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Chechnya: Kadyrov Uses 'Folk Islam' For Political Gain

By Liz Fuller and Aslan Doukaev Ramzan Kadyrov prays at a mosque in the western Russian city of Yaroslavl (ITAR-TASS) Since his appointment as pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head in early March, Ramzan Kadyrov has energetically promulgated a revival of Chechen popular or "folk" Islam. Some observers see that campaign as a bid to pit the Chechen strain of Sufism against the Salafi Islam espoused by the North Caucasus resistance. The Russian authorities routinely denigrate Salafi Islam as "Wahhabism," a term that is routinely applied to any Muslims whose political loyalties are considered suspect.

A closer analysis, however, suggests that the term "Sufism," like “Wahhabism,” is being used in this context as a political marker rather than a doctrinal one. Kadyrov, the son of a former chief mufti, is apparently promoting a brand of ethno-territorial nationalism that is based largely on popular Islam, but that also selectively borrows -- and sometimes grotesquely distorts -- the symbols and rituals of Chechen Sufism, even as it ignores its essence.

In this respect, Kadyrov and his advisers may have been inspired by the argument espoused by the Tatar Jadidists -- reformist Muslims who sought in the late 19th and early 20th century to reconcile faith with political thought -- that "love for the fatherland derives from faith."

Chechnya's Islamic Spectrum

Besides Salafism, which is a relatively new and still-marginal phenomenon in the area, Islam in Chechnya is practiced in two forms. Dogmatic or canonical Sunni Islam, represented by the Shafii school of religious law, is followed primarily by the so-called official clergy -- imams and leaders of officially registered congregations. There are reportedly 72 such congregations, all overseen by Chechnya's Spiritual Board of Muslims. This is an age-old religious tradition looked upon more or less favorably by the Russian government.

But Sufism, which is a more esoteric and internalized expression of Islamic teaching, has increasingly been receiving approving nods from the Russian state as well. This is surprising given the harshness with which tsarist Russia, and later the Soviet authorities, treated Sufi brotherhoods in the past. Beginning in the second half of the 18th century, practically all those leading the resistance to Russia's expansion in the North Caucasus -- from Sheikh Mansur and Imam Shamil to Najmuttin of Hotso and Sheikh Uzun Haji -- were inspired by Sufism, primarily of the Naqshbandi brand. Hence the suspicion the Russian authorities always harbored against the Sufi orders.

Even the more pacifist Qadiriya tariqat, or brotherhood, which spread in the mid-19th century under the influence of the Chechen preacher Kunta Haji and which advocated the acceptance of infidel domination for the sake of self-preservation, drew the ire of the tsarist administration.

In 1864, the Russian authorities, wary of the growing popularity of the Qadiriya tariqat in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and parts of Daghestan, arrested and deported Kunta Haji to central Russia. Kunta Haji's followers, of whom Kadyrov counts himself one, have never been able to come to terms with the collective trauma of losing their spiritual leader. To this day they await the return of their sheikh.

Repression, Assimilation

Other Sufi orders suffered a similar plight. Between the 1860s and the mid-1920s, first the tsarist government and then the Bolsheviks wiped out the entire spiritual leadership of all Sufi brotherhoods in Chechnya and Ingushetia. But despite those reprisals, such groups in the Caucasus survived underground and continued to practice Sufi rituals out of sight of the authorities until the collapse of the atheist regime in the early 1990s.

The war in Chechnya that began in late 1994 served as the catalyst for the emergence of various Islamist groups, both in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus. Russian leaders, their barely concealed distaste for Islam notwithstanding, by the late 1990s became so concerned about the spread of radical interpretations of Islam that they considered it expedient to co-opt official Muslim clergy and even some Sufi sheikhs into the struggle against burgeoning Islamic radicalism.

The end result was an artificial dichotomy between "traditional Islam" and “Wahhabism.” Because those efforts often lacked subtlety and relied to a great extent on the use of force, they frequently proved counterproductive, driving many of those groups to take up arms against the authorities.

The publicly touted rationale for the punitive Russian intervention in Chechnya in the fall of 1999 was the incursion, launched in August of that year, into neighboring Daghestan by just such a group of Chechen and Daghestani Islamic radicals.

Headed by field commander Shamil Basayev and ideologue Movladi Udugov, the incursion's stated aim was declaring a North Caucasus Islamic republic. The Russian and pro-Russian Chechen authorities continued to identify Wahhabism as the primary force that impelled young Chechens to join the ranks of the resistance even after full-scale hostilities peaked. And it was the resistance that was identified as responsible for the killing, during the early years of this decade, of at least 17 and possibly as many as 50 Muslim clergymen. They are also blamed for the murders of an elderly relative and the son of Akhmed-hadji Shamayev, who stepped down in the summer of 2005 after serving for five years as Chechnya's head mufti.

The Search For 'Traditional Islam'

Insofar as radical Islam was perceived as the driving force behind the continued steady exodus of young Chechen men to join the resistance, the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities in early 2005 launched a counter-campaign. In January 2005, they announced a plan to introduce a course of instruction in "traditional Islam" in schools.

To date, however, the plan has never fully materialized -- either for lack of trained instructors and teaching materials, or the difficulties inherent in defining the phenomenon in a way that satisfies the authorities. As elsewhere in Russia, Chechen schools teach a course in the "Basics of Religion," which for the most part reflects the teaching of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In February 2005, then-Chechen Republic administration head Alu Alkhanov chaired a republic-level meeting, attended by representatives of Russia's Council of Muftis, to focus on ways to combat Wahhabism. At that meeting, Alkhanov ordered the drafting of a "comprehensive program" aimed at countering the propaganda of “Wahhabism and extremism" with measures to promote "traditional Islam and patriotism."

Alkhanov also stressed the need to create jobs for young people and recreation facilities, in particular sports clubs -- an undertaking that Kadyrov, then first deputy prime minister, enthusiastically espoused as a vehicle for personally winning the hearts and minds of the younger generation.

As part of the broader effort to control religious practice, the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities also set about restoring mosques damaged during two successive wars, as well as building new ones. In May 2003, Shamayev said Chechnya had 300 functioning mosques; today, Kadyrov claims that every one of Chechnya's 423 villages now has a functioning mosque.

A huge mosque that will accommodate 10,000 worshippers is currently under construction in Grozny at an estimated cost of $20 million. The number of Chechens traveling to Saudi Arabia on the hajj has also risen exponentially, from 140 in 2003 to 1,300 in 2006.

Redefining Standards

At the same time, Kadyrov has issued a series of decrees imposing prohibitions common to many Islamic societies, for example on gambling and the consumption of alcohol, and requiring that all women employed in the state sector, and all female school and university students, wear the hijab. Female students who ignore that requirement are no longer permitted to attend university classes.

Kadyrov has described both the head-scarf requirement and his recent edict forbidding brides to wear low-cut wedding dresses as part of a program of "moral education." Other aspects of that program, however, have no clear basis in Islamic belief, and are apparently geared to redefining what is aesthetically and culturally acceptable under Chechen tradition.

The new requirement that all theater performances and songs performed publicly should "conform to Chechen mentality and education" is just one step away from the ban imposed by the late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov on performances of European opera and ballet.

The practice of divorcing religious belief from religious ritual, and promoting the latter while cracking down on the former, was one of the hallmarks of the Soviet approach to controlling and manipulating all faiths. Kadyrov appears to be reverting to that approach with the aim of reducing “Chechen Islam" to a lowest common denominator -- an Islam that is "easy to understand," in contrast to much of the theological debate on Chechen resistance websites, and that imposes a minimum of requirements on its practitioners.

Central to Kadyrov's religious revival is the public performance of the zikr, the mystic Sufi prayer-cum-dance ritual through which adepts seek to escape the existential illusions of the world and remind themselves of God.

Kadyrov's apparent lack of either understanding or respect for Chechen Sufi tradition is evident from clandestine video footage showing him repeatedly firing a pistol into the air as elderly Chechen men perform the zikr. A true Sufi would no more fire a gun during the zikr than a devout Catholic would during the celebration of High Mass.

Weapons, Faith, Country

Yet such behavior is not simply blasphemy in the eyes of devout Sufis: it carries a potent and dangerous political message. On the political and psychological plane, it serves to promote and reinforce not just a sense of belonging to a community that defines itself in both ethnic and quasi-religious terms, but a perception that the use of weapons to defend that community is acceptable, if not obligatory.

The conflation of the zikr with readiness to take up arms to defend Chechnya against Russian aggression dates back to the early days of the 1994-96 war, when Russian television cameras filmed men performing the zikr in front of the presidential building in Grozny as Russian war planes dropped bombs on the city.

A second aspect of Chechen popular religious tradition that Kadyrov seeks simultaneously to promote and to control is that of pilgrimages to "holy" places, including the grave in the eastern village of Ertan of Kunta Haji's mother.

In May 2006, Shamayev's successor as Chechnya's mufti, Sultan-hadji Mirzayev, was quoted as saying that over 100,000 people visited that shrine over the preceding month. Ertan was one of the shrines that Kadyrov himself visited immediately after his inauguration as republic head in April 2007.

One of Kadyrov's more bizarre borrowings from Sufi tradition was to order for prisoners at the infamous Chernokozovo penal colony special uniforms modeled on the traditional garments worn by members of the Qadiriya tariqat in Chechnya and Ingushetia as "the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." Again, the message that innovation conveys is that all Chechens -- regardless of their social status and any offenses they may have committed against secular law -- are part of a broader community that defines itself in both ethnic and quasi-religious terms.

There is little evidence to suggest that, preoccupied as they are with day-to-day survival, most Chechens care about the folly of Kadyrov's plans -- assuming they realize their possible long-term implications. Even those who consider their faith an integral component of their personal identity are likely to refrain from criticism or protest, lest they expose themselves and their families to Kadyrov's wrath.

(Liz Fuller is an RFE/RL analyst and Aslan Doukaev is director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service.)

The Rise Of Ramzan Kadyrov

The Rise Of Ramzan Kadyrov
Kadyrov dances at the reopening of Grozny Airport

Ever since his father, pro-Kremlin Chechen President Akhmed-Hadji Kadyrov was killed in a May 2004 bomb blast in Grozny, Ramzan Kadyrov has risen to prominence.

In March 2006, First Deputy Prime Minister Kadyrov, who heads a personal army of 10,000 heavily armed fighters, was named prime minister. His reign as premier has been characterized by divisions in the Chechen leadership and accusations of torture. But he has also been credited with improving living standards in the republic.

In October, he turned 30, clearing the way for running for president.


The fighting in Chechnya has raged, with short breaks, since 1994. It has brought misery, death, and destruction to the North Caucasus republic and to Russia as a whole. View an annotated timeline of the conflict.

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