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  1. Politics
1 May 2000

Is Putin fomenting a Holy War?

Russia's Muslims are a heterogenous group. But the war in Chechnya is straining their loyalty

By Christian Caryl

You might be forgiven for thinking that Vladimir Putin was the scourge of Islam after his recent visit to London, when his remarks about the war in Chechnya stirred up a flurry of protest in quarters ranging from the Tories to UK Islamic leaders. “We have seen European countries and European leaders not able to support the Russian struggle”, said Putin, “because they are afraid of a reaction among the Muslim inhabitants of Europe, but that should not be their conclusion.” He urged Europeans to “wake up” to the threat of “fundamentalist extremists on their borders”. In his view, militant Islam is mushrooming in central Asia, the Caucasus and Europe. But, he warned, “so far, Russia is fighting alone”.

If one is to take these remarks seriously, Putin would like to see an international military campaign against extremist Islam, one that would unite European (presumably meaning “Christian”) countries in a sort of new Crusade to cleanse the world from a monolithic threat.

Putin’s admonishments, widely quoted in the British press, were played down by the Russian media. They preferred to repeat, days after the event, a different remark made by the Russian president at the same press conference: “We will observe human rights. We are not fighting against Muslims and Chechens, we are not enslaving Chechnya, we are liberating it from terrorists.”

Russian journalists have good reason to tiptoe around their president’s more divisive remarks on the Muslim question – namely the 20 or so million believers in Islam who live within the Russian Federation. Out of Moscow’s total population of eight million, around one million are members of the faithful; Muslim Muscovites like to claim that they live in the most Islamic city in Europe.

The Chechens make up only a small fraction of the Muslims who live in Russia. Most are Tatars, Turkic-speakers concentrated in a swathe along the southern reaches of the Volga River where they have lived for thousands of years. In the North Caucasus, the other Russian focal point of the faith, Chechens are but one of a mixed basket of various Muslim peoples. Muslims can be found across the length and breadth of the country. The geographical and cultural heterogeneity prevents them from acting as a bloc. Most Tatars subscribe to the moderate Hanafi school of mainstream Sunnism; there are Tatar intellectuals who like to boast about their people’s role in developing an undogmatic “Euro-Islam”. The Bashkirs, former nomads who inhabit the Siberian plains farther east, profess an Islam that contains elements of steppe shamanism.

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Caucasians, in turn, are steeped in Sufi traditions. Even within families, there can be broad differences in practice and belief. Younger Tatars who live in cities mix with non-Muslims, attend mosques where women are allowed to pray and eat pork, while their parents may live in villages with rigid Koranic observances and mosques that women may not enter.

During the Soviet period, the few rudimentary Islamic institutions that existed were controlled tightly by the KGB, and Russian Muslims were cut off from fellow believers in other parts of the world. As a result, the cultural and ethnic differences among Russian Muslims today tend to override religious unity. That came through with startling clarity during last summer’s little war in Dagestan, the Muslim republic adjacent to Chechnya. When several groups of Chechens invaded the republic under the banners of radical Islam, they were repulsed by the combined forces of the Russian army and Muslim Dagestani militias. A major divide within Chechnya itself runs between the separatist government headed by President Aslan Maskhadov, who until recently was claiming the allegiance of several radical Islamist warlords, and the Mufti of the city of Gudermes, Khozh-Akhmed Kadyrov, who criticised Maskhadov for, among other things, adopting elements of sharia law alien to the spirit of the Chechen people. And it is quite common to hear other Russian Muslims – particularly from areas bordering Chechnya – badmouthing the Chechens. In that respect, they have something in common with their non-Muslim co-citizens, whose historical hatred of the Chechens, stoked in the mid-1990s by the humiliation of the first Chechen defeat and the years of Chechen-orchestrated kidnappings that followed, has now reached a white-hot fury.

But when terrorists set off a series of devastating bomb attacks in Moscow and other Russian cities last year, the wave of popular fury that resulted extended to all Chechens (regardless of their individual attitudes to the independence question), to virtually anyone who looked like he might be from the Caucasus and to Muslims in general. Madina, a Tatar housemaid in Moscow, says: “It’s not easy. On TV, they show pictures of the Chechen fighters at prayers, and everyone sees those pictures and says, ‘ee, they’re Muslims’.” Because her appearance doesn’t correspond to the average Russian’s picture of what a “Muslim” should look like, Madina says that she often finds herself listening to tirades directed against her fellow believers. “Officially, it’s not supposed to matter what religion you are now,” she says. “But most Russians just assume that you’re Orthodox.”

Alexei Malashenko, a leading Russian scholar of Islam, speaks of burgeoning “Islamophobia” in Russia. In a poll taken in 1992, says Mala-shenko, 17 per cent of respondents said that Islam was a “bad thing”. In a more recent survey of young Russians, the figure was 80 per cent. Such underlying tensions might help to bring about what Putin ostensibly aspires to avoid – the politicisation of Russia’s Muslims. He clearly understands the political import of religious feeling in a way that Boris Yeltsin did not. “Yeltsin was a party bureaucrat,” says Malashenko. “Putin is younger and more sensitive to the problem. He knows that there can be tensions between Muslims and Christians. He doesn’t have an approach or a policy. But he has a feeling that it deserves attention.”

His solution, says Malashenko, has been to promote a “loyalist” Islamic movement that would give Muslims a political voice. During last year’s parliamentary elections, Putin’s entourage even sponsored the creation of Refah, an Islamic party that now claims the allegiance of a dozen deputies in the 400-member State Duma.

Such attempts to co-opt Muslim aspirations clearly have limits. Last year, during the war in Kosovo, Mintimer Shaimiyev, the president of Tatarstan and one of Russia’s most influential regional leaders, criticised attempts by Russians in the republic to recruit volunteers to fight on the side of the Serbs. That could lead, he warned, to a reaction among Tatars, who might take up arms with the Albanians – a tendency, he said, that could end with Russian boys killing other Russian boys in the Balkans.

That’s why Putin and his entourage never lose an opportunity to blame the war in Chechnya on the nefarious activities of Osama bin Laden, the Turkish secret service, and “Arab mercenaries”. Putin has gone much farther than Yeltsin would have ever dared did in emphasising the “international” aspect of the conflict. When I visited Chechnya last December, Russian soldiers assured us that the enemy forces even included kilt-clad Scotsmen – evidently members of a hitherto unknown Islamist group based in the Highlands.

Putin hopes that the strategy will pay off on several fronts. He can dampen western criticisms by invoking the bogey of the Islamist threat. He can reassert Russian influence in central Asia by promising support to regional leaders facing fundamentalist threats of their own. And, above all else, he can use the threat of an “external enemy” to consolidate Russian society around him.

The question is, how long will Russia’s Muslims be prepared to go along with the team?

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