Russia

Russia: The role of religion in the Chechen conflict

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By Ruslan Isayev, special to Prague Watchdog

One of the main reasons for the split in Chechen society which led the Kadyrov family to power is the religious question. It began to receive emphasis at the onset of the second Chechen campaign, and it was precisely through their reluctance to become followers of the radical Islam espoused by some members of the armed resistance that former guerrillas justified their move to the side of the federal forces.

After the first Chechen war the authorities imposed so-called "Sharia law". Sharia courts, headed mostly by callow youths, were set up in every district of the republic. There were canings for the slightest offence, and the lower a person's status, the more terrible was his punishment. Wahhabism, when it arrived in Chechnya, made no compromises, and now the Chechen society is split into two or three different sections.

By nature, Chechens are probably more inclined to secular civil society than to the strict conditions imposed by Islam. The religious movement with the most followers in Chechnya is the wird of Kunta-Khadzhi Kishiyev, the most famous and revered nineteenth century Chechen cleric who lived in the days of the Caucasus War and who preached humility because in his view it laid down the path to true Islam. In modern terms we would describe him as a pacifist. Perceiving him as a threat and apprehensive about the enormous influence he wielded in Chechen society, the tsarist authorities sent him into exile.

Another historical figure who proved to be a considerable thorn in Russia's side was Imam Shamil. After the many long years of the Caucasus War he was finally captured and lived out his years in peace and prosperity. Russia's policies, with their absence of any long-term consistency, have undergone no major changes.

During the period between the two recent Chechen wars there were many clashes between the followers of traditional religion and the radicals - the so-called Wahhabites. The first attempt on the life of Chechen mufti Akhmad Kadyrov was on the outskirts of Grozny in 1998. A powerful landmine detonated on the road where his convoy was passing. There was also a battle in Gudermes between the Yamadayev group, who supported Maskhadov, and the Urus-Martan-based Wahhabites.

The radicals, who justified their actions by holy scriptures that allow the practice of abduction and the taking of concubines for the furtherance of Jihad, began openly to engage in kidnapping. An anti-kidnapping directorate was created in Chechnya, with broad powers to conduct special operations against the abductors. Shadid Bargishev, the commander of this unit, was killed when a bomb exploded directly opposite the squad's headquarters.

The Chechens who adopted an openly pro-Moscow position and from whom the next government was cobbled together, declared an official ban on Wahhabism and other radical tendencies in Islam. Since then its sympathizers have gone into deep hiding or have joined the hard-line armed opposition.

In Chechnya today few hindrances are placed in the way of the true Muslim. The main thing is to avoid making speeches critical of the authorities, and to make sure that one is seen in the company of the murids - the followers of traditional religion, who enjoy the present government's support.

While in the rest of Russia religion is separated from the state, in Chechnya these two concepts are closely aligned. It is not unusual to catch a glimpse of the Moscow-backed Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov surrounded in public by a large number of murids. He himself is a member of the zikrist movement which performs an ectastic religious dance, the zikr. Also, almost all the members of the government appear at religious occasions wearing the traditional embroidered skull-caps (tyubeteyka), and many take part in the zikr, too.

The present-day muftiate plays an active role in the republic's social life. Young people are the special focus of the murids' attention. Recently, the Spiritual Directorate of Chechen Muslims - such is the muftiate's name in its Russian form - began issuing licences to all religious institutions.

The sermons read in Chechnya's mosques are also subject to strict control. At Friday prayers the republic's mosques are packed with believers, and after the sermons there are discussions of public life, or the reading aloud of announcements on local affairs. And it is no secret that what is said at these gatherings will reach the ears of the appropriate authorities. If someone commits sedition, he will have to account for it in another place.

Like every government, the Chechen leadership keeps the religious tendencies in society under close scrutiny. By resorting to tough measures now and then, the current Chechen authorities have managed to turn the situation with respect to religion in their favour. But this does not mean that given the right opportunity radicalism, which many observers link to the religious revolution, will not revive in a different form.

People have already learned to separate the wheat from the chaff. Though of course, no other chance of acquiring religion is open to them. Anyone who seeks to penetrate deeply into Islam seeks teachers who enjoy respect and whose reputation remains unsullied. Fortunately, Chechnya still has enough of such men.

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