Monday, April 4, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Injustice More than Islam Behind North Caucasus Terrorism, Expert Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, April 4 – Ninety percent of people in the North Caucasus who go into the forests to fight the Russian regime and its representatives are doing so because they or their families are seeking revenge for injustice rather than because they are motivated by any of the precepts of Islam, according to a close observer of that area.

“If [what is taking place]were only religious terrorism,” Aliy Totorkulov, the leader of the Russian Congress of Peoples of the Caucasus, says, Moscow “would be able to cope with it.” But “in the Caucasus, ethnic and religious terrorism constitute at most 10 percent” of the total. “Ninety percent is social.” (

Sometimes this protest against arbitrariness and injustice on the part of officials is masked by Islamic slogans, Totorkulov acknowledges in an interview with Moscow’s “Izvestiya.” But in fact, in almost all cases, it reflects a deeper set of cultural attitudes among the peoples of that region, attitudes that Russian officials have violated.
It is important to understand that such protests are not driven by poverty but by a sense that officials are violating the proper organization of society, Totorkulov continues. “Caucasians are prepared to live in poverty,” but they are not willing to stand for injustice. And they have a tradition that tells them how to behave when they are confronted by that.
“In the Caucasus there were always abreks, people who took revenge” for violations of what most people there consider just. Now, most of those going into the mountains are abreks rather than terrorists. And that explains a major part of the support they receive: When a man goes into the forests to fight injustice, “his relatives always support him.”
Unlike residents of other parts of the Russian Federation, he continues, people in the North Caucasus do not feel they can seek redress for injustice any other way. “The North Caucasus republics are ruled by little princes who are given power from above.” As a result, they show little concern about those below.
Moreover, Totorkulov continues, there is “the Caucasus mentality.” While 86 percent of Russians say that “slavery still lives in [their] sub-consciousness” 150 years after the end of serfdom, the peoples in the Caucasus never knew serfdom and consequently in that region “live free people,” something Moscow has not yet been prepared to take into account.
Mixed among these abreks, he says, are “an insignificant minority” of fanatics and mercenaries, but Moscow will never succeed in overcoming the resistance until it understands that most of those who are engaged in this form of protest are doing so because of the injustice of the powers that be.
A major reason why some of the abreks misuse Islamic slogans, Totorkulov continues, is that they are fundamentally ignorant of the tenets of their religion, a situation which itself is a product of the complicated Soviet and Russian periods of North Caucasus history and the current “problem of fathers and sons” among religious leaders there.
“The religious leaders who now are in power [there] are elderly people. Their education, they received already in Soviet times having studied only the ABCs of Islam. The young religious leaders are a new generation,” products of Islamic universities abroad and offended by much that they see among the followers of the faith in the North Caucasus.
When the young leaders criticize their elders, the latter view them as a threat to their power, “as dangerous elements and [they] hand over this information to the force structures.” The center supports them because they are “the moderates” with whom Moscow has become “comfortable.”
But in fact, it is the younger Muslim leaders who could ultimately be part of the solution to the problems of the North Caucasus. Indeed, they could be its “salvation” because their knowledge of Islam will help their followers make progress toward a just and more democratic society.
Unfortunately, Moscow officials often do not understand this. They are sent reports by local officials who try to portray themselves in the best possible light and use language that makes their opponents, however justified, look like “Martians” with whom there is no basis for cooperation.
As a result, many at the center think they can “pacify the Caucasus” like General Yermolov did 150 years ago through force alone. That won’t work, Totorkulov argues, nor will the clumsy approach of Moscow which often changes leaderships in relatively peaceful republics and leaves in place the heads of more violent ones.
Moreover, the efforts of some Russian officials to rely on elders’ councils are misplaced. While such institutions were traditionally important, Soviet policies undermined their influence. Now, even if Moscow wants to revive them, many of the local officials don’t because such councils would naturally oppose them.
Totorkulov concludes that because “force will hardly solve all problems,” Moscow should seek to “disarm” the North Caucasus with friendship because the North Caucasian “will never behave badly toward someone who respects him.” And thatcan best be achieved by creating a genuine “civil society” which will eliminate excesses by the powers and the militants.

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