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Chechnya: Analysis From Washington -- Misrepresenting Islam

Prague, 15 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The senior Islamic official in the Caucasus argues that Russian media have promoted an image of the role of Islam in the Chechen conflict not only at variance with reality but one fraught with tragic consequences for the entire region.

In an interview with Baku's "Bakinskiy rabochiy" earlier this month, Saykh ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Pashazade argued that the Russian government and mass media have promoted a dangerous logic about Islam and the Chechens.

According to the chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus, the Russian media seek to promote the idea that "Chechens are Wahhabis, Wahhabis are fundamentalists, [and] thus, they must be annihilated."

Pashazade noted that unlike in 1994-96 when Moscow called the Chechens "extremists," Russian sources now label them "terrorists." And it turns out, he continues "that the whole nation is engaged in terrorism."

Such a view, Pashazade said is wrong in three ways.

First, he pointed out, "an entire nation cannot be terrorists and fundamentalists." By definition, only those who engage in particular actions can be so labeled, and no people consists only of those.

Overwhelmingly, Pashazade said, the people of Chechnya are "a proud, talented and hard-working people. Few of the women, children or elderly fall into the category of terrorist, and Pashadze implies, not that many of the men do either.

Second, Pashazade said, Moscow's misrepresentation of Islam reflects its failure to acknowledge the state the Muslims of the post-Soviet states now find themselves in as a result of Soviet policy.

In Soviet times, he noted "Islam was under the vigilant control of ideological dogmatists. Few Muslim mosques were functioning, the Koran was available only in Russian translation, and even that was not available to everyone."

As a result, few of those living in historically Islamic communities had the opportunity to learn much about their faith or to base their actions on the genuine principles of Islam. Indeed, he said, most "lost connection with the religion of their forefathers during decades of 'state atheism.'" Even those who called themselves Muslims, Pashazade pointed out, typically followed a faith combining memories of the true faith with local customs that often had little or nothing to do with Islam itself.

Pashazade's words can be taken seriously on this point: he was one of the pillars of the Soviet Islamic establishment, and he is now trying to overcome the consequences of Soviet efforts to wipe out Islamic belief and Islamic practice.

Third, Pashazade concluded, Moscow's portrayal of the situation dramatically and falsely overstates the role of Wahhabism in Chechnya.

The Muslims of Chechnya, Pashazade said, are overwhelmingly Sunni or, in a few cases, Shiia. In the past, few if any Chechens accepted Wahhabism, which Pashazade describes as "a radical strain of Islam" which is practiced in Saudi Arabia. How did it happen, Pashazade asked rhetorically, that Moscow chose to blame Wahhabism for what has taken place in Chechnya.

On the one hand, he said, some in Chechnya and elsewhere have accepted the blandishments of Wahhabi "emissaries" precisely because of their lack of understanding of the true faith. But he made it clear that in his view, the number of such converts was small.

On the other, Pashazade implied, Moscow could not afford to blame Islam as a whole for Chechnya lest it offend the many Muslims who live inside the Russian Federation and in neighboring countries.

At the close of his interview, Pashazade reiterated a point that he has made frequently: He and other Muslims reject terrorism as an appropriate means of political struggle.

But he added an appeal to "all my friends in Russia and in the first place to the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church to use all your strength to help stop the bloodshed, to show mercy to children, the elderly and women, and to protect them from unjust retribution!"

Both Pashazade's analysis of the Russian portrayal of the Chechens as Wahhabis and his appeal for peace suggest that Moscow's carefully calibrated ideological campaign on this issue may be beginning to backfire among other Muslims in Russia and neighboring countries.

To the extent that happens, the Russian government may come to see that in itself as another reason to back away from its current campaign of violence and to move toward some kind of negotiated settlement in Chechnya.