WRNI Home

ISLAM IN THE NORTH CAUCASUS: A PEOPLE DIVIDED

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

Executive Summary
Preface
Background
Religion in the North Caucasus
Daghestan
Chechnya
Ingushetia
Other
Vakhabism and the Chechen Conflict
The Vackhabite Perspective
Concluding Remarks
Appendix: A Vakhabite View
About the Authors
WRNI Home

Preface

While ethnic animosities have a long history in the North Caucasus, the religious flavor of those conflicts appeared more recently. With time, Islam became a uniting force that helped many people of the North Caucasus assert their struggle against the oppression of those whom they viewed as "men without faith." However, while Islam served as a rallying point for disparate groups within the region, Islam itself did not assume a unified organizational model. Local customs and paganism had a profound impact on Islam as it developed throughout the North Caucasus. Almost no expression of faith could be characterized as "pure Islam."

When the religious element emerged as a significant one in this part of the former Soviet Union, it varied greatly whether one encountered it in Daghestan, Inghusetia, Chechnya, North Ossetia, Kabardin-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, or Adygeiya. With the appearance of perestroika, religious diversity has a dramatic impact on the traditional Islamic community. It may be that the only common element in the Islamic community was the religious fervor that gripped so many people. New mosques appeared by the score and Daghestan combined with Chechnya produced more pilgrims for the annual hadj than the rest of the USSR combined.

Islamic diversity was driven by a variety of factors. One of those was the influx of foreign money from Middle Eastern Islamic states. The persistence of local traditions was another but the most important was the increased prominence of the Vakhabite movement within the Islamic community. The central theme of this movement was that Islam in the North Caucasus had been distorted by misunderstandings as well as by the "impure" influences.

Along with some other North Caucasian peoples, the Chechens converted to Islam on the eve of Russian expansion into their ancestral lands. For a variety of reasons they largely adopted the Sufi forms of worship and followed Shamil, the third Imam of Daghestan, in his efforts to impose the Sharia (Islamic Law) on the faithful while defending their homeland from the encroachments of the Russian Empire in early 19th century by waging a holy war (Ghazivat). Our first Chechen paper (Religious Brotherhoods in Chechnya: Their Relevance for the Chechen Conflict) explained how the Chechens were bled during these wars and then left the Naqshbandiya tradition in droves to follow a later Sufi tradition, the Qadiri, under the leadership of the nonviolent "Chechen Gandhi," Kunta Hadji of Kishiev.

When Kunta Hadji was captured by the Russians and died in captivity, his followers eschewed non-violence and joined with the Naqshbandis in periodic uprisings against the Tsarist regime and its Soviet successor. Each effort to regain some vestige of independence was cruelly suppressed. Between 1944 and 1957, the Chechen people were removed from their indigenous lands and deported to central Asia in order to be punished for alleged collaboration with the German Nazi regime. Only the death of Stalin allowed people to return to Chechnya and attempt to rebuild the nation.

The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed independence-minded Chechens to seize the opportunity and declare Chechnya an independent nation for the Russian Federation. Fearing that other North Caucasian peoples might want to follow the Chechen example, the Russian Federation under President Boris Yeltsin decided to make an example of the Chechens and defeat them utterly as a warning to other indigenous peoples from the Black Sea to the Caspian. After two desultory wars the Russians seem in control but the Chechens continue to resist aided by volunteers from other Islamic lands who want to impose a more militant, fundamentalist Islam on the Muslims of the Caucasus.
This paper examines the North Caucasus religious situation and contrasts two points of view. First, historian Ya. Z. Akhmadov examines the religious situation as the North Caucasus prepares to enter the 21st century. As one of Chechnya's officials, Akhmadov runs the information department of the Russian-supported Chechen government. He is a Chechen patriot who sees the nation being further punished and perhaps destroyed by a stubborn persistence in a debilitating conflict for foreign Islamic interests.

Following Akhmadov's paper we present the view of another Chechen patriot, Albert Avduev, who is a more doctrinaire advocate of continued warfare and the purification of the faith. The two points of view are representative of the dilemma facing the Chechen nation, a nation that seems unable to find a niche anywhere except the two extremes.
Both Akhmadov and Avduev attended the William R. Nelson Institute's Conference on North Caucaus Issues held in Chisinau in the Moldovan Republic on October 7 and 8, 2000. Each is an ardent proponent of a very distinctive view (the two extremes) of the future of Chechnya and the role of religion in the southern Caucasus. Their encounters during the conference were direct, confrontational and sometimes emotional. In fact, more than anything else, Akhmadov, Avduev and the other participants from the region demonstrated the diversity of opinion on contemporary issues, the future, and the past.
The views of these polar opposites are set forth below along with commentary and analysis provided by the WRNI staff.

BACK TO TOP