Moscow tries to tame Islam in Chechnya

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 19

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov (Source: Telegraph)
Ever since Chechnya was conquered in May 1859, Russia has tried out various ways to weaken the role of Islam there. It was Islam that became the banner of the North Caucasians struggle during the colonization of the region by Russia in the second half of the 18th century ( Muslim figures, such as sheikhs, imams and qadis, became leaders of the national liberation movements in different parts of the region. The Sufi movement in the northeastern Caucasus, better known historically as muridism, was the Russian Empire’s archenemy. Therefore, it was not surprising that after the war was over, the Russian authorities set out to destroy the base of Sufi teachings in the region. Sheikhs were exiled under the Tsars, while under the Bolsheviks they were shot ( Sufism, which had become way of life for the Chechens in the previous 150 years, went underground under the pressure of the Bolsheviks’ militant atheism when they came to power ( This made it possible for Sufis in Chechnya and Dagestan to preserve the practices they followed during the Russian-Caucasian war of the 19th century. This included, for example, secret worship of the tombstones of sheikhs who were killed during the war and considered Shahids (martyrs). 
During the imperial Russian conquest and the Soviet period, the Russians considered Islam an enemy that had to be destroyed. 
Against the backdrop of the USSR’s demise, Russian democrats decided to treat Islam as an ally for the first time. The Russian president appointed Akhmet Arsanov, grandson of the famous Chechen sheikh of the early 20th century, Deni Arsanov, as the Russian presidential representative in Chechnya ( The Russian government, however, failed to note that there had always been a confrontation between the followers of the Qadiri and Naqshbandi Sufi orders. Akhmet Arsanov was a representative of the Naqshbandi order, which triggered a protest by followers of the Qadiri order. Eventually, this cleavage became the basis for those Chechens who started to demand independence from the Russian Federation.
The Russian authorities decided to correct their mistake in 2000 by betting on Ahmad-Haji Kadyrov, who had been the Chechen Republic’s mufti and represented the Qadiri order (tariqa) ( 
In the period between the two Russian-Chechen wars, 1996 – 1999, the authorities in Moscow realized that the Chechen problem should be resolved using the Chechens themselves. Moreover, the Russian authorities contended that friendly Islamic figures should be given preferential treatment. The government was even prepared to turn a blind eye to violations of the Russian constitution by select Islamic leaders. The new course was designed to attract as many allies among the local population as possible. This is why all the Russian opposition’s complaints about the Islamization of the North Caucasus—of Chechnya, in particular—have remained unanswered by the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, people in Grozny also realized that it was an opportune time to receive hefty benefits from Moscow in exchange for verbal support from the Kremlin. Hundreds of mosques were reconstructed and dozens of new ones were built in Chechnya, including the “Heart of Chechnya,” one of the largest in Europe, with a capacity to hold over 10,000 worshippers. Smaller replicas of this mosque accommodating up to 5,000 people each were built in the villages of Tsentoroi, Jalka, Gedylgen, and the city of Gudermes. Overall there are 700 functioning mosques in the republic, along with 20 madrasahs and two higher Islamic institutions. One of the institutions in Grozny, named after Kunta-Haji Kishiev, founder of a Sufi branch called Zikrism, has the official status of a Russian state institution and is funded by the Russian state. 
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov takes pride in hosting the only Hafiz school in the Russian Federation, where people are taught to recite the Quran by heart. These types of schools are located in Tsentoroi, Gudermes and Grozny, and another school will be built in Urus-Martan ( Finally, on September 26, the first women’s madrasah in Chechnya was opened in the village of Chiri-Yurt in the republic’s Shali district ( Muazzins call worshippers to prayer five times per day in all towns of the republic without exception. TV presenters on Chechen TV are dressed according to Islamic canons. Women, regardless of their nationality, are required to wear hijab. 
The introduction of Islam’s basics into the curriculum of schools throughout Chechnya this year will be yet another new step toward Islamization. In order to achieve this, it has been decided to appoint all imams and qadis as deputy headmasters at schools so that their work is funded by the republic’s school system (
Chechen Education Minister Anzor Muzaev also considered adapting these countries’ experience with Islamic schools during a visit to Persian Gulf countries, ( Even now, Chechen schools have much in common with the schools in the Persian Gulf. An Islamic dress code has been introduced in Chechen schools just as in the schools of the Arab countries. Female teachers must wear a scarf on their heads and must also cover their shoulders and neck. Girls are obliged to wear a headscarf starting at the age of six. In higher education institutions, male students are required to wear suits and ties, while female students are required to wear a large head covering and wearing hijab is encouraged ( There are also restrictions on alcohol: selling alcohol is prohibited in Chechnya between 8 in the evening and 10 in the morning  ( 
Various Islam-related competitions are held in Chechnya—for the best Quran readers, for Islamic songs and Islamic clothes, and for the greatest knowledge of the lives of Islamic saints, preachers, and the Prophet Muhammad. Much attention is given to promotion of Sufi Islam. The tombstones of the sheikhs and their close associates (a.k.a. ziyarat) have been renovated in Chechnya (
The Russian-Chechen war is what caused Russian tolerance of Islam in Chechnya: the rationale behind Moscow’s decisions in regard to free-flowing Islam in Chechnya was to show the insurgents that many of their demands could be met, without Chechnya seceding from the Russian Federation. The Kremlin’s overtures to Sufism in Chechnya however have harmed Sufism more than the Kremlin’s earlier pressure on Sufism. Indeed, Sufism is becoming weaker as a result of its alliance with the Kremlin, while Salafism has been growing stronger, drawing support from former Sufi adherents, who became disenchanted by Sufi religious leaders’ collaboration with the authorities. 
Thus, in Chechnya we can watch an experiment that has been staged by the Kremlin. Depending on how this experiment goes, Moscow may use it elsewhere in Russian territories that have a predominantly Muslim population. The Russian government is finding it increasingly hard to ignore the country’s Muslim population of 20 million. Russia faces the hard choice of how to treat those who reject the Christian essence of the Russian state. Whether or not the Russian state will be within its present borders in the near future will depend on what choice Russia makes.