The security situation in Chechnya continues to deteriorate. Last week rebels attacked two villagers in the south of the republic, killing two senior Russian officers. Days earlier, separatists continued to expand the war beyond the Republic’s borders, with rebel leader Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev meeting with field commanders of separatist groups from other Caucasian republics (see EDM, August 11, 2005).
These events have worried the Kremlin more than usual. Unlike before, President Vladimir Putin now comments publicly on almost every attack or act of sabotage in the region. Russian officials hope the establishment of new military bases in the North Caucasus will improve the situation, but their installation in the mountains has proven very slow. The Kremlin hope to stabilize Chechnya by the fall, ahead of the republic’s November parliamentary election. Fearing federal forces may fail in this task, Putin and others are exploring new strategies to undercut popular support for the insurgency and increase Chechens’ interest in the upcoming election. Russian authorities have decided to play on ideas that have always been significant in Chechen culture and history: namely, Islam.
On August 4, Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the pro-Russian forces in Chechnya, gathered the republic’s imams and muftis in Tsentoroi, his home village. During the meeting in the village mosque, at which Ramzan Kadyrov and Artur Akhmadov, the Commander of the Chechen police special-task unit (OMON), were also present, Chechnya’s spiritual leaders proclaimed jihad against Wahhabism. According to an August 4 report from gazeta.ru, Sultan Mirzaev, the Supreme Mufti of Chechnya, solemnly proclaimed: “From now on, anyone fighting against Wahhabism will be honored as a warrior of jihad. Wahhabism is an evil that ought to be eliminated, and those who support it are international terrorists.” Mirzaev explained that this fatwa was founded in the Qur’an and Sharia law.
Ramzan Kadyrov applauded the declaration. “Wahhabites are not only enemies of Islam, but also of the whole of mankind, and I cannot see any way to oppose them, but [to] annihilate [them] physically,” he said. In other words, Mirzaev’s fatwa justifies the war led by Russian forces and their Chechen allies against the rebels.
This is not the first time since that the Kremlin has tried to use Islam to fight the separatists. In 2000, those members of the Chechen Sharia Court who did not go up to the mountains with the militants sentenced then separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov to death for “incompetence in restoring order in the republic after the first war.” And last year, on July 2, the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Chechnya condemned the separatists and consigned separatist leaders Maskhadov and Shamil Basaev “to God’s perdition.”
There is little doubt that these attempts to use religion to combat separatists were orchestrated by Moscow. The fact that Mirzaev’s fatwa was almost immediately supported by high-ranking leaders from official Muslim organizations across Russia illustrates that point. “It is quite possible that such an opinion of Chechen spiritual leaders and scholars will unite all those who stand for the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, and Chechnya as part of it,” observes Farid Salman, the Head of the Council of Ulema of the Spiritual Directorate of Russian Muslims, in an August 10 report by Interfax-Religiya. “We have all declared jihad against Wahhabism because it is against Sharia, because for a Wahhabi to kill an infidel is the most important thing,” said Mufti Shafig Pshikhaev, Director of the International Islamic Mission. Roman Silantiev, Executive Secretary of the Inter-religious Council of Russia and a specialist in Islamic history, also welcomed the declaration of jihad against Wahhabism in Chechnya (see Religiya and SMI, August 5).
Further indications that Mirzaev’s declaration of jihad against Wahhabism was initiated by the Russian government was the simultaneous decision to ban slot machines in Chechnya and nearby Ingushetia. In the former, gambling was banned by a decree of Ramzan Kadyrov, who said that it was incompatible with Islamic morality. In the latter, it was banned by a decree of Murat Zazikov, the republic’s president, who, as Gazeta reported on August 16, said he believed that game machines have seriously corrupted Ingush society. In both instances the Ingush and Chechen governments, who are generally hated or distrusted by a majority of local inhabitants, seek to gain public support by demonstrating their devotion to Islamic values.
The object, for both the Caucasian leaders and their Russian masters, are to encourage the youth look toward the Mosque rather than the mountains. These efforts are unlikely to succeed. In the final analysis, it is neither Wahhabism, nor Islam in general, that turns people into insurgents.
On June 22, 2004, hundreds of Ingush and Chechen militants launched a raid in Ingushetia, resulting in numerous police and military casualties. Witnesses told an ingushetiya.ru correspondent that when the gunmen took control of the main Ingush towns, they celebrated their victory by dancing the Zikr, a rite performed by Sufi Muslims throughout the North Caucasus, and universally opposed by Wahhabis and their Middle Eastern supporters.
For centuries, Sufism—a gnostic form of Islam focusing on private spirituality and a deep connection with the natural world—provided a unifying idiom for Chechen national identity. It also offered a powerful tool for organizing and sustaining armed resistance against Russian encroachment, and later, domination. Those dynamics remain true in the current conflict. Though Russian official may describe the rebels as “Wahhabis”, the vast majority of the insurgents belong to the same Sufi brotherhoods as Kadyrov, Mirzaev and other pro-Moscow Chechens.
To be sure, there are some Wahhabis. Yet these actors are few in number and widely despised by Chechnya’s Sufi rebels. Even Shamil Basaev, who has the of being the terrorist leader of a radical Muslim faction, denies being a Wahhabi. In his ABC Nightline interview with Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky, Basaev called the war in Chechnya a “national-liberation war,” employing rhetoric worthy of his hero, Ché Gueverra. Basaev also noted that religion was not as important a factor as freedom and independence—a statement that astonished Babitsky, who had long claimed that Basaev was a religious fanatic (see Babitsky’s interview in Novaya gazeta, August 4).
The Kremlin’s recent attempt to fight the Chechen insurgency with the help of the Qur’an only shows the degree to which Russian officials believe the very myths they have been creating for years. Chief among them is the notion that the North Caucasus are facing a radical Islamist movement supported by the forces of international terrorism. If the past is prologue, then “anti-Wahhabi jihad” project will once again prove the absurdity of Russia’s current strategy in the region.