Accessibility links

Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Nationalism And Islam, Islam And Nationalism

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 11 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The new round of fighting in Dagestan between the Russian Federation and separatist groups there highlights the complicated and largely misunderstood interrelationships between nationalism and Islam.

Most Russian and Western coverage of the events in Dagestan has suggested that the separatist rebels in that region are Chechen nationalists seeking to expand their political base, Islamic fundamentalists interested in establishing a theocratic state, or some combination of the two.

Each of these characterizations captures part of the story, but all of them are problematic. On the one hand, such descriptions frequently reflect the policy goals of their authors, many of whom have discovered that Russians and the international community are more likely to support attacks on Islam than on ethnic nationalism.

And on the other, these descriptions, even when apparently based on careful research, seldom fully reflect either the complexities of the ethnic and religious mosaic of the North Caucasus or the various strategies different groups there have used to advance their interests.

The North Caucasus in general and Dagestan in particular are among the most ethnically complicated regions on earth. Most of the indigenous nationalities -- and there are more than 30 in Dagestan alone -- are historically Islamic, and their national identities and thus national aspirations are affected by that fact.

But this Islamic component in their makeup has not always been the defining one either in their culture or in their political aspirations. In general, and of course there are exceptions, the larger communities in this region have pursued ethno-national agendas, turning to Islam only as part of a search for allies.

That has been the story of the Chechens -- who number almost a million people -- in the past decade. The Chechen national movement originated as a largely secular one demanding national rights for the Chechens. Frequent suggestions to the contrary, it turned to Islam only when its nationalist agenda appeared to have been stymied by Russian opposition.

And that pattern has been followed by most of the other larger groups in the region at various points in the past.

The numerically smaller groups there, however, have adopted a very different strategy. Because they are so small -- many number in the hundreds or even less -- they have turned to Islam almost immediately as the only overarching identity that could give them the chance to define themselves and to achieve their goals.

That has been the strategy that the peoples of Dagestan have adopted in the past and now appear to be using again. And it explains why the Dagestani movement today appears so much more Islamic than did Chechen activism in 1991.

But the events in Dagestan and Chechnya today call attention to yet a third pattern, one that also has a long history. Moreover, this pattern helps to explain why some Russian officials, including now ousted Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, have been suggesting that Moscow could "lose" more of the North Caucasus unless it acts vigorously now.

This third pattern is a linking up of the nationalism of the larger ethnic communities like the Chechens with the Islamism of smaller ethnic communities in Dagestan. That mix, which powered anti-Russian movements there for much of the past 200 years, frequently posed a bigger challenge to Moscow than either ethnicity or Islam.

During Moscow's 1994-96 campaign against Chechnya, many analysts in both Moscow and the West warned that Russian actions were driving the nationalist Chechens into the arms of the Islamic groups and that the Russian Federation might find it easier to deal with an independent nationalist Chechnya than a ethno-Islamic challenge across the entire region.

Such predictions now appear to be coming true in the hitherto isolated villages of highland Dagestan. And that development represents a potentially far greater challenge than the one posed by the Chechens earlier in this decade.