Religious Brotherhoods in Chechnya: Their Relevance for the Chechen Conflict
© William R. Nelson Institute, 2000

Contrast Between Kunta Hadji and Vakhab Movements

While the clashes between the various armed formations might be dismissed as the expressions of narrow self-interest, it is essential to note that there are important differences between the Kunta Hadji and Vakhab movements as well as other sects operating in Chechnya. Much of the contrast between the two main groups is based on theology and philosophy. There are several important religious differences that set the Kunta Hadji movement apart from the Vakhab movement. The latter believes in general equality before the law and argues that all men should be treated equally regardless of nationality, wealth or language. Like most Muslims, this egalitarianism does not extend to gender issues. Women have a subordinate place in Chechen society, whether they live in the Vakhab or the Kunta Hadji communities. The Vakhab brotherhood is far less clannish than the Kunta Hadji and, for that matter, other sects. The Kunta Hadji, of course, unlike the egalitarian Vakhab, claim numerous saints.

Again consistent with Vakhab egalitarianism, leadership positions or functions are not inherited. They are, by contrast with the Kunta Hadji, based on personal merit. This is closer to traditional Chechen mentality. Their struggle against corruption is justified on the basis of their view that there should be no favoritism or special arrangements for anyone. In the Kunta Hadji community, leadership is inherited and closely parallels their belief in sainthood.

In addition to these religious disputes, there are important distinctions in terms of their respective views of Russians. The position of the Kunta Hadji, while not identical to that of the "official" Islamic institutions of the Soviet era, is much more supportive of Russia. Its essentially pacifist posture creates an environment in which it is possible to advocate a continued place for Chechnya within the Russian Federation. By contrast, the Vakhab movement advocates the restoration of "true Islam" and supports a struggle against domination by the Russians. They are also openly hostile to the region's traditional Sufi Islam because of its moderation and its incorporation of pre-Muslim traditions. For the many Russians as well as Sufi Muslims who feel threatened by this tendency, Vakhab is simply another word for "extremist." The Kunta Hadji followers joined the Russians in denouncing the Vakhab movement as a great threat to Chechnya. Interestingly, while there is considerable focus on the anti-Russian orientation of the Vakhab, it is important to remember that the brotherhood maintains an equally critical view of Western society.

It is also essential to note that there is a fundamental trend that works against stability in the North Caucasus region. It is something that can be seen not only in Chechnya but also in Dagestan and central Asia. The main features of this trend are: (1) a collapse of state authority, (2) a lack of faith in state officials, (3) economic adversity, and (4) persistent intervention by Islamic groups from abroad. The violence that came in 1999 to Dagestan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikstan was driven by these factors and the Chechen situation is subject to the same factors.

  Relevance of Religious Brotherhoods to Current Conflict

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