Magomednabi Magomedov, a Salafist imam, received a five-year prison term from a military court for giving an allegedly unlawful sermon in 2016 in Dagestan. To help with the prosecution, authorities turned to an expert in content analysis, a method of examining texts and speeches for patterns of explicit or implicit meanings. The expert’s findings played a key role in convicting the imam on a charge of attempting to incite terrorism.
The problem was that Magomedov’s sermon did not advocate terrorism, but rather stressed the duty of Muslims to peacefully resist the closure of Salafist mosques and other encroachments on religious freedom in Russia. Magomedov’s trial thus highlights the hazards of trying to quantify criminal intent.
Magomedov was the imam at the Vostochnaya Mosque in the Dagestani city of Khasavyurt. His outspokenness earned him powerful enemies in the local administration, and he was sentenced in the fall of last year. In early 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court upheld his conviction, but reduced his sentence by six months.
The Memorial human rights group contends that Magomedov should be classified as a political prisoner. “We have studied the video recording of Magomedov’s sermon and consider that it does not contain any calls to acts of violence, still less acts of terrorism,” the group said in a statement. “Magomedov accuses law enforcement officers, in language that is not insulting, of violating the law and of crimes relating to their official functions - something that is an inalienable right of every citizen and cannot be considered a criminal act.”
“The charge of inciting hatred of communists is simply comical: Magomedov cites the historical fact of the disappearance of the Soviet state which, in his opinion, was inevitable, given the persecution of Muslims,” the statement continued. “He places all hopes for the restoration of justice on Allah, and urges the members of the congregation to join together to support each other.”
In court, content analysis helped prosecutors portray the imam’s basic words as a religious leader – calling on God for help – as sedition. In his sermon, Magomedov at one point argued that the Soviet collapse was divine retribution for the widespread closures of mosques in 1970s Uzbekistan. A linguist interpreted this, along with other such statements, to mean that Magomedov was advocating that Muslims were superior to all other believers – an assertion that would be prohibited under Russian law.
Similarly, the imam’s insistence that Salafists be allowed to openly practice their faith was interpreted as a call to fight against oppressors, including the Russian government – a statement that allegedly justified terrorism.
Magomedov’s case illustrates the power of content analysis to serve as a tool for silencing dissent and/or peaceful criticism of authorities.
The definition of religious extremism is both fluid and elastic in many parts of Eurasia. At the same time, the use of content analysis has become common in the global fight to contain terrorism.
The technique of content analysis is easily abused, rights advocates contend. By focusing on the statistical analysis of a speech, rather than the words themselves, it is possible to overlook crucial aspects of the overall message, or, in Magomedov’s case, misinterpret the clear meaning of the speaker’s words.
Content analysis has at times proved a source of embarrassment. In 2015, a court in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk banned a book, entitled Prayer to God: Its Purpose and Place in Islam, for supposedly containing extremist statements. The book was, in fact, a collection of common Islamic prayers. The court took issue with the fact that these prayers promised exclusive rewards to Muslims, interpreting them as an assertion of special status. In essence, the court’s ruling amounted to banning Islam from expressing a basic element of many faiths: follow our rules and you will be rewarded.
The ban on the book was ultimately overturned, and the controversy that surrounded its banning helped prompt amendments to the federal counter-extremism law so that holy texts are exempt. Even so, punishing lawful speech will likely continue in Russia as long as prosecutors can rely on content analysis to make words mean what they want them to.
Bakhtiyor Avezdjanov is a program officer for Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, an initiative seeking to advance understanding of the international and national norms and institutions that protect the free flow of information. Prior to joining Columbia University, he worked with the UNHCR in Sudan, as well as in Kyrgyzstan for Freedom House, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Tian Shan Policy Center at the American University of Central Asia. He has focused on issues concerning free speech, torture prevention, and refugee rights.