Friday, April 4, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Criminal Elements Hide Behind, Exploit Islamic Rebirth in Post-Soviet States

Paul Goble

Baku, April 5 – Just as organized crime has used democratization in the Russian Federation, so too criminal elements have exploited the Islamic rebirth there and in other post-Soviet states, a development many genuine Muslims find troubling and one that many Moscow officials routinely cite as part of their attacks on Islam.
In an article in the current issue of Nezavisimaya gazeta-Religii, Igor Rotar describes some of the individuals involved in this process in Central Asia and the northern Caucasus and offers an explanation for why it has happened, one that can be usefully extended to non-Muslim groups as well.
Rotar points out that most who took part in the Islamic rebirth across this region since the end of Soviet times were “scholars and representatives of the intelligentsia but not only them.” In various places, there were. many people “close to the criminal world,” as well (
Although he examines the cases of criminals in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Daghestan who presented themselves as Muslims both to deflect anger about their crimes and to win election to office and thus immunity from prosecution, Rotar focuses on Chechnya in particular to make his case.
During the period of the first post-Soviet Chechen war, he writes, Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev placed a key and very “contradictory” role. On the one hand, he was known to Moscow police as a leader of a Chechen mafia group in the Russian capital. But on the other, he presented himself as a committed Muslim and freedom fighter.
And Nukhayev used his criminal activities not only to establish close ties with senior Russian officials and businessmen, something that provided him with early warnings about Moscow’s actions, but also to raise money for the Chechen independence movement.
Nukhayev regularly insisted that he had long been committed to the cause of independence, telling journalists that while a student at Moscow State University in the 1980s, he had been part of a Chechen group that read and distributed the works of émigré writer Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov.
But Nukhayev believed that such ideological activities were “only a half measure.” What was needed, he argued, was an armed uprising, something that would be possible only if the Chechens had the funds to purchase weapons. And such funds could only be raised by activities Russian law considered criminal.
Consequently, as self-serving as Nukhayev’s comments may appear, many in Chechnya and elsewhere saw no contradiction in his continuing to operate in this way. And following the Russian invasion in 1994, Chechen President Jokhar Dudayev named him chief of his republic’s foreign intelligence service.
Working first in Moscow and then in Istanbul, Nukhayev raised money for Grozny by extorting “contributions” from Chechens living abroad to help pay for arms, something he was more effective in doing because he presented himself not as a secular Chechen but a committed Muslim.
Despite a reputation for being a heavy drinker, Nukhayev stopped drinking altogether, stopped smoking and began to pray regularly as Islam requires. But Rotar says, his criminal “past” continues to show through. Nukhayev warned him that if Rotar wrote something he did not like, that would be “the biggest error in your life.”
Another example of the way in which criminal elements have used Islamic slogans to cover their activities and even justify them in the minds of people around them, Rotar argues, are the large number of Chechens who were involved in the seizure of approximately 1,000 hostages between the first and second Russian campaigns there.
At that time, the destruction of the economy there left Chechens with few choices to feed themselves and their families except by engaging in such criminal activities. But many of those involved felt uncomfortable about doing so, until some of their leaders came up with what they said were an Islamic justification.
These leaders said that Muslims must not treat the hostages badly – and Rotar reports that one former hostage told him that the fundamentalists were more punctilious in this than others -- but that they had the right to take hostages to support themselves because non-Muslim Moscow left them with no other options.
Moscow officials and commentators have typically used the existence of such criminals in Chechnya and other Muslim regions as an effective way to discredit these movements as a whole, Rotar not only distinguishes between the criminals and the larger groups but provides an explanation for why the criminals have played a role.
Prior to perestroika, Soviet totalitarianism imposed a common matrix on all the peoples of the empire, Rotar says. But “now it is ever becoming ever more obvious that the West European democratic institutions [Moscow took as a model] have proved completely ineffective in many regions of the collapsing empire.”
Indeed, in many places, Muslim and non-Muslims alike, those who would be classified as criminals from a European point of view, are not acting in ways that violate local customary law or the expectations of some if not all of the societies within which they operate.
According to Rotar, his criticism of the actions of some widely respected Muslim Kyrgyz as criminal provoked a sharp reaction in Bishkek: “Don’t interfere in our affairs,” one of them said. “You Russians have your own laws and customs, and we Kyrgyz have our own.”
The Russian commentator concludes that such a point of view is “not without a foundation.” Because “however said it is, West European democratic institutions have turned out to be ineffective not only in Chechnya but in many other Muslim regions of the North Caucasus and Central Asia.”
What Rotar does not say but which is increasingly evident to many Russian and Western observers of the Russian Federation is that some, like President Vladimir Putin and his supporters, are making exactly the same kind of argument for their non-Muslim population as well.

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