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Georgia: Saakashvili Sees In 'Wahabbism' A Threat To Secularism

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has made improved ties with Moscow a top foreign policy priority, last week vowed to take urgent action to stop his country from serving as a rear base for armed separatists fighting federal troops in Chechnya. The newly elected Georgian leader today made another conciliatory gesture toward Russia, saying Tbilisi would launch a merciless fight against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

Prague, 18 February 2004 (RFE/RL) Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili today vowed to fight alleged radical Islamic groups based in an area that borders Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Addressing reporters at the State Security Ministry headquarters in Tbilisi, Saakashvili said his administration would do its utmost to root out so-called "Wahabbism" in Georgia.

"I want to warn all those who are propagating the ideas of Wahabbism in Georgia that they will face the utmost in severe actions and that they should not expect any compromise on our part," Saakashvili said.

This was the first time a Georgian official openly admitted to the purported spread of "Wahabbism" in the Southern Caucasus country.

Wahabbism is named after Mohammad bin-Abdul Wahab, an 18th-century religious thinker who fought the influence of Sufism in Sunni Islam, which he viewed as a deviation from the original Islamic rules.

Although "Wahabbism" refers to the mainstream religious doctrine of Saudi Arabia, the word is indiscriminately used in Russia -- often in a derogatory way -- to designate various non-traditional Islamic movements, regardless of their origins. It notably applies to the most radical of Chechen militants and foreign fighters with alleged Al-Qaeda links battling Russian troops.

Saakashvili made these remarks just one week after promising Russian President Vladimir Putin full cooperation in the fight against armed Chechen separatists.

Moscow has long accused Saakashvili's predecessor, former President Eduard Shevardnadze, of condoning the presence of Chechen armed militants in the Pankisi Gorge, a largely inaccessible mountainous area that lies immediately south of Chechnya.

Dismissing Shevardnadze's claims, the new Georgian leader last week reportedly told Russian officials that Chechen fighters have been allowed to move freely across Georgia and that his government was determined to put a stop to it.

Saakashvili today said the spread of so-called Wahabbism represented a threat to Georgian secularism and urged Zurab Adeishvili -- his newly appointed state security minister -- to take urgent steps to preserve the state and society from what he called a "hostile ideology:"

"Some villages in the Pankisi region have already turned into centers of Wahabbism. It is a fact that there are Wahabbi schools there and that they are propagating Wahabbism. From childhood on, our people there -- the local Kist population -- are being poisoned with this unacceptable, hostile ideology. I want to remind the State Security Ministry that Georgia is a secular state and that every attempt at propagating Wahabbism is anti-Georgian, anti-national, and is directed against the Georgian statehood," Saakashvili said.

Saakashvili said his government will ensure that "Wahabbi" literature does not enter Georgia and that all funding sent to Pankisi-based fundamentalist groups from abroad is cut off.

Talking to reporters later today, the Georgian leader renewed his attacks against "Wahabbism" and said his calls for action against radical Islam should not be interpreted as approving the harassment of religious minorities.

"We are for freedom of religion, but not that religion. [Besides, Wahabbism] is not a religion. It is a violence propaganda directed against the Georgian statehood," Saakashvili said.

Georgian rights campaigners have said they fear Saakashvili's attempts at securing a rapprochement with Russia might impact the situation of Chechen refugees.

"I want to warn all those who are propagating the ideas of Wahabbism in Georgia that they will face the utmost in severe actions and that they should not expect any compromise on our part."
Moscow has been urging Pankisi-based civilians to return home, officially to participate in the reconstruction of war-ravaged Chechnya. But Russian and Georgian human rights activists claim Russia is in fact seeking the return of all Chechen male refugees over 18 in order to ensure they do not take part in combat operations.

Moscow is also seeking the extradition of all the Chechens arrested by Georgian authorities in Pankisi a year-and-a-half ago on border violation charges.

Five were extradited to Russia in October 2002 and news reports today said a court in Russia's southern city of Stavropol sentenced four of them to prison terms ranging from 18 months to 10 years.

Earlier this month, a Tbilisi court ordered the release of another three Chechen prisoners arrested in 2002. Two of them have reportedly disappeared in Tbilisi.

Georgian media yesterday quoted Chechen rights campaigner Aslanbek Abdurzakov and Georgian lawyers as saying they might have been secretly handed over to Russian authorities. But Georgian security officials have denied any involvement in the disappearance of the two.

Demonstrations in support of the missing Chechens were held today in front of the Georgian state television headquarters and in Duisi, Pankisi's chief settlement.