Is Kadyrov “Re-Islamicizing” Chechnya?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 41

Kavkazky Uzel on October 24 quoted Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center as saying that Chechnya today is undergoing “re-Islamicization.” The website quoted him as saying that Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov is strengthening and propagating Sufi Islam in order to fight against his religious and political opponents, the Salafis, and is reviving traditional Islamic norms of behavior in order to control society.

“In Chechnya we are observing the politicization of the Kunta Hajji current of the Qadiri order of Sufi Islam (followers of the mid-19th century preacher Kunta-Hajji Kishiev), a representative of which is Ramzan Kadyrov,” Malashenko told the website. Thanks to Kadyrov, Chechnya is experiencing a “second wave” of Islamicization, he said. Indeed, a giant mosque in honor of Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov, was opened in Grozny earlier this month (North Caucasus Weekly, October 24). Moreover, as Kavkazky Uzel noted, small mosques have opened across Chechnya over the last five years.

According to Malashenko, the authorities in Chechnya are extending control over Sufi Islam and using it as an instrument of policy. “The religious factor is becoming an argument in Kadyrov’s political struggle against the Salafis,” he said. “Kadyrov is using religion as a political lever for increasing his own authority. Kadyrov is trying to introduce a system of Islamic education in the schools. The new mufti [in Chechnya] announced the introduction of a quarterly Islamic seminar in the system of higher education. There have been attempts to revive Sharia education. Re-Islamicization has had an especially big influence on youth, who are trying to cultivate old traditional Islamic values. In particular, young women now are dressing in long skirts down to their ankles and wearing headscarves. As before there is no written order to wear headscarves but, nonetheless, they are simply not permitted to enter official establishments in the republic without them.”

Still, Malashenko told Kavkazky Uzel that these traditional Islamic values are not universally accepted by members of Chechnya’s older generation, many of whom are secular people who grew up in Leningrad, Karaganda and other non-Muslim cities in the Soviet Union. Chechen women aged forty wear much shorter skirts, he said, and members of the older generation are apprehensive about the return of traditional morals whose “propaganda” young people are particularly prone to. Over time, this could lead to split between generations, Malashenko said.

Malashenko said he does not see the need for an intensification of the construction of mosques in Chechnya, given that a majority of the republic’s population is “cool” toward religion and, while observing some religious traditions, goes to the mosque only rarely—“for appearance’s sake,” like a majority of the Orthodox Russians who attend church.

For his part, Aleksandr Cherkasov of the Memorial human rights group said that construction of new mosques should not be seen in the context of “re-Islamicization,” Kavkazky Uzel reported. “Joint prayer is unquestionably a very important activity for Muslims, therefore the construction of new mosques is a positive pursuit. The propagation of certain norms of behavior in everyday life with reference to religion, something which might not suit everyone, is a different story.”

According to Cherkasov, mosques in Chechnya are by definition open to Muslims of any persuasion and no one prevents them from praying together. “Of course, there are certain differences between Salafis and Sufis—[over whether] to use or not use prayer beads, how many times to move your fingers according to the number of times the name of Allah is used—but these are not crucial.” Cherkasov said that while Salafis do not worship the graves of their ancestors or saints and their forms of prayer are different from those of other Muslims, “the differences between the different currents of Islam and the struggle between them in Chechnya should not be exaggerated.”

“Most likely, only the amir of a jamaat can forbid Salafis from praying together in the same mosques as Sufis,” Cherkasov said, adding that it is unclear whether the jamaats continue to exist given that they were crushed during the military campaigns in Chechnya and cannot exist openly today. “If there are no mosques nearby, a Muslim can go and pray in a church—a structure built in honor of the Prophet Isa [Jesus] is treated with great respect,” Cherkasov said, emphasizing that Islam is a considerably more peace-loving than is commonly thought.