Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 16

By Igor Rotar

In a resolution adopted on July 25, one thousand delegates of the Congress of the Muslims of the Caucasus demanded that: “‘Wahhabism,’ a movement new to our region, be banned through legislation; that the literature they distribute be confiscated; and the youth protected from schools of theology where propaganda of radical Islam is being spread.”

The Chechen authorities were clearly the initiators of the Congress. After the recent bloody confrontations in Gudermes, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov accused the “Wahhabis” of organizing the disorders, and began to take active measures to neutralize them. By a presidential decree, the Shariah Guards and the Special Islamic Battalion, units which were ostensibly manned by “Wahhabis,” were disbanded. By a presidential directive, four foreigners who were actively spreading the teachings of “Wahhabism” were deported from the republic. Several “Wahhabis” were removed from the republic’s Supreme Shariah Court, and a new chairman selected.

“Although the Congress of the Muslims of the Caucasus was held on the initiative of the Chechen clergy, both our own muftiate and our republic’s secular authorities were no less interested in holding it than the Chechens. Both the republic’s secular authorities and our clergy had taken measures long ago to eradicate ‘Wahhabism’ from Dagestan. Since events throughout the North Caucasus are interlinked, we have made numerous attempts to coordinate our efforts with the Chechens. …Last June, there was a united congress of the leadership of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, at which an attempt was made to condemn ‘Wahhabism,’ but the Chechen government and clergy took a very cautious position at the time. Now, it seems that we and the Chechens have reached complete mutual understanding on this issue,” Eduard Urazaev, the press secretary of the chairman of Dagestan’s State Council, told Prism.

“During the war in Chechnya, units of Wahhabi volunteers from Arab countries came to help us. These units were very well armed, so our Chechens willingly joined them. Many of them became adherents of that doctrine, and tried to teach it to us, saying that we were distorting Islam. It is true that for a long time, we tried not to wash our dirty linen in public, saying that we had no problem with ‘Wahhabism’ in the republic. We tried to make peace with the ‘Wahhabis’–we told them: ‘Do what you like, but don’t try to impose your convictions on us. Don’t accuse us of heresy.’ But unfortunately, nothing came of the dialogue. I hope that the present forum of Muslims of the Caucasus can help liquidate ‘Wahhabism,’ a sect foreign to Islam’s fourteen centuries of history,” the Mufti of Chechnya, Akhmed Kadyrov, told Prism.

According to Kadyrov, “Wahhabism” began to be spread actively in Chechnya when Zelimkhan Yandarbiev was president. “It was that man who is most responsible for ‘Wahhabism’ sinking such deep roots in Chechen soil!” Kadyrov told Prism.

But at the same time, according to Kadyrov, the Russian security services are responsible as well. “The Kremlin deliberately fostered ‘Wahhabism’ in the Caucasus, in order to divide Muslims and unleash yet another war–a religious war–there. Can you really think that it is a coincidence that the Russian Ministry of Justice picks this time–when we have had to join forces in the fight against ‘Wahhabism’–to say that ‘Wahhabism’ is not an extremist doctrine?” Kadyrov asked Prism.

The Chechen government’s decision to declare war on the “Wahhabis” can hardly be considered original. Throughout the former USSR, an active fight is being waged against adherents of this doctrine.

The first talk of “Wahhabis” in the former USSR began in the early 1990s, during the civil war in Tajikistan. Opponents of the Tajik opposition maintained that they were fighting, not against real Muslims, but against “Wahhabis.” And indeed, the Islamic opposition in Tajikistan did use several elements of “Wahhabi” ideology. For example, they called on people forego having magnificent, expensive weddings and funerals. Akbar Turajonzoda, then the Qadi [chief Islamic cleric] of Tajikistan and one of the leaders of the Tajik opposition, explained his position to Prism’s correspondent in this way: “These customs became established in the republic in Soviet times. A Tajik was supposed to invite hundreds of people to a wedding or a funeral. But such customs are simply ruining the already poor people of Tajikistan!”

At that time, Akbar Turajonzoda had made several statements which gave his opponents reason to call the Tajik opposition “Wahhabis.” For example, Turajonzoda did not conceal the fact that his “brother Muslims” [in the Middle East] had had a great influence on his world view, and that he considered them to be men of great learning. “In my view, fundamentalism is not extremism or religious intolerance. I think that every religious person ought to be a bit of a fundamentalist, if one understands fundamentalism to mean that a person holds the true faith,” Turajonzoda said in those days.

But in reality, it would be incorrect to equate the terms “fundamentalist” and “Wahhabi”–the first term is significantly broader. The base of the leadership of the Tajik opposition is made up of people from the aristocratic Central Asian class of ishans–leaders of Sufi religious brotherhoods. From the Wahhabis’ point of view, adherence to Sufism violates the canons of Islam, and consequently, the Tajik opposition cannot be considered Wahhabis. After the Tajik opposition was driven out of Tajikistan, most of its leaders settled in Shiite Iran, which is yet another persuasive indicator that Dushanbe’s opponents are not Wahhabis. “The term ‘Wahhabi’ was deliberately used by the KGB in order to provoke schism among the believers,” Turajonzoda told Prism.

The first “Wahhabis” appeared in Dagestan and Chechnya at the beginning of perestroika, when, after the fall of the “Iron Curtain,” Islamic preachers from Arab countries set off for the USSR’s Muslim regions, and young Muslims from these republics got the chance to study in religious schools in Muslim countries. But just as in Central Asia, it would be quite a stretch to say that the local “Wahhabis” actually are adherents of that current in Islam which is widespread on the Arabian peninsula.

“This is a label which ignorant people stick on groups of Muslims which often differ significantly from each other. In essence, they call everyone who criticizes the official clergy ‘Wahhabis.’ To be more accurate, the so-called North Caucasus ‘Wahhabis’ are Salafites [a collective term for Muslim religious leaders who, at various periods in history, have called on people to return to the faith and way of life of the early Muslim community–I.R.] or fundamentalists,” Akhmedkadi Akhtaev, one of Russia’s greatest Muslim theologians, told Prism shortly before his death.

Akhtaev’s view is close to the truth: in reality, in the former USSR, the word “Wahhabi” is used to describe any groups of Muslims who criticize regional peculiarities in Islam, which are often complicated by local customs and even by Soviet innovations. Most of these people may indeed be called fundamentalists (since they wish to purify Islam from later accretions), but not “Wahhabis.”

It can hardly be a surprise that in virtually all regions where so-called “Wahhabism” has begun to spread, it has been met by a united front of the local authorities and the official clergy. In virtually all of the Muslim republics of the former USSR, the Soviet-era nomenklatura remains in power. And this ruling elite continues to control the official clergy, who also, as a rule, have remained in their posts since Soviet times. The only exception to this rule is Tajikistan, where after the election of Akbar Turajonzoda as the leader of the republic’s Muslims, the official clergy began to claim a role independent of the secular authorities–and as a result, the country was torn apart by a civil war which lasted many years and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Naturally, the secular authorities in the other Muslim republics in the former USSR are doing everything they can to make sure that ungovernable fundamentalists do not replace their loyal and dependent official clergy. In virtually all these republics, “Wahhabis” have been outlawed. But this, in turn, has led to a new problem: who can be considered a “Wahhabi”? In practice, throughout the former USSR, it is groups of Muslims of various orientations who are dissatisfied with official policy, and not the real adherents of that doctrine, who are called “Wahhabis.”

In Uzbekistan, for example, they don’t go into theological niceties; they simply call all Muslims “who fanatically observe the canons of Islam” “Wahhabis.” As Prism has already reported, (1) it is the Islamists who are Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s most dangerous rivals in the upcoming presidential elections, which are to be held in the year 2000, and Tashkent is trying to nullify their influence before it is too late.

In Dagestan, where the “Chechen variant” poses the greatest danger for the local authorities, all those who support removing Dagestan from the Russian Federation by force (including those who, in reality, have no ties to the fundamentalists) are called “Wahhabis.” Moreover, “Wahhabis” are blamed for virtually all of the raids on Russian servicemen. Makhachkala has even claimed that the pamphlet My Struggle, or the Army of the Imam (which calls for armed struggle against the “Russian occupiers”) was the work of Mullah Bagauddin, one of the leaders of the Dagestani fundamentalists, although in reality, it was written by one Magomed Tagaev, a person with no ties to fundamentalist groups.

One may suppose that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has decided to exploit the experience of his colleagues in other former Soviet republics, and to employ the term “Wahhabi,” not as a scientific term, but as a label to use against his enemies.

In fact, the current struggle with the “Wahhabis” in Chechnya has taken on some rather strange–at times, downright mysterious–forms. Today, one of Maskhadov’s main military allies is field commander Emir Khattab, a Jordanian citizen. Earlier, this person was considered to be one of the main proponents of “Wahhabism” in Chechnya. Chechnya’s current foreign minister, Movladi Udugov, the chief ideologist of the creation of an Islamic state in Chechnya, is also considered a “Wahhabi” here. (Kadyrov has admitted this to Prism.) In other words, there are people in the president’s entourage who, in the eyes of the population, are considered to be “Wahhabis.” The only major Chechen politician actually to suffer from the fight against “Wahhabism” was former president Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. But even in his case, in order to avoid punishment, it was enough for Yandarbiev to swear before the Shariah court that he did not oppose Maskhadov’s policies.

In Chechnya, where the population of the republic have traditionally been Sufi Muslims (a current in Islam which, from the fundamentalists’ point of view, is heretical) Maskhadov’s new tactic may prove to be quite effective. By accusing his opponents of “Wahhabism,” with the consent of the official clergy, Maskhadov thereby discredits them in the eyes of the republic’s population.


1. See: “‘Enlightened Islam,’ Uzbek-style: Islam Karimov is Getting Rid of His Most Dangerous Rival,” in Prism, March 24, 1998

Igor Rotar is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.