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Russia: Islamic Countries Unlikely To Help Chechnya

  • Charles Recknagel

As Moscow continues its campaign in Chechnya, Chechen leaders repeatedly have called for support from the Islamic world. But Muslim countries have shown little interest in responding. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the reasons why.

Prague, 19 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's seven-week old campaign in Chechnya has so far created some 200,000 refugees and raised a storm of protest in the West.

But it has brought Russia little more than mild rebukes from radical and conservative Islamic states alike.

Few Muslim countries have gone further than a statement by the Arab League's Secretary-General Esmat Abdel Meguid in Cairo early this month. After meeting with a visiting Russian minister, Meguid urged finding a solution to end the bombing of the breakaway republic but offered no direct criticisms.

Such a response falls far short of what Chechen leaders have sought as they repeated call on the Muslim world to support their fight with Moscow.

A special envoy for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, said during a recent visit to Qatar that the Chechens have not received the aid they expected from any of the Islamic states, not even condemnation of Russia's actions.

John C. K. Daly, a Caucasus expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, says that a principle reason for the Muslim countries' reluctance to become involved in the Chechen conflict is their longstanding political or trade relations with Moscow. These relations are considered to be of overriding importance even by the most radical states.

"There has not been an official recognition of Chechen independence by not only any Islamic state but any state worldwide. The radical Arab regimes that might be interested in doing this as a generalized anti-Western gesture, such as perhaps Libya, nonetheless have trading ties with the Russian Federation that far override helping a nation of less than a million people, a nation with virtually no exports, no industry, no international trade."

Daly says that many Muslim countries feel little religious solidarity with Chechnya. The Chechens practice a mystical version of Islam known as Sufism, which is characterized by the veneration of local saints and by brotherhoods that practice their own rituals. This wins the Chechens little sympathy from the Sunni and Shi'a establishments in most Muslim states. Daly:

"The prevalent form of Islam as practiced in the north Caucasus is Nakshbandi Sufism, which is not favored in Saudi Arabia -- [which is] of course a Wahhabi regime -- and is not favored in Shi'a Iran, either. And there are no Islamic states which regard themselves as officially Sufi. So the Chechens, through a combination of a kind of mystical version of Islam which is popular in their homeland, combined with economic issues, have dropped below the level of Islamic solidarity that one might expect from other Islamic countries."

Many conservative Muslim states also balk at encouraging militant Islamic movements abroad for fear the movements later will come home to roost in their own populations. Daly says many states see Islamabad's experience in aiding the Taliban as directly contributing to a tide of violence in Pakistan by Islamic radicals, many of whom fought or trained in Afghanistan.

The attitude of the Muslim states contrasts markedly with their support for Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians in those recent conflicts. Gulf Arab states and Iran contributed substantial financial aid to Bosnian Muslims to procure arms, and several Islamic governments sent humanitarian aid to Kosovo.

Daly says the Muslim states embraced their Bosnian and Kosovar Albanian co-religionists because they saw them as elements of the mainstream Muslim world. Both peoples were seen as integral parts of the former Ottoman Empire. Daly:

"The Bosnian Muslims were the high tide element of the last great 17th century Turkish drive into Europe, so the Bosnian Muslims have been in the Balkans, for better or worse, for over three centuries."

He says the Caucasus, with its incorporation into the Russian empire during the last centuries, has not enjoyed such a visible position in Islamic history.

But if Muslim governments have almost entirely stood back in the Chechen conflict, militant Islamic groups have not.

Earlier this month, Pakistan's largest militant organization -- the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba -- drew some 300,000 men to a conference near Lahore to hear calls to support Islamic fighters in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and elsewhere. AP reports that some 50,000 men signed up to fight in holy wars anywhere in the world.

Yemen, too, this month saw thousands of its citizens rally in support of Chechen fighters.

Today, an unknown number of Arab and other Muslim holy warriors are already fighting in Chechnya, just as they did in the 1994-1996 Chechen war. Fear that more will come prompted Moscow this month to suspend air traffic between southern Russia and countries in the Caucasus and the Middle East. Included in the ban are Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, among others.

Georgia, the only country sharing a border with Chechnya, has stopped issuing visas to citizens of 21 nations to prevent suspected militants from traveling through it to the breakaway republic.

Ironically, when militants do answer the Chechen leaders' appeals for aid, the relationship between them and the Chechen population can be difficult.

Many of the militants are evangelical and practice very austere forms of Islam that are far removed from the Chechens' mystical Sufism. This is particularly true of militants who adhere to Wahhabism, a form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. Daly:

"[Wahhabism] is a very austere form of the religion, whereas, in contrast, Sufism has a very pronounced reliance on spiritual guides [or saints], and after their death their graves frequently become sites of pilgrimage. [In] Wahhabism, on the other hand, there are to be no images, no worship of saints, indeed, there is no such thing as saints, and this has brought at least some of the Arab Wahhabi elements which are in Chechnya into direct conflict with the Chechen authorities and the Chechen people themselves."

But Daly says such religious friction is largely offset by the fact that the militant groups -- which are well financed -- bring much-needed money into the Chechen economy.

The presence of the foreign fighters in Chechnya has caused repeated accusations in Russian newspapers that countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are financing the Chechens' war chest.

This week, Saudi Arabia's interior minister, Prince Naif, rejected such charges as, in his words, totally false.

The influential Qatari daily, Al-Watan, went even further. The paper seemed to sum up the attitude of many Moslem states as it condemned such allegations as serving only to damage what it called the good relations between Qatar and Russia.