Vienna, March 9 – Most Moscow commentators blame the recent upsurge in the killings of women in Chechnya on the revival of customary law (adat) or the imposition of Islamic law (shariat), but a new analysis suggests that the real explanation lies elsewhere in the dislocations caused by the military conflict there over the last 15 years.
On the one hand, independent Chechen journalist Salakh Kasayev says, this tendency to blame Islam reflects the “clash of civilizations” argumentation many people find persuasive especially when they focus, because of ignorance or some other reason, on Muslim doctrines rather than Chechen practice (www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=19562).
And on the other, such commentaries reflect an unwillingness to recognize or at least to highlight the ways in which Chechen society has been transformed by the war, changes that include but are not limited to a dramatic gender imbalance in which women now far outnumber men and to the adoption by some of violence as a way of life.
Following the discovery of the bodies of several young women who had been murdered, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov suggested that if they had behaved “immorally,” then it was right and proper that they be killed to preserve the honor of the families involved. That statement was picked up by Moscow media and quickly translated abroad.
But those who related Kadyrov’s statement, Kasayev continued, almost invariably linked his ideas to what he and they assume are absolute Islamic injunctions on this score, without a full appreciation and understanding of either Muslim teachings on such occasions or the customary practice or adat of the Chechens in the past.
Provisions of shariat do in fact for the most draconian punishments of women who engage in extra-marital sexual relations, Kasayev notes, but other provisions denounce the murder of any innocent person and even make a virtue out of the resolution of situations that might otherwise lead the imposition of these punishments.
The same complexity is also found in the unwritten Chechen customary law or adat. Some of its provisions extend even the shariat’s demand for the imposition of the harshest measures against women who violate the home. But at the same time, adat calls for conflict resolution and has any number of escape clauses.
Kasayev gives several examples. One of the clearest concerns the punishment a woman who has violated communal norms should receive. If she reports being raped more or less immediately, she likely will avoid any punishment at all. But if she does not, then the adat calls for her death.
Consequently, the Chechen journalist continues, what happens in any particular case depends more on circumstances and personalities than on the letter of one part of the law, and “only those who do not know the Caucasus well … treat Chechnya as part of Asia, with its own harems and other attributes of ‘the East.’”
To say this, Kasayev argues, is not to suggest that the shariat and adat are not important or not cruel. They are both. But their manifestations in Chechnya reflect some fundamental changes in Chechen life over the last 20 to 30 years, changes that are more the product of the turbulence produced by two wars than the result of Islamic law past or re-imposed.
“Today,” he notes, “Chechen exceeds the divorce fate of many neighboring regions. The number of HIV and venereal disease infected people is catastrophically growing. In schools and universities are reported cases of the use by girls of tobacco, narcotics, and alcohol – all things unthinkable for Chechnya of the 1980s or earlier.”
“And the causes of this decline in morality is not in the scarves Kadyrov supposedly is forcing them to wear, and not in Islam and in the customs and traditions of a people” which many outsiders are prone to describe as uncivilized and violent or the blind executors of either Kadyrov or the mullahs.
“The causes are the two wars which have shaken the republic, their consequences, the unceasing attempts of the state to weaken the influence of Islam in the region and to discredit everything ‘Chechen.’” That has left the Chechens in the horrendous position where the true clash of civilizations is not between civilization and Islamism but elsewhere.
It is between the traditions of the Chechen people which were undermined by the Soviet state, the wars and now Kadyrov and the cult of violence practiced by so many in that republic in response. Indeed, Kasayev says, local observers say that “the majority of murders of women which bear the signs of ritual executions were carried out by ‘siloviki’” after they raped them.
“Every murder, and especially one of a woman, generates pain, anger and repulsion in [Chechnya],” the Chechen journalist says. And consequently, “it is difficult even to imagine that in this atmosphere in the republic will be found someone who would publicly justify bloodletting” of this kind.
“On the contrary,” he continues, Muslim Chechens are “convinced that for themselves and for their descendents the best choice is one in favor of mercy, tolerance, and the forgiveness of injuries of all kinds inflected on them by others. Any shedding of blood is seen [especially given the recent wars] as an action against God.”
At the start of the first post-Soviet Chechen war, almost the entire world took the view that “Russia must sstop the ‘death squadrons’ operating in Chechnya. And there were only a few who understand that ‘the squadrons’ were a product of the war, one of its consequences.” Now, the killing of women represents something “analogous.”
And the people of Chechnya and the region will only be able to overcome their current difficulties, Kasayev concludes, if those who talk about their republic recognize that it is not Islam in either its shariat or adat forms that is causing the horrors but rather the actions of those in Moscow and in Grozny who have used force without trying to understand what is going on.