By Giovanni Castaldo
Following the tragedy of the Boston bombings, the media and international community are now turning their attention back to the North Caucasus. Well-known for being an haven of instability and upheaval, two particular republics of the Russian Federation started filling the headlines of the press after a period of relative neglect: Dagestan and Chechnya. Sharing poor economies, a continuous secular push to secede from Russia and a religious predominance of Islam, these regions epitomize the evolution that Islamism has endured in Russia throughout the last decade.
What does this development consist of? What are its causes? An understanding of this evolution has never been this relevant, considering the renewed pressures by the Russian government on the United States to reconsider its flirting with various separatist movements in the area. Indeed, a possible volte-face towards the previously sympathetic region has to be rapidly discouraged when confronted with an understanding of the recent regional developments along with Russia’s involvement the area.
Robert Crews of Stanford University argued that there is an historical model of Muslims as loyal citizens that can be traced back to the Tzars era. At the time, Islam was used as a way of securing the political allegiance of Muslim subjects and many Muslims became active participants of Russian political life. Today, instead, a new perspective that sees Russia’s Muslims as outsiders has slowly become more prevalent, originating from the growth of political Islam, or Islamism, as a new form of political activism.
In the past, Islam in Russia was a mixture of different regional forms of Sufism, or “popular Islam.” The traditional creed is still organized into two main communities: the Shafi’is in the North Caucasus and the Hanafis in the Volga-Urals Region. These two communities are divided into many brotherhoods, branches and spiritual leaders (the Shaykhs). While all these subdivisions are organized into Regional Boards of Muslims, religious life is very different among small neighboring groups. These very differences might have aided the introduction of a new idea of faith into Russia: “pure” Islam, or Islamic fundamentalism.
The Wahhabism, also called Salafism, found a land of economic and social unrest in the North Caucasus. Its revival of radical Islam found a consistent following in the region, even though it is still very unpopular and feared by the local population. During the past two decades, hundreds of imams and missionaries preached and challenged the local Russian Muslim traditions. Growing numbers of young students received Islamic education abroad; and after returning home, the old-fashioned spiritual leaders were not prepared for the confrontation on the “true” Islam that these neophytes demanded. As Alikber Alikberov, head of the Center for Central Asian, Caucasian and Volga-Urals Studies, suggests, the destructive process between the two generations and the two ways of envisioning faith and society has also spread to the Volga-Urals region. This phenomenon is not relegated solely to the North Caucasus, but it now encompasses the entirety of Russian Islam.
This major transformation of Russian Islam can be attributed to two main factors. On one side, the inability of the archaic forms of religious organization to meet the growing needs of the community. On the other, President Vladimir Putin’s political expediency and nearsightedness. The foremost symbol of Putin’s misbehavior regarding this issue is Chechnya.
Following the Khasavyurt Agreement, Moscow promised to provide political and economic assistance after the first Chechen war in order for the province to reach independence in 2001. Instead, the government instituted a blockade and rerouted a pipeline that was intended to run through the area. The goal was to further choke the Chechen economy and starve the region back into the Russian Federation.
Maskhadov, the Chechen President at the time, was then left alone facing the growing demands of the Wahhabi warlords. It came as no surprise when, in 1999, Maskhadov gave up to the warlords’ pressure. The Sharia law was applied for the first time in history on a Russian territory. The situation escalated when two warlords, Basayev and Kattab, attacked Dagestan. Moscow responded by declaring war on Chechnya rather than aligning with Maskhadov against the radicals. The contract soldiers that Moscow employed in the area committed murder, kidnapping and marauding, as the journalist Anna Politkovskaya witnessed, further aggravating the tensions in the area.
If on one side the government’s strategy can be credited for the radicalization of Russian Islam, its strong leadership has partly avoided the Arab Spring from knocking at its door. The lack of a well-educated youth and the resilience demonstrated by the central government do not match the conditions that favored the demise of the regimes in Egypt and Libya. Nevertheless, there are some elements connected to the Arab Spring that might have a direct impact on Russia in the future such as the involvement of the Circassians, a North-Caucasian population in Syria and Jordan, and the diaspora of North-Caucasians to the Middle East.
Alexey Malashenko, the co-Chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society and Security Program, claims that the recent “shariatization” of Russian Islam is the direct consequence of Moscow’s failure to address the economic problems of North Caucasus. In these regions the unemployment is around 13 to 15 percent. Moreover, terrorist attacks like the Beslan school hostage crisis, where 186 children were killed by a group of Islamic separatists, have further marginalized this area from the rest of the Russian Federation. “Caucasophobia,” is the term that refers to the growing fear that Russians have felt towards anything related to the North Caucasus and that the government has further propelled to choke the area’s separatism. In this context of economic stagnation and social isolation, Wahhabism showed the youth a light at the end of the tunnel.
Photo by Evstafiev