North Caucasus Conflict

A Nation of Russians?

The Russian government's recent push to enforce unity from above on the multi-national federation is likely to meet with resistance, due primarily to ongoing conflicts in the Muslim-dominated North Caucasus region. Michael Ludwig reports

Chechen militants in the outskirts of Chervlennaya, photo: AP
Chechen fighters are increasingly stylizing the conflict with Russia, which was previously borne by the urge for national independence, into a holy war against the non-believers, writes Michael Ludwig

​​"You, too, are Russia!" Roughly translated, this was the message an interministerial committee recently trumpeted to the 144 million citizens of the Russian Federation – to the ethnic Russians that make up a good 80 percent of the population of the largest nation on Earth, and to the over one hundred peoples who also call that nation home.

The committee had presented a proposal to supplement the decade-old national policy concept, aiming to breathe new life into the federation and to ensure its continued viability.

Now that the important institutional issues required for peaceful coexistence had allegedly been clarified – for example, by President Putin's enforced strengthening of the vertical power structures by way of abolishing popular election of leaders by the federation's subjects – it was time to fuse the citizens of the multi-ethnic state into a true community, into a (nation)-state of "Russians."

The question remains, however, whether this message of imposing unity from above is being heard by everyone, and if it is likely to be welcomed, particularly in the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region.

War in Chechnya

It is there, and above all in Chechnya, that a nasty war is still being waged, a war in which the civilian population is coming under attack from all sides – from the federal troops carrying out their "anti-terror operations," from militant Chechen separatists in the underground, from the terrorists, and from the brutal commandos dispatched by the Moscow-loyal Chechen leadership - and is suffering unspeakable misery. And all this despite the fact that Moscow declared an official end to the Chechen War years ago.

Whether the people here are ready to perceive the central regime in Moscow, unable as it is to end this "post-war war" on its own conditions, as the regulatory, even caring center of a large, cohesive polity is more than doubtful.

And even if the recent parliamentary elections in Chechnya end up confirming the leadership of President Alu Alkhanov and the republic's strongest figure, Deputy Minister President Ramsan Kadyrov, that still doesn't prove otherwise.

This situation is exacerbated by the radical turn Islam has taken in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, at the latest since the Second Chechen War began in 1999.

Chechnya's underground leadership and the Chechen fighters (boyeviki) are increasingly stylizing the conflict with Russia, which was previously borne by the urge for national independence, into a holy war, or jihad, against the non-believers.

Not even terrorists like Shamil Basayev and his ilk, who not only want to free Chechnya from Russian rule, but also aim to set up a Caucasian caliphate, or Islamic nation, shy away from lending their atrocities the patina of religious necessity.

Suicide bombers, who have by now struck in the heart of Russia, reflect not only the urge for revenge on the part of those who have been humiliated, but also stand for a specific interpretation of the Koran, which is gaining ever greater currency here in the region.

"Arabization" and "Jihadization" of the conflict

This latter development highlights the growing "Arabization" of the conflict. The president of the Caucasian republic of Karachay-Cherkessia recently noted that Chechen separatists of every complexion had, so to speak, taken Islam hostage.

By the same token, this war has increasingly been presented by the Russian leaders and in much of the Russian media during the last several years as a battle against fundamentalist and militant Islam and its foreign abettors in the Muslim world, who were trying to amputate part of Russia.

"Jihadization" of the war with the Russians on the one side and "Islamization" of the Chechen War on the other not only distract people from the true nature of the conflicts in the North Caucasus and from the reasons behind the war; they could also lead to a lasting worsening of relations between the Christian majority and the Muslim minority in the core Russian nations.

The fact that this condition would be capable of hitting a vital nerve in the federation becomes clear when one takes into account that, with up to 20 million people, Muslims make up the second largest religious community in the country. There is a very real possibility of being able sometime in the future to forge a considerable political power out of this population.

The great majority of Russian Muslims live in the core nations of the federation, in particular along the middle course of the Volga in Tatarstan and the neighboring nation of Bashkortostan (Bashkiria), as well as in Siberia and large cities such as Moscow.

With the exception of the immigrants in the big cities, these people belong to Muslim communities with roots going back for centuries.

The core group is made up of Sunnis. However, immigrants from Azerbaijan have reinforced the ranks of Shiites in past years. After leading a niche existence in the Soviet Union, Russian Muslims have enjoyed a never-before-known freedom in the new Russia.

The question of reappropriation of Islam

Only on occasion has religious rebirth here been coupled with the drive for national independence, as in the case of the Tatar Republic. The new Russia, proud of its religious tolerance, even applied several years ago to be accepted into the Organization of Islamic States. Another question entirely, however, is which route should be taken toward the reappropriation of Islam in the region.

At present, Russian Islam can be seen to be developing in several basic directions. Alongside a traditional form that is not very dogmatic and does not view the coexistence of Christians and Muslims as problematic, Arab influences have grown in past years, causing purist and radical currents to spread.

This can be attributed above all to the trend for more and more young men to travel to the Arab peninsula for their education. They bring back with them an approach to Islam that has little in common with that cultivated, for example, in Tatarstan. Furthermore, the "Jihadization" of the Chechen War has not failed to make its mark on the thinking of Muslims in the core regions of the federation.

However, there is not yet evidence among these Muslims of a broad-based solidarity with their North Caucasian brothers in the faith, or even of a mass participation by Muslims from the core nations in battle side-by-side with the Chechens. Finally, efforts have also been underway for some time now to modernize Islam according to the Russians' own needs.

A Russian model for "Euro-Islam"?

The advisor to the president of Tatarstan and director of the Institute of History, Academy of Sciences of Tatarstan, Raphael Khakimov, recently presented to the public a proposal for creating a liberal "Euro-Islam."

It made no sense, Khakimov claimed, to slavishly look back to the Middle Ages for guidance, to the era when Islam first came into being, or to align oneself along Arab models that have nothing to do with life in Russia. People here should instead orient themselves around the realities in their own Russian surroundings and in Europe.

And if humankind had accepted certain general norms and made these into international law, then this should also be reflected in the Sharia, Islamic law, according to Khakimov. The version of Islam Khakimov envisioned would probably be advantageous for promoting peaceful coexistence in the multi-confessional, multi-ethnic Russian state.

But the last word has not yet been spoken. What this final word will be depends on how much resistance the traditionalists are willing to mount, as well as the future course of events in the North Caucasus and the policies issued by Moscow.

If the latter do not change, an increased flow of Caucasians into the core countries will be the probable result, helping the "Arab" view of Islam to gain further ground.

Michael Ludwig

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2005

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

Commentary André Glucksmann
Aslan Maskhadov – Chechnya's de Gaulle
Only recently Chechnya's ex-president, moderate rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, was offering to negotiate with the Kremlin. He was killed in early March. French philosopher André Glucksmann examines Putin's role and the responsibility of the west.

History Repeating Itself?
February 23, 2004 is the sixtieth anniversary of the deportation of Chechens and Ingush nationals to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Hundreds of thousands of people were loaded onto trains; thousands died while being driven from the Caucasus. Gasan Gusejnov recalls the event

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Islam in Russia
Russia's Muslim community has been largely viewed through the prism of the Chechen war, despite its diversity reflecting the trajectory of both Islam's spread in Russia and Russia's imperial expansion into the Muslim lands. By Shireen Hunter

Giving Life to the Jihad
One global idea, many local terrorist cells. Al Qaida's attacks are a response to the vacuum created by the mainstreaming of Islamic movements. By Reinhard Schulze

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