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Russia: A Three-Way Struggle For Chechen Islam

  • Paul Goble

http://gdb.rferl.org/4C8416DF-B1D7-47D4-9828-6A32F87FB577_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/4C8416DF-B1D7-47D4-9828-6A32F87FB577_mw800_mh600.jpg Three Islamic groups in Chechnya are competing for influence over the Muslims of that republic -- the state-controlled and pro-Moscow muftiate, the traditional Sufi tariqats and the radical Islamist djamaats, according to Shamil Beno, a former Chechen foreign minister who now works as an political analyst and activist in Moscow. And because mosques are "the only social institution that is functioning more or less normally in that republic," Beno argues in an interview in the 10 August issue of "Nezavisimaya gazeta -- Religii," the outcome of their competition will play a major role in defining Chechnya's future.

Moreover, he emphasizes, as have many others, in any political conflict, people in Chechnya and its adjoining regions inevitably use Islamic slogans to advance their cause, something that makes it critically important to know where they derive these slogans from and what the precise connotations of each of the terms they use are.

The official muftiate, according to Beno, currently an analyst at the Foundation for the Support of Democracy, has very little influence with the population because most Chechens view it as an agency of the pro-Moscow government. Indeed, he says, the muftiate is "the weakest link in this chain." That is especially true because the leaders of the muftiate are not selected by genuine elections but rather imposed by the government authorities, something that contributes to the deep divide that now exists in Chechnya between society, on the one hand, and the people in power, on the other.

Sufi tariqats, another faction involved in this competition, continue to exercise an independent influence over believers, not only because of the traditional authority of tariqat leaders at the village level but also because they currently refuse to have anything to do with the muftiate and its appointees. As a result, Beno says, it is now -- as has been the case for most of the last century -- "only the leaders of the tariqats" who are in a position to adequately express "the pubic opinion of Muslims" in Chechnya. But their status, influence, and power is being challenged by the third group, the so-called radical djamaats.
Sufi tariqats, another faction involved in this competition, continue to exercise an independent influence over believers, not only because of the traditional authority of tariqat leaders at the village level but also because they currently refuse to have anything to do with the muftiate.


In Arabic, the term "djamaat" means nothing more than "community of believers" and can be applied widely. But in the last decade, it has come to designate in Chechnya and elsewhere in the northern Caucasus only those Muslim groups who reject the traditional muftiate and tariqat-based Islam in favor of a radical fundamentalism. That would seem to put these two groups at loggerheads to a degree almost as great as the conflict that exists between each of them and the official muftiate, Beno continues, but in fact, he says, "the incompetence" of government officials in seeking to manage the affairs of the muftiate has driven the tariqat and djamaat leaders together.

Indeed, at the present time, Beno says, the two of them are "gradually consolidating" into a single anti-muftiate movement, one in which the social standing of the tariqats and the radicalism of the djamaats are converging to form an ever more explosive challenge to the mufti and to his government backers.

Obviously, the government must seek to resolve the problem of radicalism, Beno says, but it will fail to do so if it continues as it has up to now. Its approach reflects the continuing impact of "the principles of totalitarianism" and a failure to understand the importance for Chechens of personally selecting their leaders through either a formal or informal process. But because the pro-Moscow officials and their appointees in the official Islamic establishment do not understand that reality, Beno argues, they are undermining their own position and ensuring that the situation will only deteriorate further, as Moscow's opponents gain in strength.

Beno concludes with the following alarming prophecy. "I consider," he says, "that the radicalization of Islam in the Northern Caucasus will gradually reach a critical level. And that in its turn can lead to the beginning of a new war, the consequences of which will be unpredictable both for the North Caucasus and for the country as a whole."



For more on religious and interfaith issues, see RFE/RL's website Religion and Tolerance
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