Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 5

Islam matters in Chechnya–but not the way many in Moscow think

Paul A. Goble
Editor-in-Chief, Prism

"I’m a good Muslim; I pray three times a day."

–Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev

January 1995

In order to win Western support or at least acquiescence, Moscowhas tried to portray the war in Chechnya as a struggle betweenthe Christian West and Muslim fundamentalists. Moscow media haveplayed up Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the"clash of civilizations," and have reported even theslightest development concerning Islam in the North Caucasus,frequently citing Muslim religious "leaders" whom noone has ever heard of before. While it is likely that many seniorRussian officials actually believe what they are saying–theirignorance of the situation in the North Caucasus was revealedlong ago by their public statements that the conflict in Chechnyawould be over in days or weeks–a recently published Russian governmentreport suggests that, at the working level, Russian officialshave a better understanding of the role that Islam plays and doesnot play in the conflict.

On May 12, the Saint Petersburg newspaper Smena published partsof a Duma expert’s study on the role of Islam in Chechnya. Preparedby Yuri Kul’chik, an expert attached to the Duma Committee onCIS affairs, the report highlights the special role Islam playsin Chechen society, a role that is far more complex than Moscowmedia coverage suggests.

Kul’chik makes three important points, all of which correspondto the best judgments of Western students of the region:

–First, he notes that Islam came to the region relatively late–onlyin the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries–as the result of thework of Sufi missionaries. As a result, most Chechens were includedin either the Naqshabandiya or Qadiriya Sufi tariqat, the Islamicorders which demand striving after spiritual perfection from theirmembers, and which also have been the organizational, if not ideological,basis for Chechen resistance to Russian expansion over the pasttwo hundred years. These tariqat are extremely numerous–thereare more than 50 different subgroups–and often at odds with oneanother. Two-thirds of the groups which are called "weirds"are part of the broader and more radical Naqshabandiya order.Among the most radical is the Kunta-haji weird, founded in thenineteenth century by a Chechen warrior who refused to surrenderto St. Petersburg even after Shamil, the leader of North Caucasianresistance, had submitted in 1859. One of its members, Kul’chiksays, is Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev.

–Second, Kul’chik makes clear that the real basis of socialorganization among the Chechens are the taips, clannic groupsof three to four villages each. They number approximately 80.Because Chechen society never articulated an aristocracy, theseclans are the fundamental building blocks of Chechen society andpolitics. In many but not all cases, the Islamic weirds are coterminouswith the taip, a pattern that reinforces the influence of both.Most taips act independently, cooperating with a broader Chechennation when, and only when, Chechens are attacked from the outside.Prior to the Russian invasion in December 1994, the republic’snumerous taips fought among themselves, leading some in Moscowto conclude that a policy of divide and rule would be easy toimplement. But with invasion of Russian troops, the taips notonly began to work closely together, but agreed to a pattern ofsubordination to a single commander. As a result, they have retainedtheir organizational influence, but have had little ideologicalimpact, during the fighting.

–Third, Kul’chik argues that Dzhokhar Dudayev himself has encourageda link-up between Chechen popular consciousness and Islam. TheGrozny State Islamic Institute, established in 1991, had 420 studentspreparing to become mullahs in 1994, a number far greater relativeto population than similar institutions in neighboring North Caucasianrepublics. More important, Kul’chik says, twelve of the institute’sinstructors came from Middle Eastern countries. Most of thesewere themselves Chechen émigrés, but they introducedboth a greater Islamic cast to Dudayev’s movement and more radicaland nationalist stance among Chechen leaders. Kul’chik concedes,however, that Dudayev’s efforts in this direction had only a limitedimpact.

In sum–and Kul’chik’s report does not explicitly draw this conclusion–officialsin Moscow understand that Islam plays a certain role in Chechnya–butnot the one Russian propagandists claim. It helps to organizethe society, it provides a vocabulary for a republic leadershipseeking support abroad, and it may even explain some of the ferocityof Chechen resistance. But Islam in Chechnya does not explainwhy the Chechens are fighting. Any honest answer to that questionwould have to list the desire of the Chechen elite to defend itseconomic privileges, and the desire of the Chechen people to havetheir own country, far above the role that Moscow claims Islamplays there.