Chechnya is infamous for the blaring cases of human rights violations and terrorism, which are often blamed on the prevalence of Islam in the region. However, ironically, Chechens have only undergone a major process of Islamization relatively recently and historically preferred a syncretist approach to socio-religious matters. In the modern era, the spread of Islam and the adoption of the Sharia law could be merely linked to the foreign insurgencies and long-lasting oppression of Caucasian tribes which were desperately trying to protect their freedom and heritage. Thus, blaming the numerous Chechen-organized terror attacks and contemporary human rights issues in the region on their faith appears to be rather a sign of blunt islamophobia and ignorance, as the rise of radical Chechen jihadist views is a symptom of the geopolitical clashes between neighboring Russia and the Chechen tribes.

Historical Premisses for the Formation of the Chechen Values

The key to a better understanding of the challenges the region faces nowadays lies in the troubled past of Chechen history. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the origins of the Chechen nation, it is usually attributed to the larger ethnic group of Vainakh people who have resided in the mountains of the North Caucasus. The geographical conditions had greatly impacted their lifestyle, as the nation was divided into small secluded groups (teips) scattered all over the region, making blood ties a core community value as well as sacralizing the connection to the land. The reverence for home and family together shape the customary law of adat (derived from the code of honor, nokhchalla) with one of the key practices being revenge for any assault of one’s relative, which once again points out the high degree of devotion Chechens have for their ancestry[1]. Nowadays, one’s background, and more specifically, a teip they belong to, still plays an integral role in social and political relations. Given the fact that the 1 million Chechen population embraces over 150 teips, such a lack of unified social framework increases xenophobia and gives more reasons for conflicts of interests in the region[2]. However, it is crucial to establish that the differences between the clans historically have not resulted in power games and attempts of one teip establishing the rule over others. Chechen tribes were deeply community-oriented and protective of their relatives as well as owned resources, which created a rather peaceful but decentralized coexistence.

However, each teip is not only characterized by a distinct set of customs and traditions. More significantly, until today, religious views and practices vary from one clan to another, creating a premise for more disputes between followers of prevalent Qadiri and Naqshbandi orders (virds) of Sufism. Islam has arrived to Chechnya in the 9th century AD, but until the Russo-Caucasian war ten centuries later, the local population heavily mixed it with pagan practices, so there was no defined devotion to Islam but rather a combination of the earlier with the adat and traditional practices[3]. With the increasing aggression from Russia, Sufi Islam, and specifically its jihadist outlook, became the tool for the unification of North Caucasian tribes. In 18th century, the Russian Empire intended to secure the border with the Ottoman Empire and get a grip on abundant natural resources by conquering the Caucasian lands. Russian army commanders anticipated a quick victory, as they had mistakenly thought to destroy the disintegrated tribal groups one by one would not take much effort. The assumption was soon proven wrong as the Russian Empire had suffered major losses to Caucasian guerilla groups, and, in the end, the Russo-Circassian War (1763-1864) stretched out to over a century. To defend the homeland from the ruthless expansionist politics of the Russian Empire, the Chechens had to put the inter-teip conflicts aside and form a joint resistance movement. This was only made possible by the efforts of the raising Sufi leaders, namely Shaykh Mansur Ushurma, Imam Shamil, and Kazi Mulla, whose nationalist agenda, gazzavat, which employed the jihadist principle of fighting infidels (a.k.a. the Orthodox Russians), highly resonated with the local population and inspired them to fight to the death for the freedom of the region. However, the Caucasians were not primarily interested in the expansion of the Islamic rhetoric on greater territories, so they rather pursued defensive jihad, which nonetheless became a catalyst for spreading shariat laws around the nation, yet did not exclude the adat elements, which still remain crucial to community life today[4]. Unfortunately, despite the increasing unity among the teips, the outcome of the war was utterly devastating, as the confrontation ended with a loss of the Caucasian people and annexation of the territories. The local population did not only face continuous violent oppression and displacement (some nations, as Circassians, were fully exiled) since military control was the only way for Russia to keep the region subjugated. More significantly, the Chechens were forced to abide by the tsarist rule, which distorted the social order of Chechen tribes with the completely unnatural form of government, and made them feel deprived of their national dignity and, eventually, seeks revenge.

The issues of deracination and imposition of degrading regulations were further aggravated in the Soviet era, with the communist regime adding the third destructive element to the picture – the total prohibition of religious practices. Although the Chechens tried to break away from the bolshevik rule during the Russian Civil War (1917-1923) and created the short-lived Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus along with other ethnic groups of Caucasus, they were quickly forced back to the Union in 1921. After anti-communist uprisings, sparked by imams of Chechnya and Dagestan who advocated for restoring Sharia rules and expelling conquerors from the Caucasus, the Soviet secret services exterminated thousands of alleged reactionaries throughout the 1920s-30s, which angered the Chechen population. However, the most unforgettable act of discrimination against the Chechens was the 1944 mass deportation.  Stalin had never forgotten the rebellious act of secession and numerous Chechen-led uprisings, so he feared that the Chechens would threaten state security by cooperating with the Nazi army and help them combat the Red Army troops. Stalin’s solution to the “Chechen problem” was erasing Chechnya from the map and exterminating the Chechen nation by throwing them in camps all around the USSR. By 1946, the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Social Soviet Republic was abolished and territories divided among neighboring ASSRs, over 300,000 Chechen were placed in camps, and thousands perished during transporting, or in the GULAGs, or died of famine and harsh climatic conditions[5]. While the reasons for Russian expansion of the 18-19th centuries were rather economically and strategically driven, the Soviet regime targeted Caucasian ethnicities for their socioreligious background, making them second-class citizens and thus further hurting their national pride, which holds the highest importance in the Chechen society.

Even though Nikita Khrushchev had publically denounced Stalin’s actions, ‘rehabilitated’ the oppressed Caucasian ethnic groups, and restored the Chechen-Ingush ASSR by 1956, the Chechen population remained deeply scarred by the atrocious policies conducted in the first half of the 20th century.

(AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev)

The nation spent the next thirty years recovering from the turbulent events with remarkable resilience and tenacity. By the end of the 1980s, the relative Chechen population in the ASSR increased by nearly 30%, and the infrastructure was mostly restored, – the nation was preparing to assert their right to independence once again[6]. Two centuries of continuous struggle for autonomous existence had exhausted the Chechen people but did not break them; on the contrary, the Russian- and Soviet-led attempts to deprive the nation of its identity only further inspired the separatist initiatives. Thus, by imposing invasive centralized governance, foreign to the local social order, using brutal force to oust locals from their homeland, prohibiting religious practices and customs, and, finally, launching a genocide, the aggressors forced out the Chechen traditional lifestyle without realizing how it would backfire in future. The nation has found spiritual support and unity in adopting new moderate Islamic values and Sharia principles, which, along with embedded adat customs and skyrocketing levels of public dissatisfaction, made Chechnya a number-one candidate for leaving the post-Soviet Russia in the early 1990s.


Contemporary Era: Second Wave of Islamization Gone Wrong

After assessing the preconditions for why Chechnya was so eager to gain sovereignty, one can hardly argue that the repetitive oppression and discrimination against the North Caucasian folks do not justify their desire to part ways with the Russian federal government. However, although the sweeping wave of Islamization in the early 19th century brought the teips together, it was not final. As before the Russo-Caucasian War, Chechens still lived in small communities, followed syncretist customs which often diverged from one teip to another, and practiced Islam according to different orders and interpretations of Sufism, depending on the vird (religious brotherhood). So, they all shared a deep longing for becoming an independent state, yet there was no clear vision for how it could be carried out in an efficient way, preserving equality between the teips. The persisting lack of common principles hindered Chechnya from successfully asserting sovereignty over the historically owned lands, allowing radical Islamic fundamentalist groups to easily take control amid the war for independence.

Slogan “Remember Allah!” in a Grozny suburb, Sunday 02 April, 2000. PHOTO/STRINGER

As soon as the 1991 August Coup signaled the fast-approaching dissolution of the USSR, the freshly-established Chechen National Congress, led by Dzhokhar Dudaev, announced the establishment of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Moscow did not agree to recognize the newly emerged state and began a military confrontation in February of 1992, which later progressed into the First Chechen War (1994-1996). At first, Dudaev received an astonishing voters’ support, but his power quickly began to deteriorate as a result of his failure to negotiate with leaders of teips, constant clashes in the parliament, and the need to sustain Russian insurgency. Although the CRI’s 1992 Constitution proclaimed a secular state[7], due to the scarcity of Chechnya’s military and financial capacity, Dudaev chose to collaborate with the Arab Mujahideen of Afghani and Saudi origin, which not only imported guns and militants but, more importantly, the foreign aggressive jihadi outlook. Shortly before his assassination, Dudaev stated that, “Russia … has forced us to take the Islamic path[8],” practically referring to the uneven distribution of power between the two sides, which made the employment of jihadist values to increase the chances of victory inevitable. Indeed, the hard-hearted warfare of the radical groups pushed the Russian troops back, causing Moscow to recognize Chechnya’s de facto independence. Nonetheless, this short-lasting triumph cost the Chechens decades of upcoming social fragmentation, thousands of casualties among warriors and civilians, as well as rising moral deprecations.

With Aslan Maskhadov assuming the presidency in the CRI, anti-federal terrorist groups practically gained control over the local population and forced the spread of Wahhabism and Salafism. Certainly, their fundamentalist views condemned the Sufi vision, let alone the deep-rooted Chechen syncretism. This brought unprecedented novelties to the lifestyle of Chechen people, changing the religious rituals and practices, education, way of dressing, and slowly exterminating historically moderate approach to Islam. Moreover, their expansionist vision on jihad led to the orchestration of numerous terror attacks on Russian territories, namely, Budyonnovsk siege of 1995 and Apartments building bombings of 1999, to spread fear, as well as a failed attempt to invade neighboring Dagestan and enforce an Islamic republic in 1997[9]. Vladimir Putin, the new Russian president, used these aggressive acts as an excuse to begin the merciless Second Chechen War in 1999. Russia brutally exterminated the separatists but did not care for the safety of civilians, which resulted in thousands of innocent deaths[10]. While officially the Second War lasted for only eight months, the Russian troops remained in the area for nine more years, justifying the military presence as “the continuation of the anti-terrorist operation”, while in fact just ensuring the submission of the region. Overall, having forcefully restored control over Chechnya, the federal government did very little to reassess the previous mistreatment of the Caucasian nations and chose the blunt use of military force over negotiations or employment of “soft power” methods.

Aftermath

Fearing another outbreak of separatism, Putin decided to impose a puppet regime by handing control of Chechnya over to the Kadyrovites, the pro-federal military group which fought for independence in the First Chechen War but then switched sides and now acts as a faithful paramilitary organization. Despite his controversial nationalist background, the group leader Akhmat Kadyrov quickly pledged allegiance to Putin and became the governor of Chechnya from 2000 until his assassination in 2004[11]. His son, Ramzan, took over the governor seat and remains the unchangeable leader of the Chechen nation until today, enhancing the authoritarian rule over Chechnya. With the immense funding assigned to the Chechen Republic from the federal budget, the living conditions in the region have been rapidly improving. However, the restoration of infrastructure and an increase in safety is merely a colorful facade covering more fundamental social and political issues.

Evidently, the artificial pro-Russian rule does not align with the core principles of the Chechen society, as Kadyrov Jr. has disregarded the importance of equal treatment and impartiality, which today pits different socio-religious groups against each other. As a member of an influential Benoi teip, Kadyrov has appointed his relatives and friends to most of the governmental and bureaucratic positions, which has aggravated the widespread corruption and increased socio-economic inequality. Furthermore, Kadyrov’s treatment of religion also poses numerous concerns. Given the unusual history of Chechen Islamization as a response to foreign aggression, the current religious policies are a troubling mix of adat, syncretist customs, Sufist ideals, and radical fundamentalism (remains of the terrorist groups from the 90s) which surprisingly gain more and more popularity, as Kadyrov uses such a religious cocktail for filling the ideological gaps and justifying human rights violations and murders of oppositionists[12]. Additionally, the fact that he is from the Qadiri religious vird poses a concern to the representation of the Naqshbandis. Thus, instead of allowing for the establishment of a joint Chechen government that would reflect the national roots and partially resolve the complications caused by the diversity of the population and the traumatic recent history, Putin had chosen to impose a proxy leader who would merely build an Islamic authoritarian model of the current Russian political regime.

To conclude, overlooking the course of the past two centuries suggests that Chechens have acquired the lesser jihadist perspective solely to resist foreign military insurgencies. Moreover, the origins of the Chechen society are not only prevalently based on a set of syncretist customs but have a weak link to Islam in general. Only with the penetration of Wahabist and Salafist radicals during the First Chechen War in the 1990s, the local population involuntarily adopted the fundamentalist principles, which are currently abused by Kadyrov for propagandistic purposes. Therefore, most likely, if not for the Russian Empire’s invasion in the 18th century and further oppressive and undermining acts from the USSR and modern Russia, Chechens would have preserved the combination of Islamic customary law and adat to maintain their secluded community-oriented social order, and, more significantly, violence and loss of thousands of lives could have been avoided.

[1]Jaimoukha, Amjad. 2005. The Chechens. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

[2] “Families And Clans In Ingushetia And Chechnya. A Fieldwork Report: Central Asian Survey: Vol 24, No 4”. 2005. Tandfonline.Com. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/02634930500453590.

[3] Jaimoukha, Amjad. 2005. The Chechens. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

[4] Shultz, Richard H, and Andrea J Dew. 2011. Insurgents, Terrorists, And Militias. New York, N.Y: Columbia University Press.

[5] Jaimoukha, Amjad. 2005. The Chechens. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

[6] Jaimoukha, Amjad. 2005. The Chechens. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

[7] “КОНСТИТУЦИЯ ЧЕЧЕНСКОЙ РЕСПУБЛИКИ ИЧКЕРИЯ – Chechen Government”. 1992. Chechen Government.

[8] “The New Chechen Jihad: Militant Wahhabism As A Radical Movement And A Source Of Suicide Terrorism In Post-War Chechen Society”. 2007. Taylor & Francis. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17419160600625116.

[9] “The New Chechen Jihad: Militant Wahhabism As A Radical Movement And A Source Of Suicide Terrorism In Post-War Chechen Society”. 2007. Taylor & Francis. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17419160600625116.

[10] “Russia: Chechen Official Puts War Death Toll At 160,000”. 2020. Radiofreeeurope/Radioliberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/1060708.html.

[11] “An Ethnography Of Counterinsurgency: Kadyrovtsy And Russia’s Policy Of Chechenization”. 2015. Taylor & Francis. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1060586X.2014.900976.

[12] “Islam Comes To The Classroom In Russia’s Chechnya”. 2012. U.S.. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-chechnya-islam/islam-comes-to-the-classroom-in-russias-chechnya-idUSBRE89L0BQ20121022.

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