Friday, August 31, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Chechnya’s Kadyrov Seeks Legitimation in Islam

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 29 – By playing up his ties to the Islamic traditions of his native republic, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov is seeking to legitimize himself, broaden his political base, and thus give himself greater freedom of action both within Chechnya and vis-à-vis Moscow.
His recent travels to the Middle East, his pretensions to serve as a spokesman and defender for Chechens and Muslims throughout the Russian Federation, and now this week his decision to provide state financing for an Islamic academy in Grozniy are all part of this effort.
And while many Moscow commentators have suggested that Kadyrov is not surprisingly taking these steps now to provide himself with a political base not dependent on Russian President Vladimir Putin, some are expressing concerns about what Kadyrov’s approach will mean not only in Chechnya but elsewhere as well.
More intriguingly, Kadyrov’s rapprochement with Islam has led several Russian commentators to examine the kind of Islam Kadyrov is seeking to use in this effort and to ask whether that Islam, which Kadyrov argues is not anti-Russian, is in fact completely at odds with the Islamic radicalism, which is.
One of the most thoughtful discussions yet to appear on these issues is to be found in today’s “Vremya Novostei” ( In it, Ivan Sukhov directly addresses the question of Kadyrov’s legitimation and explores the various kinds of Islam, traditionalist and radical, now found in Chechnya.
Sukhov begins with two fundamental observations. On the one hand, he says, “for a long time, Mr. Putin was the single source of Kadyrov’s legitimacy.” And now that Putin’s term is coming to an end, Kadyrov has little choice but to try to find an alternative source of legitimation if he is to survive on more than brute force.
On the other hand, the commentator observes, Islam, which was only a marginal element in Chechnya’s political life in the early 1990s, is now central to all questions of power there, in large part because of the appearance of fundamentalists from abroad and the role of Kadyrov’s father, Akhmat, the mufti of Chechnya-Ichkeria.
Almost a decade ago, Mufti Kadyrov said that “in his understanding, happiness for Chechnya was living free of foreign preachers for 100 years.” And he called on former pro-independence field commanders to join in “an armed struggle against ‘alien fundamentalism.’”
That served as the basis for Kadyrov senior’s own rise to the Chechen presidency, Surkov suggests, and also – and perhaps more important --as a justification for those in Moscow who hoped to be able to “place responsibility for everything taking place in Chechnya on the Chechens themselves.”
Both Akmat Kadyrov and his son, Ramzan, are declared followers of the Qadiria order of Sufi Islam. That tarikat, which views Salafi Islam as a dangerous threat, follows the teachers of a nineteenth century sheikh Kunta-Haji Kishiyev, who urged his followers to focus on internal perfection rather than violent resistance to outside forces.
While most Western commentators tend to lump together all Sufi groups in the northern Caucasus, in fact, they often are at odds, Surkov points out. Indeed, he says, one of the reasons that Alu Alkhanov was ousted as president was because he belonged to the Naqshbandi sufi tarikat.
The two tarikats – Qadiria and Naqshbandi -- formed an unwritten alliance after the defeat of Shamil in the nineteenth century, but during the Russian civil war, the Naqshbandi tarikat came to be viewed by the Soviet authorities as the more reliable. And they backed it in a variety of ways against the Qadiria.
Now, however, the Qadiria tarikat is the dominant player in Grozniy, Sukhov says, although there is some evidence that the two may come together against in a “consortium” – the term belongs to Said-Emin Dzhabrailov, speaker of Chechnya’s Public Chamber – to fight the Salafi.
Such an arrangement, Sukhov argues, has led some in Moscow to conclude that what Kadyrov junior is doing is exactly in Moscow’s interests. But the “Vremya novostei” writer warns that there are good reasons to fear that such a conclusion, however justified in the short term, may prove wrong sometime in the future.
The very fact that Muslim groups at odds at one point can form alliances at another means, he says, that “one ought not to forget that the border between so called ‘pure’ and ‘traditional’ Islam frequently turns out to dissolve.” Should that happen, Russia could face a bigger problem in Chechnya than any it has had there in the past.

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