The Kremlin’s New Strategy to Build a Pro-Russian Islamic Chechnya

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 9

During a press conference held in the Kremlin on January 31, President Vladimir Putin outlined the new Russian policy toward Islam inside the country. “Wahhabism in itself is not a threat, but any distortion of the norms of Islam, distortion of Wahhabism, certainly cannot be regarded other than as a call for terrorism,” Putin said (Interfax, January 31).

The Kremlin started to modify its Muslim policy right after the massive rebel attack on the Caucasian city of Nalchik last October 13. Three weeks after the attack, Dmitry Kozak, the Russian president’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, declared that the authorities had nothing against Wahhabism and the terrorists just use it as their flag (Interfax, November 3, 2005). This was a major turn in the rhetoric. The Russian official propaganda had been instilling in the mind of the average Russian in the street during the six years following the start of the second Chechen war that Wahhabism was an ultimate evil, responsible for everything destructive in the North Caucasus. Just two months before Kozak’s comments on Wahhabism, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the pro-Russian forces in Chechnya, said that Wahhabis “are not only enemies of Islam, but also of the whole mankind, and I cannot see any way to oppose them other than [to] annihilate [them] physically.” Sultan Mirzaev, the Supreme Mufti of Chechnya, proclaimed: “Wahhabism is an evil that ought to be eliminated” (see Chechnya Weekly, August 18, 2005).

Wahhabism is quite a broad term in Russia, one that is generally used to describe the Caucasian rebels or those who support them in their anti-Russian war. Since the Kremlin declared that it was fighting al-Qaeda in the North Caucasus, it was implied that the ideology of the local insurgency was Wahhabism or Islamic fundamentalism. After the beginning of the second Chechen military campaign, the Russian authorities tried to destroy all attributes of the Islamic state that had appeared in Chechnya before the war. A large mosque in the village of Vedeno that Shamil Basaev, the famous Chechen rebel leader, wanted to make the largest mosque in the whole North Caucasus, was completely destroyed. A mosque in the village of Starye Atagi, which was built by Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, the second separatist president of Chechnya, was also destroyed. Another mosque was destroyed in the city of Gudermes. The law issued by the separatist government for distinct seats for women and men in public transport was abolished. Teaching Islam and the Arabic language in Chechen schools was practically banned, and it became dangerous for Chechen men to grow beards and for Chechen women to wear hijabs. At the same time, alcohol and pornography, which were hard to obtain in Ichkeria, became hot items on sale at the markets in Grozny, the Chechen capital. Thus, in practice, the Kremlin’s war against Wahhabism turned into a war against Islam as a whole. “After the Russian invasion it became dangerous even to have a Koran at home,” Osama Baysaev, a human rights activist from the Memorial organization, told Jamestown. “You could be detained as a sympathizer of the rebels.”

Nevertheless, as the Russian army continued to sink into the quagmire of Chechnya’s guerrilla war, the Kremlin started to search for more flexible approaches to the rebellious region. Islam has been split into a good one (“traditional Islam”) and a bad one (“Wahhabism”). According to Moscow’s new view of Islam, the Islamic leaders of Chechnya who declare Jihad against the separatists are good Muslims, and those who declare Jihad against “Russian infidels” and “national traitors” are Wahhabis and should be eliminated. On August 4, Mirzaev, the pro-Russian Mufti of Chechnya, supported by the Kremlin, declared jihad against Wahhabism (see Chechnya Weekly, August 18, 2005).

This declaration of jihad, however, had no impact on either Chechen society or the rebels. The war continued, the population boycotted the parliamentary elections (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, December 2, 2005), and the popularity of the local pro-Russian authorities remained low. It became clear that declarations alone were not enough and more radical steps had to be taken to gain the sympathy of the population. Moscow decided to create an Islamic fundamentalist image for Ramzan Kadyrov. Last autumn, Ramzan Kadyrov issued a decree banning slot machines in the republic (see Chechnya Weekly, August 18, 2005). Early this year, Kadyrov stepped up his Islamization policy. On January 13, he said he favored polygamy in Chechnya (Itar-Tass, January 13; see also Chechnya Weekly, January 19). That same month, the pro-Russian leader vowed to fight drug addiction and alcohol abuse. As of January 20, one could no longer find alcohol at Chechen shops and markets, and the sale of alcohol remains banned. On February 11, Kadyrov criticized the republican media for broadcasting immoral programs and introduced censorship in Chechnya. Ramzan said that “all newspaper articles and television footage are to be screened before publication or broadcasting to ensure that they do not violate the ethical norms of the Chechen national mentality” (, February 11). On January 10, on the occasion of Muslim holiday, Eid-al-Adha, Ramzan Kadyrov sacrificed six camels and over 300 sheep (Kommersant, January 11; see also Chechnya Weekly, January 12). Kadyrov also declared that lessons in the Koran and Sharia should be obligatory at Chechen schools (, February 24). The climax was Kadyrov’s ban on the Danish Refugee Council, a Danish humanitarian organization, because of the cartoon scandal that shook the whole Muslim world.

It is still a moot question how Kadyrov’s recent initiatives might affect the mood of the Chechen public. Dmitry Kozak and the Southern Federal District department of the Prosecutor General’s Office initiated an investigation of Kadyrov’s statements to check their compliance with Russian laws (Kommersant, February 22). This also could be a part of the Kremlin’s plan to show to the Chechens that it was Ramzan’s personal decision to apply the Islamic order in the republic. “Certainly the Chechens will support the idea of teaching Sharia law at schools or the ban of alcohol, but the authorities should have proof that this is not just words,” Shakhman Akbulatov, a Chechen, told Jamestown. “The Russians and kadyrovtsy can still arrest a young man when they find books on Islam even if they are legally published in Russia,” Shakhman continued.

The main idea of the Chechnya’s Islamization under Moscow’s control is to weaken support for the insurgency in the republic. Yet it is unlikely to succeed, despite all Kadyrov’s efforts. The Chechens know that the rebels fight not only for Islamic values, but for freedom and independence, two things neither the Kremlin nor Ramzan Kadyrov can give to the Chechen people.