In 1877, the
people of Chechnya and Daghestan launched a major rebellion against
the Russians who enjoyed control over their region. Although the
rebellion was a failure that served primarily to produce new tactics
on the part of the Sufi brotherhoods of the North Caucasus, the
victorious Russian authorities responded not with oppression but
rather with tolerance toward the Islamic religion in Chechnya. The
religious tolerance of the post-rebellion years of 1877 to 1917
has led Chechens to speak of Tsarist colonialism with nostalgia.
One Chechen rebel commander, Shirvani Bassayev, brother of the well-known
Chechen guerilla commander Shamil Bassayev, recently noted that
had the Romanov dynasty retained power, Russia would have been a
very different nation. The key, Bassayev noted, is that men without
faith, such as the Communists, "are more dangerous than those
who accept God as a higher power."
of rebellion, coupled with religious fervor, continues to give the
politics of the North Caucasus a turbulent, violent flavor. Local
people who have cooperated with "men without faith," most
significantly the Russian authorities who occupy much of this region,
increasingly find themselves the targets of rebels for whom this
struggle has assumed a spiritual as well as a political relevance.
A typical incident was reported in the summer of 2000 when Ruslan
Khamidov, the mayor of Alkhan-Yurt, a small town near Grozny, was
approached by "unidentified assailants" at his home early
one morning. When he stepped outside his house, Khamidov was shot
eleven times, an action generally viewed as another warning for
those who cooperated with the "Godless invaders." This
killing coincided with an attack on a Russian troop train on the
rail line near Grozny. The bombing, which was carried out by remote
controlled mines, was followed by a small arms attack which lasted
for forty minutes. The incident left seven Russian military casualties
and more than a hundred yards of destroyed track.
observers might view such events as little more than another expression
of the terrorism that has plagued so much of the former Soviet Union,
many participants in this struggle have an entirely different perception.
For them, the murder of Ruslan Khamidov was actually another episode
in the continuing struggle between "men of faith" and
the infidels determined to destroy their way of life.
To better understand
the logic of conflicts in the North Caucasus, a brief description
of the patterns of the region's religious and social life is necessary.
The most important characteristic of this society is its strict
division along tribal and religious lines. This is best illustrated
in Chechnya. Although the Chechens are a separate ethnic group clearly
distinct from their neighbors, they seldom identify themselves with
that group. In everyday life, their identity is defined by two most
meaningful concepts: teip - a union of households tracing their
descent from a common ancestor, or clan, and tuhkum-a union of teips
which do not claim a common ancestor but historically have preserved
their military and economic ties and spoken one of the dialects
of the Chechen language. Traditional kinship ties are of paramount
importance to the Chechens, and their loyalty belongs first and
foremost to their clan and then to their tuhkum, which leaves the
nation itself the least relevant notion on their list of priorities.
The same pattern,
although perhaps not as strongly expressed, can be observed in Chechnya's
religious life. Islam not only unites the Chechens but also brings
about significant divisions in the society. Again, the Chechens
and other people of the North Caucaus identify themselves with smaller
religious groups rather than a nationwide Muslim community. They
belong to virds - autonomous religious sects headed by ustaz - religious
teachers. Every vird has its specific rules, principles and canons
which may differ considerably from dogmas accepted elsewhere. The
members of virds - murids - pledge allegiance to their sects and
are obliged to obey the orders of their religious teachers. Thus,
Chechen sects are in essence religious orders or brotherhoods held
together by common principles, discipline and subordination. Virds
are united into two major religious unions - tarikats - each headed
by a sheikh: "naqshbandiya" and "qadiriya" (one
of the most famous sheiks of the latter was Kunta-Hadji Kishiev).
Both of them represent currents of Sufi Islam.
Sufi Islam in
the North Caucasus has a number of peculiarities which distinguish
it from the Islam accepted in Asia and the Middle East. The traditional
kinship values, ancient customs and norms and pagan beliefs that
regulated the highlanders' lives for centuries were so deeply entrenched
in the mentality of the people of the North Caucaus that Islam had
to adapt and transform in order to be accepted. Consequently, the
so-called "traditional" Islam that developed here was
characterized by a strong influence of local customs and paganism.
It is different in many ways from "pure" Islam as it exists
in some other countries, and its influence on social life has always
been severely limited by values and norms that had formed before
the adoption of Islam.