Хаос на Кавказе
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Anti-Americanism, after all, has been a common thread in a series of
spectacular acts of violence over the past decade. They include the bombing
of the World Trade Centre in New York in February 1993; the explosion that
killed 19 American soldiers at a base in Saudi Arabia in June 1996; and the
deadly blasts at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August
In many of the more recent attacks it has suffered, the United States has discerned the hand of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-bom coordinator of an international network of militant Muslims. In February last year, he and his sympathisers in Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh issued a statement declaring that "to kill the Americans and their allies-civilian and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it."
Now, it might appear, Russia's turn has come to do battle on a new
front in this many-sided conflict. The Russian government has blamed
terrorists from the country's Muslim south for a series of bomb blasts in
Moscow and other cities which have claimed over 300 lives. And it has launched a broadening land and air attack against the mainly Muslim republic of Chechnya, where the terrorists are alleged to originate.
In their more strident moments, officials and newspaper columnists in
Moscow say that Russia is in the forefront of a fight between "civilisation and barbarism" and is therefore entitled to western understanding. "We face a common enemy, international terrorism,"
Whereas western countries have chided Russia (mildly) for its military
operation against Chechnya, Iran has been much more supportive. Kamal
Kharrazi, Iran's foreign minister, has promised "effective collaboration" with the Kremlin against what he has described as terrorists bent on destabilising Russia. Russia, for its part, has thanked Iran for using its chairmanship of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to present the
Perhaps because of Russia's friendship with certain parts of the
Muslim world, Mr Putin has firmly rejected the view that the "bandits"
Russia is now fighting could properly be described as Islamic. "They are international terrorists, most of them mercenaries, who cover themselves in religious slogans," he insists.
But ordinary Muslims in the Moscow street — whether they are of
Caucasian origin, or from the Tatar or Bashkir nations based in central
Russia — fear a general backlash. "Politicians and the mass media are equating us, the Muslim faithful, with armed groups," complains Ravil
Gainutdin, Russia's senior mufti. Patriarch Alexy II, the head of the
Russian Orthodox church, has been urging his flock not to blame their i8m
Muslim compatriots for the recent violence. "Russian Christians and Muslims traditionally live in peace," he has reminded them.
Chapter 2. Clash, or conspiracy?
But even if Russia's southern war is not yet a "clash of
civilisations", might it soon become one? And if so, would that bring
Russia closer to the West, or push it farther away?
Islam is certainly one element in the crisis looming on Russia's southern rim, but it is by no means the only one. The latest flare-up began in August in the wild border country between Chechnya — which has been virtually independent since Russian troops were forced out, after two years of brutal war, in 1996 — and Dagestan, a ramshackle, multiethnic republic where a pro-Russian government has been steadily losing control.
Many people in Russia did not need any evidence; the government's
allegations simply confirmed the anti-Chechen, and generally anti-
Caucasian, prejudice they already harboured. Other Russians take a more cynical view. They believe the bomb attacks are somehow related to the power struggle raging in Moscow as the "courtiers" of Ex-President Yeltsin try to cling to their power and privilege in the face of looming electoral defeat.
Such incidents are grist to the mill of Moscow's conspiracy theorists.
Some believe that the bombs were indeed the work of Chechen extremists, but insist that the fighting in the south is mainly the result of Russian provocation; some say it is the other way round. Whatever the truth, the crisis has certainly played into the hands of the most hardline elements in
Russia's leadership. But there are also signs that people from outside
Russia have been stirring the pot.
Mark Galeotti, a British lecturer on Russia's armed forces, says there
is evidence that Mr bin Laden, while not the instigator of the urban
bombing campaign, has offered financial help to its perpetrators. And
fighters under the influence of Mr bin Laden have certainly been active in
Chechnya and Dagestan — though their presence is probably not the main reason why war is raging now.
With or without some mischief-making by dark forces in Moscow, Russia would have a problem in the northern Caucasus. Hostility between Russians and Chechens goes back to the north Caucasian wars of the i9th century, when the tsar's forces took more than 50 years to bring the Chechens under control. As well as strong family loyal-ries, part of the glue that held the Chechens and other north Caucasian people together was Sufism, the mystical strand of Islam.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 promised to liberate all the subject peoples of the sariat empire. As civil war loomed, Lenin and Stalin made a cynical bid for Muslim support by promising the creation of semi- independent Islamic states in Russia and central Asia, saying: "All you whose mosques and houses of prayer have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been flouted by the tsars and the oppressors of Russia — from now on your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions are free and inviolable."
The reality of Soviet rule was, of course, very different. Periods of
repression alternated with periods of relative toleration, but prechens
(along with seven other ethnic groups) were deported en masse to Kazakhstan as part of Stalin's policy of punishing "untrustworthy" ethnic groups. But
Chechen culture, in particular, proved remarkably hard to destroy.
By the i98os, there were estimated to be 50m Soviet citizens of Muslim ancestry. For most of them, Soviet rule had had a powerful secularising effect. Out of cultural habit, many still circumcised their baby boys and buried their dead according to Muslim custom. But the closure of all but a handful of mosques, and the virtual end of religious education, meant that knowledge of Islam had nearly evaporated.
Among the few places in the Soviet Union where Islam remained fairly strong was the northern Caucasus. The Sufi tradition was well able to survive in semi-clan-destine conditions. Even without mosques, the Chechens were able to go on venerating the memory of their local sheikhs and performing traditional dances and chants.
Chapter 3. Enter the Wahhabis
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Sufi tradition has
faced a challenge of a very different type. Emissaries from the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, have flooded into the Caucasus and Central Asia, seeing an opportunity in the spiritual and economic wasteland left by
Financed by Saudi petrodollars, these preachers have begun propagating a new form of Islam, which has become known (through a slight over- simplification) as Wahhabism: in other words, the austere form of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. The new version of Islam strives to be as close as possible to the faith's 1,400-year-old roots. It opposes the secularism of Russian life. Its universalising message aims to transcend ethnic and linguistic barriers, and it has no place for the local cults of Sufism.
Many Chechens and Dagestanis find the new form of Islam alien and
uncomfortable, and some actively oppose it. It has caused division, and
even violence, within families. But by building mosques and establishing
scholarships, the Wahhabis have won a following, especially among the young
— often impatient with what they see as a corrupt official religious establishment left over from Soviet times. Moreover, in the confusion of post-Soviet Russia, the new creed offers disillusioned and money and weapons and a sense of purpose which they cannot find anywhere else.
A daredevil hijacker and hostage-taker, Mr Basaev took part in the
Russian-backed war against Georgia in 1992-93, and then fought ruthlessly against Russia in the Chechen war of 1994-96. Trained in the Soviet army, he now says his life's mission is to wage holy war against Russia and avenge its crimes against his people. He is not himself a Wahhabi, but he seems to have decided that the new Muslims would make useful recruits for his jihad, even though he does not share their extreme puritanism.
Mr Basaev was both a Muslim and a Chechen patriot; the two qualities are inseparable. But despite his bushy beard and talk of holy wars, he does not quite correspond to the image of a single-minded fundamentalist. His heroes, after all, included Garibaldi and Abraham Lincoln.
Educated in Saudi Arabia, Khattab fought the Russians in Afghanistan
before settling in Chechnya. In other words, he is one of the
"Afghanis"—the 15,000 or so unteers from all over the Middle East
(particularly Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Algeria) who did battle, with strong American support, against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan. Since the war ended, these fighters have returned to their homelands, or . moved to other countries, in search of new Islamist causes to fight.
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