by Yavus Akhmadov, Stephen R. Bowers, Marion T. Doss, Jr., Yulii Kurnosov

Executive Summary
Religion in the North Caucasus
Vakhabism and the Chechen Conflict
The Vackhabite Perspective
Concluding Remarks
Appendix: A Vakhabite View
About the Authors

Religion In the North Caucasus


Before the military clashes of 1994-1996, Chechnya covered a territory of 17,300 square kilometers with the population of 1,200,000 people. Of this group, 800-850,000 were Chechens, 200-250,000 were Russians, 20,000 were Inghush and about 15,000 Armenian.

As a result of the conflict, Chechnya's population has been reduced to 500,000 people, with a Slavic population of only 10,000 people. The physical destruction of the region is widespread and capital Grozny itself is now gradually being covered by new forests as few people are willing to invest the resources required for rebuilding the devastated city.

The Chechens and the Ingush are Muslims-Sunnits. Approximately 90% of the Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians of the Chechen Republic belonged to the Christian Orthodox church, while the others belonged to the Evangelical and the Baptist Churches. During the late 1990's, several Christian priests in Chechnya were kidnapped and murdered.
The intensity of religiosity in Chechnya can be measured by two important indicators. First, several thousand mosques, both regional and district ones, were built during the last 15 years to serve the spiritual needs of this community. Second, in the Russian Federation, only Daghestan exceeds Chechnya in terms of the number of pilgrims who journey to Mecca. One to two thousand Chechens participate in the hadj each year.
Spiritual governance of Checnhya since the early 1990s was in the hands of a body known as the Council of Ulems and of an individual known as the Muftiya. The former is a group of theological scholars and the latter is the head of Muslims. From 1995 until early 2000, the Muftiya was Ahmad Hadji Kadyrov, who has recently been appointed as the head of Administration of the Chechen Republic. In the summer of 2000, a new Muftiya was elected by the Council of Ulems. That individual is the former Iman of the Shatoi, region Ahmed Adji Shaman.

For already several centuries Chechnya's traditional Islam has been represented by two Sufi trends: the Naqshbandi and the Qadiri. The best known of the naqshbandi are the brotherhoods of Yusup-Hadji and Tashu-Hadji. The most numerous quadiri brotherhood is the Kunta-Hadji Kishiev order. The relations between these two Sufi brotherhoods have traditionally been very positive. Their representatives never engaged in conflicts with each other, and never criticized the shaykhs of the other communities. While there was an element of competition inherent during election of the imam of the village mosque or Quadiri of the community, that competition never evolved into dogmatic disputes.
There is no exact information on the emergence of Vakhabism in Chechnya, nor about their first preachers. Many scholars associate its appearance with the establishment of the Islamic Party in 1991. Yet, Beslan Ghentaimirov, the first head of that party had nothing to do with Vakhabism. Furthermore, according to reliable accounts, leaders of the Islamic Party, have been known to indulge in the excessive use of alcohol. Given the hostility of the Vakhabites toward any use of alcohol, such behavior would indicate that the Islamic Party leadership would not meet the standards for a Vakhabite organization.
Others suggest that the appearance of Vakhabism is more correctly associated with an individual known as Adam Deniev or, by many people, simply as "One-legged Ahmed." Deniev has been a candidate member of the shaykh of Quadiri since 1995.

The first group in Chechnya to be openly associated with the Vakhabites and to actually receive money from them consisted of Islam Khalimov, Isa Umarov, and Movladi Udugov. Udugov, who was the Minister of Information in the Dudayev government, arranged for the regular broadcasts the sermons of Vakhabite preachers on Chechen television. This small circle of Vakhabites build an organization based on kinship principles while avoiding any direct challenges to the established Islamic community in Chechnya. In this early period, its operational principals were based on absolute secrecy and the avoidance of open conflicts with the Islamic community.

The first Chechen war radicalized much of the population and eventually resulted in the legalization of fundamentalist youth groups represented by the "Djamaat" battalion. This move was facilitated by foreign involvement in the person of a Chechen-Jordanian Ipak Fath. He was an elderly man who came from Jordan to assist in the development of fundamentalist groups in Chechnya. Fath had been a participant in the Afghan war during which he helped organize suicide detachments of idealists motivated by the honor of dying in a holy war against the infidels. Eventually, Ipak Fath succumbed to disease but not before making a great contribution to the fundamentalist cause in Chechnya. As a result of Fath's influence, Khattab and other veterans of the Afghanistan war were enlisted for combat service in Chechnya.

The Jordanian connection was established approximately a century ago and continues to have an impact on develops in the North Caucasus region. In the latter part of the 19th century, thousands of Chechens as well as some Ingush traveled through Turkey into the Middle East where they made their homes in Iraq and Jordan. Two Chechen-Ingush villages still exist in Iraq today. In Jordan, the Chechens founded four towns, one of which evolved into what is now the kingdom's second largest city, Zarqa. As a result of this migration, the Jordanian diplomatic and military community today reflects strong Chechen influences. In fact, during the 1948 war with the Palestine Liberation Army, Jordan's foremost tank officer, Abdul-Latif Benno, was a Chechen and, in 1978, became Jordan's first military attaché in Moscow.

Vakhabite influence increased significantly during the first Chechen war because Dudayev refused to provide alternate financing. In the face of the severe funding crisis, Ipak Fath and his colleagues played a major role in purchasing armaments and providing food and clothing for the Chechen forces. The foreign Vakhabite money was channeled through Maskhadov's organization. Consequently, he was forced to make promises to introduce Shariat governance following the war.

As a result of the radicalization of society and the effective use of foreign funds, by 1996 the Vakhabites not only had a military organization in Chechnya, but also their own courts, mullas, and scholars. To take advantage of this environment, Baghaudin Khebedov left Daghestan to join his radical brethren in Chechnya. Other fundamentalists such as Shamsudin from Prigorodnoye established reputations for themselves as Shariat judges and numerous Chechen preachers who had taken refuge in Jordan were able to return to their homeland.

After creation of the main state institutions of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria at the beginning of 1997, the Vakhabites were rewarded by being able to legalize some of their military formations and to establish a base for training their military personnel led by commander Khattab. Their representatives were placed in numerous official government positions, especially those relating to the courts and public security bodies. The growing Vakhabite influence in the Maskhadov government eventually resulted in a very serious political crisis brought about by demand for curbing the Vakhabite influence. The Muftiat headed by Khadyrov demanded that President Maskhadov take decisive steps against those whom he denounced as "enemies of Islam and the Chechen nation."

In June 1998, the crisis led to armed clashes with the Vakhabite detachments near Gudermes. In those battles, a group of government field commanders defeated the Vakhab forces and it was only the intervention of President Maskhadov and Vice President A. Arsanov that saved them from a devastating, final defeat. After these battles, two Vakhabite generals who had demonstrated crass incompetence were reduced to enlisted ranks. Khattab was ordered to close his training camps and to leave Chechnya.
For the government the victory was not complete. While the order to disband his camps was published, Khattab ignored it. The Vakhab forces regrouped in the town of Urus-Martan and Khattab formed an alliance with Shamil Bassayev. The financial support from abroad enabled the Vakhabites to function without any financial support from the state bodies of Ichkeria. A fortified outpost was set up in Urus-Martan. At this stage of their evolution, the Vakhabites utilized more mundane tactics, such as theft and kidnapping, various actions against the young Chechen state, and personal attacks against president Maskhadov. Several assassination attempts were made against Maskhadov and Khadyrov. Thus, they concentrated on political and criminal activities as a means of opposing the Islamic establishment of Chechnya while avoiding open, large-scale military clashes.

In the fall of 1999, Bassayev's detachments joined Daghestani Vakhabites and, with the help of Arab mudjahadins, made military strikes against Daghestan authorities. While the attacks were a military failure, they did bring about concessions from Maskhadov. In an effort to appease his opponents, Maskhadov included Bassayev in the State Defense Committee and appointed him as a military commander.

Today Vakhabites are excluded from the religious life of Chechnya and Khadyrov now prohibits all forms of Vakhabite propaganda. This is part of an effort to restore the prestige of the traditional Muslim faith. Unfortunately, during this period, the social role of religion in general has declined; thus, even if the traditional Islamic community regains its lost prestige, Islam will not enjoy the prominent position its once held.

The presence of over 100,000 Russian troops on the territory of the Republic and the endless Russian military activities are a major source of discontent among the population. Many Chechens, however, are stoic in the face of such adversities and regard them as divine punishment for their arrogance and their willingness to admit the Vakhabites, whom they denounce as "servants of Devil" into their country.

At present, Muslim clergy in Chechnya are mullas and imams. Muslim clergy in Chechnya are highly educated people who were trained in Islamic institutions of Chechnya, Daghestan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Egypt. In addition, Chechnya has its own theological institutions and schools. There are Sunday Arab Koran schools in every village. In other wordsm, the prestige of Islamic clergy has increased in Chechnya as they have withdrawn from politics. The important point is that Islam is not being politicized as the Vakhabites wished. In this new environment, the Islamic clergy can express themselves freely on major issues without fearing for official persecution.