Foreign Islamic Scholars Fail to Embrace Kremlin’s View of Chechen War

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 27

Chechnya’s pro-Russian leader Ramzan Kadyrov expressed complete satisfaction with the visit of the foreign diplomats from Islamic countries to Chechnya (Chechnya Weekly, June 28). On July 27, he declared that “the results of the visit have surpassed all expectations.” The diplomats responded with many kind words about Russian policy toward Chechnya and promised full support for Kadyrov’s authorities at the political and economic level. However, there is no guarantee that the governments of the Muslim countries will indeed start to invest in the war-torn region. The visit of Alu Alkhanov, Kadyrov’s predecessor, to China last year, for instance, was widely publicized in the Russian media. The Chinese government, most likely in order to please Putin, promised Alkhanov serious investments and joint economic projects. However, it soon turned out that the only real project provided by the Chinese was a method of fish cultivation in ponds. This project has become the topic of jokes among ordinary Chechens. And indeed, it is quite possible that the promises of the Muslim diplomats could be as empty as those of the Chinese officials.

Nevertheless, the Muslim world’s view of the Chechen conflict continues to be of great importance to the Kremlin. The war in the region continues, which means that the rebels are still receiving financial support from various sources. There is no doubt that some of the money is coming from Muslim communities. Therefore, the position of the official governments of the Muslim countries is insufficient to stop this flow. Since the very beginning of the second Chechen war, the authorities of Muslim countries, including countries such as Saudi Arabia, have tried to prevent ordinary people and non-governmental organizations from assisting the militants in Chechnya. In 2000, for example, the king of Saudi Arabia issued a special decree banning Saudi mosques from calling upon believers to collect money for Muslims in Chechnya and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, Muslims usually listen to preachers and scholars rather than to their governments, and most Islamic scholars continue to regard Chechnya as the territory of jihad and the Russians as infidels.

“There are places where jihad is proper – Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya, Kashmir, and the Philippines,” said Saudi Islamist cleric Sheikh Dr. Nasser Al-‘Omar on April 19, 2006, during a lecture on jihad that was broadcast by al-Jazeera. As one can see, while Muslim officials, including Saudi leaders, tell the Russian president that they recognize the territorial integrity of Russia, their clerics have been preaching a different message. The stance of many Islamic scholars was voiced by a highly respected Saudi preacher, Sheikh Muhammad bin Saalih al-Uthaimeen, who said at a conference that “the Chechens are trying to build an Islamic republic while everybody knows that the Russians are a tribe of infidels. To help the Chechens is our duty.”

The Kremlin closely watches what the scholars in the Muslim world are saying about Chechnya, and it becomes nervous following any new calls by religious leaders to help the Chechen mujahideen.

In 2004, for example, the Russian authorities were shocked by a fatwa on Chechnya issued by Sheikh Dr. Yousef al-Qaradawi (Yusuf Kardavi), a leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement, head of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, and one of the most important religious authorities in the Islamist community. This fatwa (an obligatory order for all Muslims that can be issued by an important scholar who has the right to do so) states that “the impressive struggle that our brothers are conducting in Chechnya can be regarded as one of the best ways of jihad on the path of Allah. They fight for their country, dignity, and religion against a tyrannical and repressive force that is not afraid of Allah and has no mercy for any of the living creatures.”

The opinion of Qaradawi is so important for Muslims that the Russian authorities could not simply ignore it. Nafigulla Ashirov, the co-chairman of the Russian Council of Muftis, said that this fatwa would not affect the situation in Chechnya. The Russian newspaper Vremya Novostei interviewed al-Qaradawi with the aim of softening his position on Chechnya. Yousef was indeed more tolerant while talking about Chechnya with a Russian correspondent, but stressed that the war should be ended through a dialogue. Chechnya, he said, should be independent, but have close ties to Russia (Vremya Novostei, May 13, 2004). Yet, neither al-Qaradawi nor any of the other scholars have withdrawn their Chechen fatwas. The Kremlin will have to work hard to persuade at least one important Islamic scholar to declare that there is no longer a jihad in Chechnya. Until that happens, there will continue to be Muslims who will want to help their “brothers in Chechnya.”