Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Caucasus Emirate Parallels Khomeini’s Approach, Russian Iranist Says

Paul Goble

Baku, February 13 – The agenda of the North Caucasus emirate displays “a surprising similarity” to the that of the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, a commonality that suggests the still “virtual state” centered on Chechnya could play a far more significant role in the future than many now believe.
That is the argument of Sergei Davydov, a young Russian specialist on Iran who first came to wide attention in the Caucasus for his anonymous essay on Dokku Umarov’s emirate, a virtual structure intended as a replacement for the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (
In an article posted on the Prague-based “Caucasus Times” portal on Monday and this time under his own name, Davydov concedes that “externally” the North Caucasus and Iran have “little in common.” But he suggests that a close look reveals that the ethnic diversity of each has forced leaders to make use of a particular kind of Islam.
Both are extremely diverse in ethnic terms, he argues, something that both makes the way in which central governments have behaved toward minorities a key dimension of political life and ensures that “the main unifying factor” for all these groups in the two places cannot be anything but Islam.
In both places, the central government regularly and vigorously put down separatist movements, although Iran never behaved with the same degree of cruelty toward its minorities that Russia has, especially in Chechnya and other republics of the North Caucasus.
In both places, ethnic minorities desperate to find allies beyond their own groups frequently turned to Islam and even sued applied many of the top leaders of the Islamic establishment. In Iran, Davydov notes, “the Turkic segment among the Muslim spiritual leaders was always notable.”
In both places, ethnic minorities kicked off a revolutionary movement that Islamic leaders took over. In Iran, he points out, the Islamic revolution of 1979 began with a Turkic uprising in Tabriz in February 1978, and in the North Caucasus, the current emirate movement grew out of the Chechen drive for independence.
And in both places, he continue, the efforts of the shah of Iran and President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to put down the ethnic revolts were like throwing water on a grease fire: they only spread the flames and led all the groups involved to stress their common Islamic identity rather than their separate ethnic ones.
That is common ground as an explanation of what happened in Iran, Davydov says, but it is perhaps even more the case in the North Caucasus. There, “the cruelty and short-sightedness of the regime of Vladimir Putin worked to significantly accelerate similar processes of religious consolidation.”
And as a result of those policies and processes, Davydov writes, “the Islamization of the quasi-state structures of the North Caucasus resistance represented a natural modus vivendi, which reduced the contradiction between the ethnic form and the poly-ethnic content” of that movement.
Not surprisingly, Davydov argues, these and other related structural features have led to similar ideologies by the leaders of the Islamist parties in both places as well as to similar objections by many religious leaders who concluded that the leaders were arguing for represented an innovation and thus a violation of Islam.
In Iran, Khomeini called for the creation of a state in which the theologians should rule, something many of them objected to as at a minimum premature because Shia Islam does not describe who should head the state until the return of the hidden 12th imam.
And “if one makes allowances for he differences between Shiite and Sunni theology,” then what the leaders of the emirate are urging is not only “similar” to those of Khomeini but have been criticized by Muslims in the region as a presumptuous violation of the rules of shariat law.
But in both cases, it was an outside group that provided support for the leaders against the experts in the early stages. This group consisted of Iranian students in European universities 30 years ago and Chechen and other North Caucasian students often in the very same institutions today.
Over time in Iran, the students grew up and backed away from Khomeini’s ideas, “carefully correcting their leaders.” Now, in the North Caucasus, that same process is beginning as well, something that is already allowing some leaders who were opposed to the idea of the emirate to make their peace with it.
“There is no reason to think that certain participants of the North Caucasus resistance, be they intellectuals or mujahids will not repeat the evolution” that their Iranian counterparts did a generation ago, especially if “liberal politicians” find it possible to agree with Umarov that “the emirate is historically inevitable.”
Of course, Davydov concludes, no such analogies are ever absolute. The Iranian events of 30 years ago reflected the class of “two extraordinary figures – Ruhollah Khomeini and Mohammad Reza-shah Pahlavi.” At present, no similar figures are to be seen either among the North Caucasus fighters or “even more among Russian leaders.”
But the fact that they are not on view today, in no way precludes for all time “their appearance in the ranks of the defenders of the Caucasus emirate.” And if they do, then that “virtual” state could not only become a real one but like its Iranian model change the direction of the world in ways almost no one now thinks possible.

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