Islam and Politics in Chechnya
By Vakhit Akayev
Special to Prague Watchdog
Chechens are Moslem-Sunnites and have never been Shiites, contrary to the Russian President V. Putin’s statement calling the Moslems of Northern Caucasia Shiites. The Islam practised by Chechens has several peculiarities due to the fact that they are followers of Sufi Islam, represented by two tariqats: Naqshbandiya and Qadiriya. These tariqats are divided into smaller religious groups (or brotherhoods). There are nowadays altogether more than thirty Sufi brotherhoods of both tariqats in Chechnya. Following the fundamental statutes of classic Islam, the representatives of these Sufi brotherhoods honor founders of tariqats or brotherhoods and visit their burial places.
The most numerous Sufi brotherhood in Chechnya is made up of followers of the Chechen sheikh Kunta-Hadji Kishiyev who have been called zikrists since Tsarist times. Besides the followers of Kunta-Hadji there are zikrists among adherents of the following Qadiriya brotherhoods: Bammat-Girey-Hadji, Khimirza and Mani-sheikh.
Followers of the Qadiriya tariqat perform a ritual dance zikr (mentioning the Allah’s name) loudly, jumping on the spot or running in a circle. Naqshbandiya followers perform zikr silently, without energetic body movements. Until recently some followers of Naqshbandiya used to be the most influential in Chechen spiritual and political life. During D.Dudayev’s presidency they were pushed to the periphery of society and were even persecuted. A considerable number of zikrists formed the social foundation of D.Dudayev’s regime and therefore their influence on political life in Chechnya grew noticeably.
Followers of vakhabism began to appear in Chechnya at the beginning of the 1990’s. The role of this politico-religious trend in Islam went completely unnoticed at the time. Vakhabits started to be spoken of during the course of the first Russian - Chechen war. Their existence appeared to be widely known in Chechnya in connection with their major hostilities against Russian armed forces and also when they attempted to liquidate the burial place of Kunta-Hadji’s mother Khedi, which is zikrists’ pilgrimage place.
Vakhabism’s position strengthened with acting president Z.Yandarbiyev’s support and later during A.Maskhadov’s presidency. The liquidation of temporal courts and the creation of Shariah courts happened due to vakhabist influence. The legal process was undertaken and corresponding sentences were passed on the basis of the Shariah. In 1999 directly due to pressure from the Islamic opposition, consisting mainly of vakhabits, A.Maskhadov issued an edict introducing a full Shariah government in Chechnya which cancelled the Constitution of the Republic of Ichkeria under which he was elected to the presidential post.
A quite negative attitude towards vakhabists has become prevalent among Chechens. They are held guilty of organising the second Russian - Chechen war. Ahmad-Hadji Kadyrov, a former mufti and current administrative head of the Chechen republic, said in an appeal to his compatriots that “Islam is a religion of peace” and “it doesn’t recognise violence, condemns everything that is done to the prejudice of Moslems and calls for loyalty to agreements. Basayev, Udugov and others broke peace agreements concluded earlier with Russia by invading Dagestan; they caused innumerable suffering to Moslems who live here.” Indeed, the campaign of Dagestani and Chechen vakhabits in mountainous Dagestan with Basayev and Khattab at its head provoked the federal center to another war in Chechnya. At the same time it is known that “the party of war” in Moscow had been preparing revenge for its losses in the previous war long before this provocative campaign.
The question of whether the resistance of Chechens to federal forces is jihad has been discussed in Chechnya. The most authoritative representatives of the traditional clergy did not consider the Chechen resistance to be jihad. Vakhabits declared it as jihad and even acquired a written certificate from a religious authority in Saudi Arabia. Dudayev’s former mufti K.Alsabekov took a dubious position on this matter. Under pressure from D.Dudayev, he declared that resistance to Russian armed forces was jihad and called for all Chechen Moslems to fight. In Znamenka, among anti-Dudayev opposition, he stated the contrary. On August 20, 1996 Aslabekov, a follower of zikrism, was condemned in accordance with the Shariah and sentenced to 80 lashes for his interpretation of the war as jihad.
The Vakhabits provoked real terror in the struggle against their opponents. After the first war in Chechnya a Naqshbandia follower, the 75-year-old imam of the central mosque of Grozny K. Yakchayev was murdered by a vakhabit. The murderer who was apprehended confessed that he killed the imam of the mosque for his statements against vakhabism.
On the night of June 16 this year Umar Idrisov, the 75-year old imam of Alkhan-Yurt mosque, a follower of Naqshbandiya, was killed in his sleep in Urus-Martan. This authoritative religious figure had stated in public that the Chechen resistance was not jihad. It is presumed that he was murdered by vakhabits as well.
A. Kadyrov, the former Dudayev-Maskhadov mufti, now the head of the Chechen administration, does not consider the resistance of Chechens as jihad, although he was resolutely calling the Chechens to jihad against Russian armed forces during the first war. The matter of jihad is a topic of discussion far beyond Chechnya as well.
The Vakhabit project to create an Islamic state in Chechnya and then on the whole territory of the Northern Caucasus has come to grief. The new Chechen mufti Ahmad-Hadji Shamayev, a follower of Kunta-Hadji, states directly that although all Chechen Moslems would like to see Chechnya as “a fully Islamic state, it will not happen.”
Criticising the activities of so called vakhabits, mufti Shamayev thinks: “The vakhabism in Chechnya is not Islam and I know people who call themselves vakhabits.” In his opinion “this is not vakhabism that is in Chechnya, these are people who use Islam for their own purposes, for enrichment, for business.”
The political role of Sufi Islam and in particular of followers of Kunta-Hadji has strengthened in Chechnya, with the help of the federal administration. Ahmad Kadyrov and Ahmad Shamayev are the followers of Kunta-Hadji and they are both opponents of vakhabism. Moscow has apparently set its mind on using vakhabists to oppose numerous zikrists. Moreover such a situation on the Chechen religious-political scene suits not only vakhabists who have attempted more than once and keep on attempting to murder Kadyrov, but also to representatives of Naqshbandiya, who feel themselves deprived of power.
Judging by their statements, Kadyrov and Shamayev are seeking to unite the Chechen nation and place it on a path towards independence but many Moslems do not accept their actions and treat them as Kremlin proteges. The mechanisms behind Dudayev-Maskhadov mufti Kadyrov’s rise to political power remain a mystery. One thing is clear: the surrender of Gudermes by Kadyrov and the Yamadayev brothers to federal forces contributed to this ascent.
There are no examples of an ecclesiastic refusing his holy orders in favour of temporal power in the history of Chechnya. But cases are known when the repressive bodies OGPU-NKVD-KGB forced many religious authorities to resign from their activities and made them support Stalin’s totalitarian regime; not to mention the fact that many were executed by these bodies in great numbers. It is not so difficult to understand the logic of the Kremlin “wise men” who decided to make a politician out of a Moslem leader. It is the first precedent in modern Russia. The Moscow military needed Kadyrov to split the fighting Chechens and to oppose Maskhadov. But these plans did not have the desired results. The frequent rumours concerning Kadyrov’s impending replacement can only be explained by this fact.
Anti-vakhabist attitudes are now widespread in Chechnya and the chances of a vakhabist revival are low for the time being. However, this does not at all mean that the dismantling of vakhabism has been completed in Chechnya or in neighbouring Dagestan. Despite persecution, physical punishment and prohibition, vakhabism’s organisational and ideological resources in the Northern Caucasus have not been drained.
Under stable conditions in the Northern Caucasus, vakhabism might be revived in a different form, able to fully exploit the controversies between vakhabism and traditional Islam. It could also be used for other political purposes.
Vakhit Akayev is a doctor of history at the Roston-on-Don university.