This creates a space for post-electoral manipulation by means of increasing the number of parties taking part in the voting. The council makes decisions (including when electing religious authority) by a simple majority of votes. In case of an equal number of votes, the chairman detains a decisive vote. The Charter also ignores the topic about the secrecy or the openness of the voting.

As for the mufti/sheik candidate himself, the following criteria are set: 1. He must be a citizen of Georgian; 2. He should dispose of theological education and considerate experience in religious management; 3. He must be over 30 years and under 70 years of age. Muftis and a sheik are voted in for five years term. They guide their subordinate religious figures, lead the Administration’s religious activities towards their confessionary and geographically subordinated parishes.

The Administration’s decisions on the issues regarding the common interests are made by the mufti of Eastern Georgia, the mufti of Western Georgia, a sheik and the executive director of the Administration, based on a consensus.

It should be noted that, the Charter of the Administration provides with the possibility to become a member of the Administration and enables them to take part in the organizational processes. However, despite the fact that in several places the Charter mentions the common assembly, the status and competencies of the latter are not defined by the document. Accordingly, the possibilities for the Administration members to take part in the organizational management are not defined and the members enjoy rather a nominal status. 

Taking the aforementioned into the consideration, the organizational layout of the Administration and the electoral procedures are not held strong and contain high risks of political instrumentalization. At one glance, the power within the organization is decentralized, however, the main administrative competencies are concentrated in the hands of an executive director appointed with an unlimited term and a variable composition and a constituent assembly which does not depend on any other power branch. It looks problematic to appoint on the highest level within the hierarchy system of a religious organization a leader of administrative character and to assign him wide competencies and an unlimited term in the office.

 

2     Several Important Aspects of the Management and Policy of the Administration

During the interviewing process, several significant challenges have been revealed on the  possible government control policy and social influences on the election process and the Mufti. These aspects are discussed below.

 

 

2.1 Election Process and the Ppossible Influence of the State Security Service

The mandate of the mufti of the Western Georgia, Beglar Kamushadze, expired in November of 2019. Notwithstanding, the Administration members were not informed in advance on the date of the new mufti elections. The information on the elections became known to the religious council members only a day before the election, on the night of 24th December. The interviewees claim that the religious council members were informed during a late-night telephone call concerning which candidate they should have supported in the elections. They say that the elected mufti, Adam Shantaze, in conversation with them, proclaimed that he was not going to take part in the voting.

A part of the interviewees believe that the pressure on the election results was coming from the State Security Service. According to them, it was done with the participation of the person, mentioned in the Administration Charter as an executive director – Resan Gogitidze. This latter has been out-taking the duties of so-called “ODRs”[3] throughout the years, which means the delivery of the information on the organization’s activities and the staff members to the State Security Service.

In the context of forced elections, it is natural that the candidates’ future plans and programs were not discussed. The journalists were not allowed at the voting process and the proposal on the anonymous voting made by one of the candidates – Revaz Mikeladze, was not taken into account.  The openness of the voting process did not allow the religious council members to manifest their free will, Mikeladze and his supporters claim.

A former employee of the Administration, Temur Giorgadze, who had publicly criticized elections, in the interview with us, clearly recalls an incident of the illegal communication with the State Security Service staff member: “I parked my car here, in old Batumi. Out of a sudden, someone parked a black Camry right behind my car, rolled down the car and tells me to mind my own business.[4] At first, I did not get it. I thought that he meant my car. I told him that I had already parked it. No, he says, mind your business, do not butt it, you know how this life is made up. I still could not understand. I asked him what he actually wanted? We have at least one tape on everyone, he says. [..] Look outside, I told him, its 21st century, such things no longer prevail’.

The interviewees say that within the community, they do not recognize the legitimacy of the elections in such conditions. This only deepens the level of already existing mistrust towards the Administration.

 

2.2 General Influences of the Security Service on the Administration

The interviewees point at the general control of the Administration’s activities from the State Security Service. Foremost on the human resources policy, among the others. According to them, the appointment of the clergy on various positions is at every turn coordinated with the Security Service. The political decisions made by the Administration are being controlled, including the agreement conditions of the so-called “Mokhe’s commission” were coordinated with the Security Service. The State agency on Religious Matters was also informed on the ongoing. Within the conditions of systematic control, the existence of the Administration of Muslims as an independent religious organization is a fiction. The problem is further aggravated by the fact that the State recognizes the Administration as an only legitimate entity of the Muslims living in Georgia. This is a proof that the State does not comprehend the diversity within the Muslim community. According to one of the interviewees, the artificial uniformization of the Muslim community is a cause of the problem: the problem in the State’s vision is that they believe in the possibility to create a uniform system. To make a clumsy comparison, it is like the unity of the Orthodox Church of Georgia which has one supreme leader. We do not have this type of hierarchy”. The unification of the Sunni and Shia Muslims under one umbrella, which is often evaluated as a positive thing by the State representatives, is unprecedented on the Muslim world and indicates at the artificial and controlled character of the situation. 

 

2.3   Social Influences of the Security Service Control in the Muslim Community

The interviewees’ assessments are on such a control of the Security Service over the Administration activities.  There is an unambiguous position regarding the matte that the constant control of the Muslim community by the Security Service causes the community’s dissatisfaction, irritation and disappointment toward the State. While speaking with us, one of the interviewees declared: “I have an impression that the State is fighting against me. Although I dispose of the freedom of belief guaranteed by the Constitution but I have no right to the freedom of service. I have the freedom of faith but you do not let me  build a mosque in Batumi, you do not let me elect a mufti. This literally means that I do not have  freedom of religious service. And service and faith are inseparable in Islam. There is no faith without service. Today the State prevents us from this”.

According to them, despite the governmental changes, every government maintains the approach which does not recognize the Muslim community and isolates it form political and social space. Temur Gorgadze points out: “They want to  isolate you  in a way that the Adjarian Muslims would ask for a remedy from Turkey, and later you can say, look, this is who you are. They have been trying this for years, including by the means of the low authority of the Mufti”.  Rezo Mikeladze develops the same topic: “All this makes the situation very complicated. It causes a terrible separation from the State. The talks on integration are more than unnecessary. The Muslim population sees that the governments change but this approach ofcontrol, stays the same. that was, I do not know, probably during the Soviet Union period. And ever since, the governments have been changing but this approach towards the Muslim remains always the same”.

Former mufti, Kemal Tsetskhladze’s assessments are also interesting: “We are not dealing here with their personalities, we are dealing with the system which was created by the State without asking anything to us, the Muslim community. [..] The problem is that the Mufti does not express the interests and concerns of the Muslim community. The people in the Mejlis do not represent  and they are not trusted by the Muslim community. I think they do not include even the muftis of all the regions”.

However, some of the interviewees see in the State’s such actions, including within the Muslim community, the reason for a kind of awakening and for democratic self-organization which in long term perspective could encourage the perception of the Muslim community as a political entity. In the absence of State integration policy, the strengthening of the Muslim community and the creation of an adequate social environment for them, is entirely a burden of this community leaders and the auto-organized groups within the community. It is obligatory that the State renounce to view the Muslim community solely in the security realm.

 

2.4 Evaluation of the Activities of the Administration of Muslims by the Interviewees

Whilst evaluating the Administration of Muslims’ activities, the interviewees underline that they had never had high expectations regarding the Administration’s activities, having the notion of the scale of the State control over it. Among the activities carried out by the Administration, were named the steps taken towards the religious teaching in Sunday schools and towards the elaboration of a unified teaching program. The reconstruction of separate mosques as well as the organization of their construction were also mentioned. However, the interviewees believe that the Administration is not capable of expressing the significant need and interests of the Muslim community, at least supporting the new mosque construction in Batumi. According to them, at this stage, the Administration’s main function is to distribute the finances coming from the State in form of wages to the Muslim clergy. It is clear that between the Administration and a significant part of the Muslim community, there is a lack of trust and the State control of the Administration’s activities will only aggravate further in the future.

 

  • Possible Solution

A Historian Anastaisa Ganich, in her work “ Religious Boards of Transcaucasian Muslims in the Russian Empire” writes that in dealing with religious matters, Russian Empire’s administration set itself a main task which consisted of creating the same strict hierarchy for the Muslims  that existed in the Orthodox Church. With this objective was created an Administration for Shia Muslims with a sheik as the head as well as for Sunni Muslims, assigning a mufti as the leader. Muslim religious authorities were granted various state privileges, including remuneration for being Imperial officials.[5] The existing structure of the Administration of Muslims in Georgia, its operational tasks and practice shows quite a similarity with the 19th century administrational body, created by Christian officials. It is noteworthy that in 2011, one of the founders of the Administration of Muslims of All Georgia, was Christian. This mistake was corrected  few years ago. It is necessary for the State to renounce the outdated, non-democratic forms of religious organizations’ management and instead, to ensure the real autonomy of religious associations.

Despite the existing problems, the Muslim community has a desire to achieve inner confessional organizational unity. This organizational unity, according to their view, can only be arranged as a horizontally designed organization where the individuals with adequate theological knowledge will be assigned a primary role in the agenda. The key condition which in their viewpoint, is that this unity should be self-organized and free from the State or other external actors’ influence. The interviewees agree on the need for the religious council’s – Mejlis voting rule to be more democratic and on the extended participation of the Muslim community in its composition: “Mejlis  must be elected  by Muslims living in every village and town. They must propose the candidates. Then it will be an organization which represents the interests of the whole Muslim community”.

The right to religious association and its independent/free from intervention management is an integral part of religious freedom and it is also protected by secular state principles. It is evident that within the given context, the excessive governmental control practices on the Administration create a severe experience of religious freedom restriction.

It is clear that the policy operated on formal religious organizations’ control, results in the alienation of the Muslim community from this organization.  When the State, perceives the Administration as the principal religious organization in its relations, such reality complicates the representation of real needs, concerns and interests of Muslim community by the Administration. The Batumi mosque construction process and the movement which has started in Batumi must be viewed in this context, as well as parallel civil and religious organizations founded in various municipalities which seek towards the self-organization and the resolution of local grievances while leaving out the Administration of the process. It is important that nowadays the Muslim community of Georgia responds these challenges via  democratic self-organization, which demonstrates the Muslim community’s significant resource for the political emancipation. However, the government control-oriented outdated policy still tends to create tension within the community and thus hampers the rights realization process.

It is also important to note that the current discussion within the Muslim community stands out with its democratic, argumentative discussions, filled with mutual respect. It is crucial for the State to take this chance, to comprehend in an adequate manner and to evaluate these ongoing processes in the community. Instead of creating closed, control-abiding organization which lacks the legitimacy, the State shall grant to the Muslim community the possibility for democratic self-realization and shall recognize their representativity and political personality.

Footnote and Bibliography

[1] How is the State trying to control Muslim Organizations? Available at: https://emc.org.ge/ka/products/rogor-tsdilobs-sakhelmtsifo-muslimuri-organizatsiebis-gakontrolebas

[2] “The Mufti of Georgia is divided into two parts”, available at: https://netgazeti.ge/life/28586/. See also: « The  Mufti of Western Georgia has Resigned » Available at: http://www.tabula.ge/ge/story/90088-dasavlet-saqartvelos-mufti-gadadga

[3] The title comes from the Russian acronym - ОДР – Офицер Действующего Резерва (Acting reserve officer)

[4] “Mind your own business” was literally said as “fix one place”(tr.)

[5] А. А. Ганич - Духовные правления мусульман Закавказья в Российской империи (XIX – начало ХХ в.)