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Holier Than Thou: Ramzan Kadyrov And 'Traditional Chechen Islam'

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov cries during the opening ceremony of a mosque in the village of Kurchaloi, outside Grozny, in October 2009.
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov cries during the opening ceremony of a mosque in the village of Kurchaloi, outside Grozny, in October 2009.
Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, arguably the most powerful -- and dangerous -- regional leader in the Russian Federation is resorting to increasingly draconian measures to impose his own eclectic vision of what constitutes "traditional Chechen Islam," along with the code of behavior, ethics, and dress he considers one of its key components.

So far this year, Kadyrov has instituted the ideological vetting of all imams and dismissed those deemed incompetent; decreed a uniform schedule for daily prayers; and named an Islamic theologian to run a new website intended to promulgate Sufism and attract young believers who might otherwise be drawn to the websites of the various subdivisions of the North Caucasus Islamic insurgency that promote Salafi Islam.

And since early June bands of masked men in military uniform have patrolled the streets of Grozny and fired paintballs at any woman not wearing a head scarf in line with an edict issued by Kadyrov in 2007.

Two forms of Islam have traditionally coexisted side by side in Chechnya.

Dogmatic or canonical Sunni Islam, represented by Shafii legal school, is followed primarily by the so-called official clergy, i.e. imams and leaders of officially registered congregations, which are overseen by Chechnya's Spiritual Board of Muslims. That school of Sunni Islam was tolerated in the Soviet Union, while Sufism, a more esoteric and internalized expression of Islamic teaching, was suppressed and driven underground.

In 2005, a campaign was launched under then Chechen Republic head Alu Alkhanov to promote a variant of "traditional Islam" as a counterweight to salafism.

When Kadyrov was named republic head three years ago, he set about intensifying that campaign, grafting selected elements of Chechen sufism and popular Islam on to traditional Sunni Islam. The resulting synthesis, which selectively borrows, and in some cases grotesquely distorts, the symbols and rituals of Chechen sufism while ignoring its essence, is the primary component of the ethno-territorial nationalism that Kadyrov energetically promotes as part of his efforts to position himself as defender and promoter of a new Chechen national identity.

In October 2007, then Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Doku Umarov publicly proclaimed a pan-North-Caucasus Muslim emirate with himself as leader. That move effectively added a new, quasi-religious dimension to the competition between Kadyrov and Umarov for political control over Chechnya.

Kadyrov's approach to that battle for influence is informed by a visceral fear and loathing of Salafi Islam, not, one suspects, so much on narrow doctrinal grounds as because of the threat the Islamic insurgency poses to his authority and his standing in the eyes of the Russian leadership. In that context, it is worth noting that Kadyrov never quotes verbatim from the Koran in his public pronouncements.

Further evidence of his shaky grasp of the fundamentals of Islam is his predilection for naming mosques or other Islamic institutions after specific persons, including members of his own family. Caucasus Knot quoted a member of the Chechen clergy who asked not to be identified as pointing out that while doing so is contrary to the fundamentals of Islam, no one dare say so publicly for fear of being branded an "extremist."

Parallel to redefining what constitutes "traditional Chechen Islam" and perfecting the various channels (the clergy, the official media, and the education system) whereby that concept is inculcated into the population from an early age, Kadyrov has simultaneously set about building an extensive Muslim infrastructure comprising mosques, an Islamic university, and a center for Islamic medicine.

In addition to the grandiose Heart Of Chechnya mosque in Grozny -- inaugurated in October 2008 and reputedly the largest in Europe -- four new mosques opened in October 2009, including one in the village of Kurchaloi. Five more mosques, each with a capacity of 5,000 worshippers, were also reported to be under construction in Gudermes, Urus-Martan, Tsentoroi, Djalka, and Tsotsin-Yurt.

A Russian Islamic University opened in Grozny in August 2009 to teach a five-year course comprising Islamic studies, the Koran, and the Arabic language; plus law, psychology, world history, and the Chechen and Russian languages.

Construction of a school in Kadyrov's home village of Tsentoroi for hafizes (scholars who can recite the entire Koran by heart) got under way last year. A second such school, also for 100 students, will be built in Grozny.

A center of Islamic medicine -- this reportedly, too, the largest in Europe -- opened in Grozny in February 2009. Its staff of 15 alims will treat up to 80 patients per day free of charge, by readings suras and ayats from the Koran.

Given that the success of Kadyrov's indoctrination campaign depends in the first instance on the clergy, Kadyrov holds regular meetings both with Chechen mufti Sultan-hajji Mirzayev and with local imams and kadis. The message he conveys to them invariably focuses on the need to step up efforts to eradicate "wahhabism," meaning the Salafi Islam espoused by the North Caucasus insurgency, and to deter young men from falling for Salafi propaganda and "heading for the forest" to join the insurgents' ranks.

At one such gathering last summer, Kadyrov angrily challenged the clergy to explain why young men "won't listen to you, but they will to that Said Buryatsky" -- the young convert from Buryatia who joined the insurgency in 2008 and served as its chief ideologue until his death in March 2010.

At another such meeting, in January 2010, Kadyrov argued that "without a spiritually developed and highly moral society, the republic has no future." He stressed that "sermons by imams of mosques must reach the heart of every inhabitants of the republic, including those who are far from religion."

That exhortation calls into question the effectiveness of the requirement, announced by Mirzayev in May 2008, that imams submit their Friday sermons to Chechnya's Muslim Spiritual Board for prior approval. Mirzayev's stated rationale was that "no one has the right to impose his reflections on the population" and that such evaluations would preclude "distortions of Islam" that could have "pernicious consequences." He did not say who would be responsible for the process, or by what criteria sermons would be evaluated.

Last fall, a separate commission composed of five Muslim theologians was established within the Muslim Spiritual Board to assess the merits and competence of regional kadis and imams of local mosques. Valit Kuruyev, Mirzayev's first deputy, explained the introduction of that procedure in terms of the need to ensure that the clergy are exclusively men with a "profound knowledge of religion, who are capable of explaining the whole essence of Islam to society."

The commission duly evaluated 325 imams and did not remove a single one of them. But in late April, Kadyrov complained to Mirzayev that some clergymen "only appear among their parishioners to conduct weddings and funerals" and "make no effort to combat wahhabism and extremism." Kadyrov ordered that the offenders be dismissed, and within two weeks nine imams were replaced in the Nozhai-Yurt and Shelkovksy districts alone.

One imam of a mosque in Grozny Raion was dismissed in May, and a second warned of the need to shape up. It is not clear whether the 10 men dismissed were among the 325 who had successfully undergone scrutiny a few months earlier.

One unnamed cleric told the website Caucasus Knot that the dismissals were simply a pretext to enable the Muslim Spiritual Board to kill two birds with one stone: get rid of those imams who refused to brand as "wahhabis" anyone who expresses the slightest dissatisfaction with or dissent from Kadyrov's policies, and provide jobs for a surfeit of unemployed mullahs.

Also in early May, three of Chechnya's 18 madrasahs were temporarily closed for various reasons, including the poor quality of teaching.

Meanwhile, there are tentative indications that Mirzayev (who like Kadyrov's late father Akhmed-hajji Kadyrov occupied a prominent position within the Muslim hierarchy in 1997-1999 under then Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov) may have reservations about Kadyrov's efforts to dilute orthodox Chechen Sunni Islam with elements of Sufism.

In early March, Mirzayev summoned the leaders of the Naqshbandi and Qadariyya Sufi brotherhoods in Chechnya and warned them against attempts to introduce unidentified "innovations" that, Mirzayev said, "undermine the foundations of traditional Islam."

Kadyrov's vision extends far beyond ensuring that the population can attend prayers regularly at newly built mosques whose imams are considered ideologically sound. The media, too, have been co-opted to promote Kadyrov's concept of "genuine Chechen Islam." In January 2008, Kadyrov issued instructions that the media, both state and privately owned, should reduce rebroadcasting of Western music and entertainment and increase the volume of programming devoted to religious and patriotic themes. He warned that those TV channels that failed to comply would be closed down.

In November 2009, it was announced that a new radio station that would broadcast primarily on Islam-related topics would begin broadcasting "very soon." And last month a new website was launched with the specific intention of providing information about Islam and thereby undercutting the attraction insurgency websites have for the younger generation. It has already been hacked.

Attendance at mosques across Chechnya is high, especially among persons over the age of 35-40. A recent poll of 200 residents of Grozny found that 43 percent attend prayers at a mosque once a week.

But it is impossible to assess how many people do so only due to what one of the human rights activists who met last month with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev termed the "climate of fear" that pervades life in Chechnya under Kadyrov, and in which failure to attend Friday prayers carries the stigma of political unreliability.

Any believer who dares criticize the official clergy risks being branded as a "wahhabist" sympathizer. A young man who sought to challenge Mirzayev's vilification of Said Buryatsky during a sermon last October as "an enemy of Allah" was summarily frog-marched out of the mosque; it is not clear what happened to him after that.

Attendance at mosques is lower among the 18-35 age group, who can remember, if only vaguely, a normal, peaceful life prior to the first Russian invasion in December 1994. They are more likely to be attracted by Salafism than by Kadyrov's idiosyncratic take on Sufism.

No effort is spared to brainwash children of school age. Children are required to study the basics of Islam, but the 30 lessons do not mention, let alone explain, the difference between Sunnis and Shi'a, nor do they mention the existence of wahhabism. In addition, from fifth to 11th grade, children attend weekly classes in "Vainakh [Chechen and Ingush] ethics," the only classes taught in Chechen not Russian.

The message is reinforced by monitors in school buses that show clips about religion and about "Chechen national customs and traditions."

Some Russian commentators have argued that Kadyrov has gone further toward building an Islamic state than the leaders of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria ever dreamed of doing. But Kadyrov has not formally proclaimed Shari'a law, as Maskhadov did in February 1999 under pressure from the radical Islamists among his subordinates.

On the contrary: when a French journalist recently quoted Kadyrov as saying that in his opinion, Shari'a law takes precedence over the laws of the Russian Federation, Kadyrov's press spokesman immediately demanded a formal explanation, claiming that Kadyrov had been misquoted.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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