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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

The New York Times reported on Sunday that a top aide of Afghan President Hamid Karzai was receiving cash by the bagful from the government of Iran.  Karzai stopped denying the story today, stating,

“They give us bags of money – yes, yes it is done,” Mr. Karzai said. “We are grateful to the Iranians for this. Patriotism has a price”

Wait, what kind of money are we talking about here, a couple thousand dollars perhaps? Not even in the ballpark. Afghan officials told the Times that individual payments ranged as high as $6 million. I know this was only reported yesterday, but where is the outrage?  This blatant bribery by Iran, a state sanctioned by the United States and most of the world, shows us the nature of the Afghan government we’re fighting to support. I’m not sure if bags of cash were listed in UN Security Council Resolution 1929 (the most recent resolution sanctioning Iran), but perhaps we should think of lobbying for their addition.

President Karzai’s rhetoric recently has become increasingly anti-Western and anti-NATO.  Whether that’s the Iranian cash talking or simple pandering to domestic sentiment (unlikely due to mixed polls on U.S. popularity), it’s hard to tell.  But this event further signals the erratic and downright corrupt nature of the regime we’re fighting for.  Why do we put up with it? Because the U.S. Government doesn’t believe it has an alternative to Karzai.  We’ve staked our hopes on him and we don’t know what to do if he turns out to be as corrupt as all this evidence shows.

Let’s just hope these bags of cash don’t make Iran’s word more important than NATO’s in influencing Afghan policy, or Afghanistan may start buying uranium for its own nuclear research reactor.


In the foreign policy world, the words Iran and nuclear in the same sentence immediately get the attention of the State Department, Defense Department, Intelligence Agencies and all the rest. Why is the U.S. Government so worried about Iran? Should you be worried about it as well, or is it all just the same old Iraq talk all over again? The Ivory Bunker will do its best to tell you over the next 400 words or so.

I’ll first highlight four reasons why I think the U.S. Government is worried about a nuclear Iran. First, they are worried about the immediate and practical implications of a nuclear-capable Iran led by anti-semitic and somewhat unstable dictator.  Second, they are worried about what a nuclear Iran would mean for the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime.  A nuclear Iran could signal what arms control gurus have feared for decades – the effective end of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), a treaty that has more or less stymied the expansion and proliferation of nuclear arms for almost four decades. Third, the U.S. Government is concerned about the potential proliferation, either accidental or intentional, of nuclear weapons from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to Hezbollah or another related terrorist organization. Fourth, they are concerned about the potential domino effect of latent proliferation spreading across the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia and possibly Egypt consider following in Iran’s footsteps down the nuclear path.

Should you be worried about this? The good news is that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon nor will they be likely to get one in the next several years.  The bad news is that Iran has not signed the Additional Protocol (AP), which allows International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to inspect all potential facilities, both declared and undeclared, for evidence of nuclear weapons.  So we don’t know for sure how far along Iran really is in their nuclear exploits.  What we do know is that Iran has been operating an enrichment facility at Natanz and they just opened a nuclear reactor at Bushehr. We also know they have been frequently denying IAEA inspectors access to certain facilities and have provided incomplete explanations of issues the IAEA has raised.  But unless Iran has another secret enrichment facility (which is indeed possible), they cannot develop sufficient Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) without kicking out IAEA inspectors from Natanz. This in turn would send a clear signal to the world of Iran’s intentions and would likely incur the actual wrath of China and Russia, not just the feigned sort U.S. diplomacy has worked so hard to achieve.

The bottom line – there is no need to panic just yet.  I believe, as do several other foreign policy writers, that Iran will do its best to hedge its nuclear capabilities, going as close as possible to constructing a bomb without actually going the entire way.  All the United States and the UN more broadly can do is continue to disincentivize non-cooperation and promote full cooperation.  Any deal between the P5+1 should aim to have Iran sign the Additional Protocol and forswear most domestic enrichment capabilities (perhaps leave some enrichment symbolically for prestige preservation). In exchange, the P5+1 should give further security guarantees, economic aid and offer a secure supply of enriched uranium fuel under international controls for Iran’s future nuclear plants.