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Islam in the Northern Caucasus

Islam in the Northern Caucasus

             

 

 

By Kareem M. Kamel

“Most Chechens will have looked on what happened in Beslan with the same horror as everyone else, but the terrible truth is that this kind of event is not so shocking to them as it is to others. The Chechens have experienced their own Beslans over the past ten years: the bombing of Grozny in 1994-5 and 1999, the massacre at Samashki in 1995 and in Aldy in 1999, to name but a few.” - Thomas de Waal, Open Democracy

In the aftermath of September 11, conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine became the focus of international attention, shaping the agendas of both the region’s states and global powers. Sensational and dramatic minute-by-minute media coverage funneled an international audience’s attention to those troubled regions – a phenomenon that, while providing viewers with a wealth of news reports, pictorials, and editorials, has also contributed to a lack of in-depth understanding of the more important historical or strategic aspects of those conflicts. This is because the “bigger picture” is often forgotten as smaller bits of information are fed to the unquestioning viewer.

More seriously, other troubled regions with historically entrenched, bloody, and all-pervasive conflicts have been neglected, since they are considered low-priority conflicts by agenda-setters. Perhaps the best example of this is the ongoing war in the Caucasus. While dramatic or sensational events get some media coverage, the viewer is usually left in the dark about the underlying causes and broader dynamics of the conflict.

Although the conflict in Chechnya has killed an estimated 100,000 Chechens and created an equal number of refugees over the past decade, it took the recent school siege in Beslan, North Ossetia, to bring the Caucasus’ forgotten war back into the limelight.

While the Kremlin placed the blame for the deaths of the nearly 340 people in the school entirely on “Chechen terrorists,” Shamil Basayev, the commander of the Chechen Riyadh As Saliheen sabotage and reconnaissance unit, contended that the “Kremlin vampire [Putin] killed and wounded 1,000 children and adults, by giving the order to storm the school for the sake of imperial ambitions and the preservation of his own throne.”

The school siege and the terrible massacre that ensued occurred in the aftermath of a suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station and the downing of two Russian airliners. Those incidents highlighted the impotence of Russia’s decades-long ironfisted military approach towards Chechnya, and the Chechen fighters’ ability to stage operations deep inside Russian territory. Moreover, the abysmal failure on the part of North Ossetian authorities to communicate properly with the relatives of those trapped inside the school highlighted the widening gap between the public and its pro-Moscow leaders.

The Beslan incident also threatens to exacerbate interethnic tensions between the Ossetians and Ingush, who have been at odds for many years. There are also signs of rising tensions in neighboring republics; in places such as Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and Dagestan.


The conflict in Chechnya has killed an estimated 100,000 Chechens.


 

In many of those Caucasian hotspots, the demise of communism saw the beginning of an Islamization process that sought to fill the ideological vacuum. Some analysts suggest that hundreds of disenfranchised Muslim youth were trained by Islamists in those mountainous regions, and that many of them participated in the first Russo-Chechen war. The Caucasus’ mosaic of ethno-religious groups, economic stagnation, widespread corruption, communal discontent, and rising militarism constitute a volatile recipe for widespread civil conflict and violent military activity in the region.

 

Historical and Political Dynamics of the Conflict

A salient feature of politics in the Northern Caucasus has been the primacy of religious identification, coupled with a spirit of rebellion and a capacity for prolonged resistance against overwhelming odds. Throughout the decades, Islam has worked as a unifying force for the people of the Northern Caucasus in their struggle against Russian “infidel” influence.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the region has been characterized by an increase in religiosity and an upsurge in the prominence of more fundamentalist Islamism. Not only has the region witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of mosques since the 1980s, but interestingly, even in the last days of the former Soviet Union, Dagestan and Chechnya produced more pilgrims for the annual Hajj than the rest of the USSR combined. Current events in the region should therefore be viewed in the context of the centuries of heavy-handed and often genocidal Russian policies aimed at the subjugation of the Muslims of the Caucasus, and as the ultimate result of underlying tensions exacerbated by failed Russian socio-economic policies.

Understanding the dynamics of the conflict in Chechnya is crucial to understanding Caucasian politics. The conflict in Chechnya is the central theme around which other regional struggles manifest.

Chechnya is a small nation situated in the Caucasus within the southern border of the Russian Federation. First known in the Middle Ages, the Chechens are a distinct ethno-linguistic group who called themselves the Nokhchi. Religiously and culturally distinct from the Russians and Cossacks, they have resisted Russian rule since the colonial wars of the late 18th century. This national feeling of distinctness was sustained by the presence of two Muslim Sufi orders, the Naqshbandiya and the Quadiriya – both of which advocated reform and resistance to oppression. Moreover, Shari`ah law offered a historically respected legal and social code that was much sought after in Chechnya. Islam has since remained the primary source of identification for the Chechens, and the main mobilizing force for their resistance of Russian tyranny. Hence, the quest for an independent Islamic republic was the motivating factor behind many Chechen uprisings.

The Russian conquest of the North Caucasus, an Ottoman protectorate, began at the end of the 18th century. The first concerted efforts by Muslim North Caucasian nations to repel the Russian advance were led by a Chechen, Mansur Ushurma, a Naqshbandi Sufi sheikh, between 1785 and 1791. His jihad achieved remarkable military successes at a time when Russia was at the height of its power. He greatly raised Islamic awareness, teaching his followers steadfastness in the face of the Russian enemy. In fact, the “Islamization of the Northwestern Caucasus was the most durable work of Sheikh Mansur.”

Sheikh Mansur’s jihad came to an end, however, in the aftermath of the Ottoman’s 1791 loss of Anapa, their Black Sea fortress, leading to the capture of the Sheikh, who died in Russian captivity in 1794.

In 1816, General Alexei Yermolov was appointed chief administrator of Georgia and the Caucasus. His autocratic and deliberately cruel rule shaped the future of Russian-Chechen relations. In 1818 he wrote to Tsar Alexander II that “he would find no peace as long as a single Chechen remained alive” because “by their example they could inspire a rebellious spirit and love of freedom among even the most faithful subjects of the Empire.” His advent marked a policy of systematic extermination and expulsion in the North Caucasus. In the process of the Russian conquest, tens of thousands of Chechen noncombatants died, agricultural land was denied to Chechens to starve them into submission, and more than a million people were expelled from their homelands, settling in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Yermolov’s policies paved the way for the emergence of the three imams who spearheaded Chechen resistance during the Caucasus War (1817-64). The three were Kazi Mullah, Gamzat-Bek, and Shamil. The latter was perhaps the most outstanding political and military leader ever to emerge in the North Caucasus.

Imam Shamil was an exceptionally tall, strong, and athletic man, an unrivalled horseman, highly intelligent, and well educated in the Arabic language and Muslim religious literature. He repeatedly outmaneuvered the Russians in both battles and negotiations, and determinedly pursued his goal of an Islamic state governed by Shari`ah law.

In 1859, the Russian military contingent in the North Caucasus numbered half a million. Prince Bariatinsky, the Russian commander-in-chief, deployed 40,000 troops in the final assault against Shamil and his 500 remaining partisans at Gunib in the Daghestani mountains. Baysangur of Benoy, the Chechen lieutenant of Shamil, managed to break through the Russian encirclement and lead the Chechen resistance for a further three years. Of the 100 Chechens who followed him to continue fighting in Chechnya, only 30 survived. Among them was an ancestor of Shamil Basayev.

After the capture and execution of Baysangur, not a single legitimate Chechen leader could be made to swear allegiance to the Russian Empire. Totally decimated, reduced to barely 50,000 souls after half a century of warfare, Chechnya had been defeated but not pacified. In 1877-78, the people of Chechnya and Dagestan launched another major rebellion against the Russian authorities. It was known as the smaller Ghazawat (battles), and ended with the mass executions of Naqshbandi and Quadiri followers, thousands of deportations to Siberia, and an exodus to the Ottoman Empire from the lowland of northern Chechnya. Almost 60 years later, in 1940 and 1942 the Soviet Air Force bombed Chechnya and Ingushetia to quell popular insurrections.


The demise of communism saw the beginning of an Islamization process.


 

In February 1944, the whole Chechen and Ingush nations were deported under the pretext that they had collaborated with the enemy during World War II – an absurd accusation, given that the Germans had not even reached their territories. Some were sent to the death camps in Siberia; the majority was moved to the frozen wastes of Kazakhstan. Half of the 618,000 deportees perished during transportation and the ensuing typhus epidemic.

Some atrocities in particular left deep marks: in Khaibakh, isolated in the mountains, 700 people too old or too ill to be transported, or simply living in villages too remote for convenient transport, were gathered into an ancient tower and burned alive.

Despite the multiple genocidal measures undertaken by the Russians, the Chechens were renowned for being the only nation who refused to accept the psychology of submission.

On December 10, 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin called upon the Russian armed forces to restore order in the breakaway Chechen republic. The military deployed to the Caucasus soon thereafter, utilizing World War II-era doctrines that emphasized the massing of forces and aerial carpet-bombing. Despite the overall superiority of Russian forces, the lightly-armed Chechens managed, with the help of battle-hardened Arab mujahideen led by the famous Commander Khattab, to repel the Russian invasion and achieve a short-lived Chechen independence.

The Chechen struggle in 1994-96 was the latest in a series of anti-colonial wars. The Chechen victory was unique in the modern history of war, in that the Chechens won, not just without the support of a real state, but without the help of any formal military or political organization. They relied solely on the strength of their society and traditions. Nevertheless, using the pretext of a mysterious wave of bombings in Russian cities, Russia invaded Chechnya once again in 1999.

 

Dagestan

The smaller republic of Dagestan spreads over 50,000 square kilometers and has a population of approximately 2 million people, 85% of whom are Muslim. Today’s ethnic and political situation in Dagestan is in many ways the result of Russia’s political, economic, and financial crises. Indeed, Dagestan has the lowest standard of living in the whole of Russia. The sharp decline in industrial production, the collapse of the agricultural sector, massive unemployment, the sharp polarization of society, and an increasing gulf between the authorities and the majority of the population, constitute the main sources of tension. This has resulted in a sharp rise in crime rates, the harassment of dissidents, struggles for spheres of influence and the redistribution of property, corruption, bribery and an ideological vacuum in the post-Soviet society.

Despite the widespread influence of Sufism in the small republic, there are three main fundamentalist Islamist groups operating in Dagestan: one is led by Ahmed Ahtayev, an activist with a long history of clandestine work, and the second by Baghaudin Muhammad Dagestani. The third is based in the Islamist stronghold of Astrakhan and has no prominent individual leader.

In August 1999, many Dagestani fighters began training in camps run by the late Saudi rebel commander Khattab, with the goal of bringing about the secession of Dagestan from the Russian Federation.

 

Superpower Rivalry and the Quest for Resources

Scene from Grozny after the Russian bombardment

There have been recent suggestions of a quid pro quo between the US and Russian administrations, with the Russians providing intelligence support to American troops in Afghanistan in exchange for the United States turning a blind eye on Russia’s brutal occupation in Chechnya. Consequently, some analysts and policymakers contended that after September 11th, “the carnage in Chechnya now became a front-line of the battle fought by the entire international community against terrorism.”22 But despite similar rhetoric from the White House and the Kremlin concerning the “war against terror,” the Caucasus has de facto become an arena for intense contestation and geo-strategic maneuvering between Russia and the United States.

Both Russia and the United States are engaged in a fierce competition over oil resources in the Caspian region. Bulent Gokay of the Turkish Journal of International Relations (Alternatives) astutely noted that in the post-September 11th world, “the map of terrorist sanctuaries and targets in the Middle East and Central Asia is also, to an extraordinary degree, a map of the world’s principal energy sources in the 21st century.”23

In Eurasia, the US administration sees its military might as a trump card in its never-ending quest for unchallenged political hegemony and resource-control. The Washington-based American Petroleum Institute, the voice of the major US oil companies, called the Caspian region, “the area of greatest resource potential outside of the Middle East.”24 US Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking of the Caspian Sea basin in 1998, when he was still employed by the oil industry, commented, “I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.”25

One can also safely claim that disputes over oil were at the heart of Russia's earlier decision to go to war against Chechnya in December 1994. Chief amongst Russian concerns and Western interests is the oil pipeline that runs from the oilfields of Azerbaijan through Dagestan and Chechnya, to the Russian port of Novorossiisk. The Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline has become crucial due to the discovery and planned development of major oilfields on the Azerbaijani shore on the Caspian. These fields are estimated to contain some 3.5 billion barrels of oil, comparable to the North Sea.26 Russia therefore has important geo-economic reasons for establishing firm control over the Caucasus, reasons essentially related to Russia’s concerns over the control of the Caspian’s oil resources.

Russia’s concerns over Chechnya also grew as a result of the US-NATO war against Serbia and the subsequent NATO occupation of Kosovo. In this light, Russia’s invasion of Chechnya in 1999 was meant to be a warning to the United States and NATO, and to any other nations likely to rebel against Russia in the post-Soviet space, that Russia was still a military force to be reckoned with.27

 

Conclusions


Islam has unified the people of the Northern Caucasus in their struggle against Russian influence.


 

Despite the multitude of ethnic and religious groups in the Northern Caucasus and the implicit rivalry between Sufi brotherhoods and more fundamentalist Islamists, the continued presence of Russian forces in the region has managed, to a great extent, to unite all Islamic forces against a common enemy.

The brutality of Russia’s campaign in the Northern Caucasus, coupled with the region’s endless socio-economic dilemmas, has reinvigorated the spirit of rebellion and resistance among many Muslims in the region. While Chechnya remains the locus of regional politics, the smaller republics of Dagestan, North Ossetia, and Ingushetia are facing similar problems – marginalization, popular dissatisfaction, ethnic hostilities, poverty, corrupt local leaders, and the heavy hand of Russian hegemony.

Conflict in the Caucasus is exacerbated by great power rivalry and geopolitical contestation over oil resources. The Northern Caucasus is seen by Russia as its strategic backyard and by the United States as a critical staging area for the containment of any potential Russian expansion. Indeed, the presence of US military bases in Central Asia and US advisors in nearby Georgia is telling of America’s interest in not only fighting Islamism, but in containing Russia. As a result of both this intricate security complex and the absence of any serious attempts at dialogue, the Northern Caucasus will remain a hotbed of simmering hostilities and violence. In that light, the Beslan school siege, bombing of Russian airliners, and suicide bombings in Moscow, promise to be only a horrific foretaste of what is to come. 

Kareem M. Kamel is an Egyptian analyst based in Cairo, Egypt. He has an MA in International Relations and is specialized in security studies, decision- making, nuclear politics, Middle East politics and the politics of Islam. He is currently a teaching assistant to the Political Science Department at the American University in Cairo.

Source : http://www.islamonline.net/English/Views/2004/11/article03.shtml