Fighting Islam with Islam: Sufi and Wahabi forces in Chechnya

Posted: December 9, 2010 in Uncategorized

At a Sufi prayer service in Grozny early this month, President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov called for a decisive eradication of the territory’s Wahabi influences: “Wahabis did not come along today or yesterday. They have been around for a long time. And prominent Islamic religious figures noted that they bring woes, sufferings, destruction and shed blood… this evil can spread across many regions if it is not nipped in the bud.” After decades of fearing and quelling Sufi influence in the Causcusus, the Kremlin and pro-Russian Chechen government now finds itself in a peculiar position: embracing Sufism as an alternative to Wahhabism.

History of Islam in Chechnya:

In addition to their 200-year quest for autonomy, the Chechen people also have a long history of facing religious intolerance. Sunni Islam has long been the main religion in Chechnya, where two forms of the faith have coexisted since the 18th century: a dogmatic and canonical form of Sunni Islam and a more mystical interpretation of Sufism. Between the 1880s and 1920s, the first tsarist government and then the Bolsheviks attacked the spiritual leadership of all Sufi brotherhoods in Chechnya and Ingushetia. During the Soviet years, mainstream Sunni Islam was tolerated, while Sufism, previously dominant, was suppressed and driven underground. Many mosques were destroyed and Sufi practices were forbidden, though carried out in secret at risk. With the impending collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Islam began to be revitalized. At the same time, ex-Soviet Air Force general, Dzhokhar Dudayev initiated a movement for recognition of Chechnya as a separate nation. Despite the movement’s peaceful nature, post-Soviet Russians still considered Sufism as the rebels’ fuel, as they interpreted the sikr celebration as a symbol of Chechen aggression and the Sufi dance as a ritual of the untamed. Rise of Radical Islam:

With the end of the Cold War, radical Islam began to permeate Chechnya’s separatist movement. In the past decade, it has become a poisonous source of regional violence. The ideological and political vacuum in Chechnya following international changes in the Soviet Union was filled with more militant interpretations of Islam. And during the war following the declaration of Chechen independence in 1991, Chechen rebels used terrorist tactics to achieve political gains for the first time in the Budyonnovsk hospital crisis.

Wahhabism began to infiltrate the region following the war, as the plight of the Chechens at hands of the Russians were well publicized, and Chechnya became identified by jihadi groups as important new battleground. Consequently, between the first and second Chechen war in 1997 – 1999, Wahhabi forces began to infiltrate the region. In August of 1999, radical Muslims declared a jihad for the liberation of Chechnya from the hands of non-believers. During the Second Chechen War, an influx of Wahhabi Muslims, whose version of Islam was more closely aligned with that of the Afghan Taliban, came to fight beside the Chechen separatists. After Chechnya’s surrender in 2000, the rebels retreated to the mountains and rewrote the Chechen quest for independence as a jihadist political movement. The new constitution called for anIslamic Caliphate across Russia’s North Caucus region, and terrorist attacks as the means to achieve this goal.

The past decade has seen dozens of suicide bombings, indiscriminate shelling, hostage-taking, beheadings of capture combatants and suspected informants, systemic use of torture, and more, all in the name of the holy war. Today, there are an estimated 700-odd radical fundamentalists in Chechnya, supported by networks in the Arab world, fighting for separatism in Chechnya through Wahhabi-inspired jihad, and recruiting followers.

Sufi Resurgence:

As a response to this surge in violence, for the past five years, President Kadyrov’s pro-Moscow administration has championed the more moderate form of Islam associated with Sufism to combat the intransigent Wahhabism imported from the Arab world. Kadyrov’s campaign has included the inauguration of a $20 million mosque in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny in 2008, which is now the largest mosque in Europe. Other efforts include the construction of a Russian Islamic University in Grozny, a school in Tsentoroi for scholars of the Koran, and a center of Islamic medicine. Additional mosques will also be constructed. The hope is that the Sufi revival will attract young Muslims who would otherwise be recruited by extremist forces based in the mountains. The Kremlin is supporting these efforts politically and financially, to “confront terror through spirituality and high ethical standards,” while simultaneously hunting down rebels in the Caucasus.
“If people in Russia do not take the path of traditional, pure Sufi Islam, Russia will lose out,”says President Kadyrov, “All the other denominations, like Wahhabism, are new inventions for our country… we will never accept it.” The trouble is that it is not always easy to differentiate the enforcement of Islamic law carried out by Kadyrov and his Wahhabi opponents. Kadyrov, a champion of Sufism, also believes in strict enforcement of Islamic purity. For example, he supports honor killings for “loose” women and harsh punishments for women who do not wear headscarves. His two philosophies are perhaps contradictory, although not mutually exclusive.
The Kremlin’s cultivation of the moderate Sufi sect has taken hold over Chechnya and its construction projects. Ironically, Sufi Muslims in the region have always wanted Chechen independence, resulting in a number of contradictions. Whether Sufi Islam of the Chechen traditions is undercutting Wahhabi separatists remains unknown, although the recent surge in terrorist attacks in 2009 and 2010 would suggest otherwise. What is certain, however, is that the politicization of Sufism, along with and strong-arm enforcement, have been divisive, separating the varying communities of faith, geographic regions (cities vs. rural Chechnya), and political positions (vis-à-vis Moscow). And increased polarization is unlikely enhance stability in this war-torn region.
– jt

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