Moscow Is Trying to Outsmart the Salafis in Chechnya

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 10

In recent years, Moscow and its regional governors have attempted to win over the Muslim publics of the North Caucasus through fortifying the Muslim spiritual boards and pitting them against Salafi ideologies. Initially, neither the government nor the public anticipated the ultimate potency of Salafi ideas ( Federal authorities were convinced that they would be able to oppose Salafism with the so-called “traditional Islam” that was under heavy influence of the government and even was used by the government as an instrument of control over the Muslim audience. The society also dismissively looked at the new, Salafi idea of transforming Islam, considering it a temporary aberration caused by the alien ideas brought in from the Middle East. In a society where an entire class of atheists formed during the years of militant Communism, becoming a Salafi was considered a better outcome than remaining an atheist after the USSR and its Communist ideology collapsed. However, Salafism was considered to be only a transitional state on the way to “traditional Islam.” The threat of society’s total Islamization and the prevalence of worldwide jihadism, meanwhile, were disregarded.

Salafism may well have remained an insignificant force in the North Caucasus if the first Chechen war, with its drastic impact on further developments, had not occurred. During the war, volunteers from the Middle East served not simply as jihadi soldiers but also as ardent missionaries who spread Salafi ideas ( Thus, the Chechen war helped to strengthen the positions of worldwide jihadism in the North Caucasus.

Today, the federal authorities’ policy is designed to correct the mistakes that Moscow made in the 1990s. In Chechnya, the Kremlin turns a blind eye to various forms of Islam that spread in the Chechen society. As of today, two religious higher educational institutions and 14 madrassas operate in Chechnya. One of the universities, named after Kunta-Khaji Kishiev (a 19th century Chechen saint), was included in the Russian government’s register of higher education institutions. In 2012, this university will open a theology department, which will allow the university to prepare theologians by instructing them according to the Sufi tradition ( There are three schools for the preparation of hafiz (a term used by Muslims for people who have completely memorized the Quran) in Chechnya – in Tsentoroi, Gudermes and Grozny ( – where about 300 pupils currently study. Several other hafiz schools also are expected to open. A strict dress code has been introduced at the higher educational institutions and schools. Wearing head garments for the girls is mandatory when they are at school, according to the Islamic rules, while men are encouraged to dress in the traditional Chechen manner ( Regional authorities in the republic also encourage wearing the hijab. All women on Chechen TV and female singers are obliged to wear the hijab.

Buying alcohol in Chechnya is restricted, allowed only from 8 to 10 a.m., and alcohol is completely outlawed during the holy months, such as Ramadan. Energy drinks are also under heavy restrictions and smoking in public spaces is outlawed ( Over 600 mosques operate in the republic, and prayer rooms are obligatory in all government buildings and private enterprises ( Friday unofficially is a day off when everybody should be at the Friday prayer. During the month of Ramadan, a special work schedule is introduced in the republic. Only Russian flags that hang on state buildings remind residents of the Russian authorities’ presence in Chechnya. The Chechen republic is essentially an Islamic republic.

Why then does the armed resistance in Chechnya and in the North Caucasus not recognize Kadyrov’s achievements? Why do the insurgents continue fighting? The reason for the continued hostilities is that the Salafi adherents cannot accept the existence and privileged position of Sufi Islam in Chechnya. Moscow practically reached its limit of concessions to the Islamic demands of the Chechens. There is only one more step Moscow is likely to take in Chechnya: forcing the Chechen government to sign a “peace pact” with the Salafis. Just as in Dagestan, Moscow will try to press ahead with signing a peace agreement between competing factions of Sufis and Salafis.  In Dagestan the association of ahlu-Sunna scholars and the spiritual board of Muslims of Dagestan signed such a joint resolution ( A resolution like this in Chechnya, however, is not yet possible, since there is no political arm of the insurgency in the republic that would be similar to the association of ahlu-Sunna scholars in Dagestan. Abbas Kebedov, brother of the former spiritual leader of the Dagestani Salafis, Bagauddin Kebedov, heads the association in Dagestan. Thus, to solve this problem, the authorities would either need to create a political wing of the insurgency in Chechnya or recognize one of the Salafi groups in the republic as representing all Salafis.

Such an approach of the federal and the pro-Kremlin authorities in Chechnya would leave only one avenue of criticism to the insurgents – the important Sufi customs of Zikr and pilgrimages to the tombs of saints. So it is not surprising that because of the narrowing opportunities for scholastic criticism, the Salafi insurgents increasingly renounce Ramzan Kadyrov rather than Sufism more generally. Even the main premise of the Salafis that postulated the goal of “liberation of Chechnya in the name of abiding to the Islamic traditions” has been rendered irrelevant by Moscow. Therefore, the Salafis now talk more about worldwide jihadism against “infidels.”

So what is going on in Chechnya: Islamization or the implementation of a carefully crafted policy of the Kremlin? The latter is more likely than the former. The federal government’s policy is designed to weaken the pressure from the armed jihadist resistance and to try to regulate Islam through the spiritual boards of Muslims in the North Caucasus that are under government control. Moscow has chosen this approach temporarily. As soon as the government feels it is strong enough to ignore the armed resistance, these processes of Islamization will be reversed. Similar events took place in 1924-1925 when the Bolsheviks allied with the Islamic forces against the Tsarist forces. But when the Bolsheviks established firm control over the country, they eliminated their former Islamic allies. Islamization processes in Chechnya should thus be regarded as a Russian grand scheme to divert the people’s attention from Salafi ideas. Yet, there are no guarantees that the federal government will be able to thwart the strengthening of Islam’s positions not only in Chechnya, but also across the North Caucasus, which may eventually result in the separation of this region from the rest of Russia.