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Chechen Adversaries Unveil Rival Concepts Of Jihad

Ramzan Kadyrov prays as he visits a recently rebuilt district in Grozny on May 1.
Ramzan Kadyrov prays as he visits a recently rebuilt district in Grozny on May 1.
The two men who embody the ongoing struggle for control over Chechnya and the North Caucasus both draw on Islamic theology, in particular the concept of jihad, to lend legitimacy to their efforts. But their approaches to doing so could not be more different.

Pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has co-opted respected Islamic scholars to formulate a denunciation of the jihad espoused by the Islamic insurgency. That denunciation is intended to impress and convince by the weight of the theological arguments adduced.

Self-styled Caucasus Emirate head and insurgency commander Doku Umarov, for his part, eschews doctrine, seeking instead to secure the support of his fellow Chechens by anchoring the concept of jihad in the Chechens’ unequivocal rejection of Russian hegemony.

The two camps do, however, agree on one key point, although their interpretations of it diverge: that jihad is a way to preserve and strengthen the Islamic faith.

Following a recent congress in Moscow titled “Islamic Doctrine Against Radicalism,” prominent scholars from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere traveled to Grozny where they issued a declaration defining the terms “jihad,” “takfir” (excommunication of apostates), and “caliphate.” The declaration is intended in the first instance to substantiate legally and theologically the repeated assertions by Kadyrov and other republic heads that the North Caucasus insurgency has nothing in common with Islam.

The declaration does not differentiate between the degrees of jihad. It affirms that the term applies strictly to bloodshed on the field of battle and that “the killings, assassinations, and explosions perpetrated by fanatics in the Caucasus and other regions under the slogan of fighting against apostates, against those who distance themselves from Islam and are loyal to non-Muslims, [actions] which result in the deaths of Muslims and of those with regard to whom Shari'a law forbids bloodletting and the appropriation of their property, do not constitute jihad and have nothing in common with it.”

Insurgency commander Doku Umarov in an undated screen grab
Insurgency commander Doku Umarov in an undated screen grab
As for “takfir,” the declaration says it is the exclusive prerogative of Allah, and even the most learned scholars do not have the right to level that accusation against a fellow believer. But none of the theologians of the North Caucasus insurgency – Yasin Rasulov, Anzor Astemirov, Said Buriatsky, or the current qadi of the North Caucasus emirate, Sheikh Abu Mukhammad – has ever pronounced such an excommunication or even raised the possibility of doing so.

Takfir is, however, common in Middle Eastern and Gulf countries, which may be why the authors of the declaration chose to include it.

The declaration stresses the benefits of peaceful co-existence between adherents of various faiths and the need for Muslims to comply with the laws of the state in which they live. It terms impermissible “aggressive actions” against non-Muslim fellow citizens of that state.

The declaration was clearly intended in the first instance to deter young Muslims from “heading for the forest” to join the insurgency ranks. The preamble says specifically that young people should approach its arguments positively and study them objectively, seriously and sincerely. Kadyrov himself was more explicit, saying he hopes “radically oriented young people in Russia will heed the opinion of authoritative scholars of the Islamic world."

Umarov for his part recently issued twin appeals to the Muslims of Chechnya and of the North Caucasus and Russia in which he speaks in very simple language of the history and essence of jihad and reminds them of their obligation to participate in it. Those appeals, filmed in April, are the first Umarov has made since February 2011.

Now, as then, Umarov argued forcefully that jihad is obligatory for all believers and constitutes the most effective medication for the various ills from which the Umma is collectively suffering. But in other respects his tone this year was generally more conciliatory than in 2011.

In his address to his fellow Chechens, Umarov links jihad not just with upholding the faith but with the obligation to preserve control over “this beautiful land of Chechnya that Allah has given us,” because ”Muslims must be masters of their land.”
Umarov goes on to differentiate between jihad and wahhabism, arguing that they are not one and the same thing. He traces the history of jihad in Chechnya back to Djokhar Dudayev, the secular nationalist first president of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, but admits that Dudayev’s “initial statements and slogans were different.”

Umarov went on to conflate the1944 deportation of the Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia, and also “1917” (presumably he meant the creation of the short-lived Mountain Republic), with jihad, without explaining the logic of his argument.

Umarov twice stressed that the younger generation of insurgents in Chechnya are fighting not out of mercantile considerations but to preserve the religion of Allah. Umarov then apologized “if we have caused offense in any way” and begged for forgiveness and also for the help and support of his fellow Chechens, or at least their prayers.

Umarov went on to warn the Chechens not to be deceived and seduced by the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership’s construction of mosques and infrastructure, saying that those who sell out to that leadership are destined for perdition.

In the shorter address to the Muslims of the Caucasus and Russia, Umarov similarly appealed to them not to remain indifferent to the sufferings of their fellow believers, stressing that innocent civilians are being killed weekly in the Caucasus. Umarov also warned President Vladimir Putin and other members of the Russian leadership that they will never destroy the Chechen fighters’ commitment to victory and independence.

Umarov identifies as the ultimate objective of jihad imposing Shari'a law and securing for the Chechen people freedom and control over the land on which they live. But he does not explicitly equate those twin goals with the Caucasus Emirate. Indeed, he does not use that term in either address. Instead, he speaks in the name of the Chechen fighters.

That failure to mention the Caucasus Emirate, which the U.S. State Department last year designated a terrorist organization, raises the question whether Umarov is seeking either to placate the senior Chechen commanders who rebelled against him two years ago, or to secure the support of the long-suffering Chechen population, or both. The pro-Moscow Chechen leadership routinely engages in vicious reprisals against the families of insurgents and anyone suspected of helping them.

That Umarov’s virtual Caucasus Emirate remains a hot-button issue for Moscow is clear, however, from the Russian Foreign Ministry’s aggrieved reaction to a conference held in Istanbul in mid-May that adopted a formal declaration proclaiming the Caucasus Emirate the sole lawful authority in the Caucasus and extending greeting to Umarov and his fighters. The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Turkish ambassador to lodge a protest, stressing the potential negative impact on bilateral relations from condoning events whose participants “threaten Russia’s territorial integrity and the security of its citizens.”

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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