Sunday, July 6, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Why Young People in the North Caucasus Continue to Turn to Islam

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 56 – Young people in the North Caucasus have three compelling reasons for turning to Islam, according to a young Circassian scholar, but the problems he faced in studying their decisions to do so highlight both the highly personal nature of these reasons and the difficulties even the most sophisticated researchers have in identifying them.
Sufyan Zhemukhov, a teacher at Kabardino-Balkaria State University who spent the 2005-2006 academic year at Washington’s Kennan Institute as a Fulbright scholar, described his current project, the problems he faced in carrying it out, and his preliminary conclusions at a recent international conference in Tbilisi (
The KBSU professor said that he planned to conduct “deep interviews” with 100 young people about their decisions to become Muslims, but he pointed out that “he was not able to do so.” The reason he failed, he said, was that decisions to convert to Islam are “very personal” ones and not something those who makes them are ready to discuss with someone they don’t know.
Consequently, Zhemukhov continued, he “was able to query only people who completely trusted him” – his relatives, students and neighbors, in all approximately 20 residents of Kakhun and Nartkaly.” But despite that limitation, he reported, he was able to discern three fundamental reasons why many young people in the North Caucasus continue to become active Muslims.
The first of these causes, the Kabardino-Balkaria scholar said, involves “an insufficiently high level of national self-consciousness.” Many young people are asking what it means to be a Kabard or a Balkar, especially those “who grow up in cities and experience problems with a knowledge of their native language.”
By turning to Islam, “as one of the manifestations of national spirit,” they are able to connect themselves more readily with national heroes and with religious ones as well. And “in this way, they make a transition from the problems of a search for national self-identification into spiritual self-identification.”
As they do so, Zhemukhov said, they begin to “distinguish ‘real, pure Islam,’ on the one hand, and ‘inherited’ Islam on the other.” There is a term – ‘innovative’ [Islam] – which has been invented by these young people. [And] they consider as ‘innovative’ the entire course of the development of Islam over the last century and a half.”
Then, he continued, these young people “begin to divide people into believers and unbelievers. After that, they begin to divide the believers themselves into the true and the hypocritical ones. In our village groups are then formed within the mosque, which very precisely follow these divisions.”
The most radical form closed groups as small as seven people, have special handshakes and so on to identify themselves and do not interact with others. Up to now, these young people have not gotten involved in any radical action, but Zhemukhov says, that is largely an accident of time and place. There are no guarantees that they will avoid violence in the future.
The second “cause,” he argued, is the economic situation in the region. Young people in his village “want the same thing that other young people want – a car, a house, nice clothes, marriage. But for this they need money. Religion helps resolve this problem. On the one hand, it says that these things are not the most important thing in life.
On the other, Islam solves the “psychological” problem young people in the North Caucasus confront in dealing with a lack of access to quality education. Because Islam teaches that it alone has truth, the inability of young North Caucasians to gain access to education in other subjects becomes less important.
And the third cause is something Zhemukhov identified as a form of protest against the wars in Chechnya and Abkhazia. The young with whom he spoke, the Kabardino-Balkaria academic concluded, “identify themselves with minorities who are being attacked by the majority,” something that provides psychological comfort in the absence of other things.
Zhemukhov, who has already published several books and a large number of articles, makes an important contribution to the understanding of the growing Islamization of the North Caucasus, one that suggests many of the efforts the Russian government is making to prevent that may be not only misplaced but counterproductive.
What is more, the three causes behind this turn to Islam in the North Caucasus – each of which is rooted in the psychological difficulties of self-identification young people there face – are so potent that there would appear to be little chance that any policy, however well-informed or well-intentioned, could prevent this process from continuing.

No comments: