In the fall of 2018, a confrontation in the sport of Mix Martial Arts between a young man from Dagestan and his Irish rival thrusted the Caucasus into the limelight of world stage. However, the ensuing discussions and debates revealed very quickly the persistence of often erroneous and facile narratives pertaining to that region of the world and its inhabitants. For most Westerners, to whom Islam is primarily an Eastern religion practiced by hordes of brown and black people, the very idea of white Muslims who are not recent converts was a perplexing one. Everything about Caucasians, from their cultures, to their religion, to their history became a topic of conversation. In the midst of the slurs, braggadocios claims, and accusations of collaboration and betrayal, the Chechen war came up as a topic; a discussion that unfortunately led to the all too familiar territory of thinly veiled Islamophobia.
A brief history of the Chechen-Russian Conflict
Located in the North Caucasus, Chechnya (also called Ichkeria) is a “quadrilateral located in the north-eastern part of the Caucasus, demarcated by the Terek and Sunja rivers in the west and the north, the Andi range in the east which separates it from Dagestan, and the snow-covered twin range of the Caucasus in the south which separates it from Georgia” (Gammer, 2006:2). Rich in oil, natural gas, and minerals, this land is inhabited by the Nokhchi (meaning our people), better known under their Russian ethnonym (Chechen), and are closely related to the Ingush. Together, these two groups form the Vainakh who are the most ancient indigenous people of the region (Gammer, 2006:2).
Islam made its first inroads into the Caucasus in the 8th century. Two centuries later, it became the dominant religion in the southern coastal plain south of Derbent; an important economic centre located in present-day Dagestan. In the 11th and 12th century, most of the Darghin and Lakh people of central Dagestan converted massively to Islam. The arrival of the Nogai Horde, a Turkic tribe, in the region during the 14th century contributed greatly to the spread of Islam amongst the Cherkess, the Kabardins, and the Chechens. A century later, the Lakh of central Dagestan abandoned any remainder of their previous belief systems in order to practice Islam exclusively. As fervent Muslims, they dedicated themselves to the spread of their religion in Dagestan and the lands beyond; bringing Islam to the Chechens and the Kumiks. Over the coming centuries several ethnic groups such as the Avar, Chechen, Ingush, Adyghe, Cherkess, and Kabardins converted massively to Islam; making the Northern Caucasus a solid Muslim Bastion. Today, Islam is an important component of Vainakh culture as both the Chechen and the Ingush belong to the Hanafi School of Sunni Islam jurisprudence.
“In 1556, when Tsar Ivan the Terrible succeeded in conquering the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan and thus entering into the Caspian orbit, the North Caucasus region (…) became the object of a competition involving Muscovy, the Ottoman Empire, Iran, the Crimean Khanate, and other lesser powers” (Dunlop, 1998:4). Confronted to a stiff resistance from the native populations of the Caucasus, Tsarist Russia did not hesitate to unleash its might in successive military campaigns resulting in horrific acts of violence. In the 19th century, General Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov began a military campaign to secure Russia’s hold over the Caucasus. In order to subdue the Chechens, who were fiercely opposed to the Russian invasion, Yermolov adopted a strategy of collective punishment in which Chechen villages where systematically targeted and destroyed. The campaign was of such cruelty and violence that many believe it contributed directly to the protracted and bloody Murid War (1829-1859). His campaign of expulsions, massacres, and widespread torture not only “fuelled the Chechens’ hatred of Russians” but also inspired a profound desire “for freedom and their willingness to fight and die for it.” (Hertog, 2001: 29).
In more ways than one, the Russian invasion became the source of social and political turmoil in the Caucasus. Not only did the Chechens lose their sovereignty, they also found their cultural and religious identity endangered. Tsarist Russia’s anti-Islamic policies, its promotion of Russian culture at the detriment of their native traditions, and the spread of behaviours and attitudes anathema to their cultural and religious ethos created a “fertile ground for the ideas of the Naqshbandiya” (Hertog, 2001:29). It is from this Sufi order that key figures such as the famed Imam Shamil emerged during the Caucasian wars that lasted until 1856. He successfully united warring Caucasian tribes under a common Pan-Caucasian and Islamic banner; creating a united front against the Russian expansion into Chechnya and Dagestan. In 1864, after 142 years of a bitter struggle for freedom the Chechens finally surrendered to Tsarist Russia; but this was by no means the end of Chechen resistance (Dunlop, 1998:12). In 1877, they rose up in arms again defying Russian rule and rejecting their inclusion into the Tsarist Empire. This new rebellion ended with the slaughter of more than 60% of the Chechen population (Dunlop, 1998:32).
The February Revolution of 1917 was, at first, welcomed by the Chechens who saw in it a chance to break away from Tsarist rule and regain the control of their land. The Bolshevik slogans promoting freedom, equality, and the right for self-determination resonated with them. But soon after, they realised that the real politics of the Bolsheviks were far from what their slogans promised. Instead of the awaited freedom and independence, they were once again under the yoke of a regime alien to their traditions and values (Dunlop, 1998:16). This new Bolshevik rule promoted atheism and ignored completely the traditions, religion, and customs of the Chechen people. All of this contributed to the uprising against the Bolshevik rule in the 1920’s which lead to renewed hostilities between Moscow and the Chechens. Later on, as the totalitarian regime of Stalin gained in strength, the need to subdue and disarm the autonomous region of Chechnya became a priority.
In 1925, a campaign aimed at “political banditry” was launched in Chechnya, implementing a policy of mass arrests and repression. However, the darkest chapter in the tumultuous history of Chechnya remains without a doubt the deportation of the Chechen people and their kin the Ingush to central Asia in 1944 (Dunlop, 1998:17). Almost 500,000 Vainakh were forcefully put into cattle trucks and deported to Central Asia. The Stalinist regime tried to legitimize this treatment by levelling accusations of Nazis collaboration during World War II against the Chechens, although the Germans never reached Chechnya during their incursion into Soviet territory. For Stalin, this was an opportunity to get rid of a rebellious nation permanently. “Their name was effaced, their cultural symbols were destroyed and history was rewritten as if the Chechens had never existed.” (Hertog, 2005:243). During the long and perilous journey to Central Asia, close to 78,000 died succumbing to the lack of food, sanitary facilities, and the cramped conditions on the trains (Lieven 1998: 319). The surviving population was further decimated when they arrived in Kazakhstan due to the harsh living conditions. According to official Soviet statistics, an estimated 25% of the exiled died within the first five years of their arrival (Evangelista 2002: 14). Between 30% to 50% of Chechens and Ingush are estimated to have perished during those years of exile, many dying due to the cold and the lack of food.
In 1957, Krushchev who came to power after Stalin’s death ordered the return of the Vainakh from exile, thus restoring the Chechen republic and its people. However, this return was by no means the end of their suffering. They became once more the focus of Soviet propaganda since their resistance to atheism was perceived as a possible risk for renewed insurgency against the Soviet State. “A special ‘army of atheistic experts’ flooded the inhabitants of Grozny with antireligious lectures.” (Hertog, 2005:244). Many religious figures were hunted down and arrested while Soviet press and media routinely reiterated anti-Islamic narratives and attitudes; all in an effort to discourage the Chechen population from practicing Islam. However, this renewed hostility toward their religion only deepened the Chechens’ desire to maintain their distinctive religious and cultural ethos.
While these anti-Islamic campaigns succeeded in destroying “the material and structural basis” of Islamic leadership in Chechnya, they failed at eradicating Islamic beliefs and practice. “On the contrary, the deformalised but still vibrant faith of the Chechen people was absorbed into the informal networks of the brotherhoods.” (Hertog, 2005:244). The Sufi brotherhoods played an important role in preserving a common Chechen identity during the long years of exile. “As cultural and educational activity came to a halt, and as there were no newspapers or books in the native language, ‘what after all, could the people turn to, if not religion?’ (Henze, 1995: 24). The brotherhoods soon built extensive networks incorporated into the social structure of the Chechen people where now “each individual had not only family and clan loyalties, but also a Sufi brotherhood loyalty.” (Zelkina, 1993: 120). Faced with the openly hostile attitude of the Soviet regime toward Islam upon their returned from exile, the brotherhoods reprised their role as guardians of the Chechen identity by ensuring “the survival of Islamic belief and practice amidst constant atheistic militancy.” (Hertog, 2005: 244).
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, secession emerged as a major political issue in the Post-Cold War era. Many states from East Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus either broke up into a multitude of states or became sovereign nations in their own right. Secessionist endeavours usually provoke mixed feelings and reactions. On the one hand, there is a natural inclination to support minority communities struggling for national liberation. On the other hand, there is a fear of the possible consequences of secession because too often conflict and war are a more typical outcome. In the Balkans, the collapse of Communism led to a genocidal war which effectively split Yugoslavia into 7 countries: Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Montenegro. For Russia, secession in the strategically important region of the Caucasus posed a particular challenge. In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, there was civil war in Georgia, conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the republic of Chechnya was actively working on obtaining its independence. Moscow’s resolve to maintain its control over the region led to two terrible and bloody wars with the small Chechen republic.
Both, the first (1994-1996) and second Chechen War (1999-2009) can be described as the latest chapters in the Chechens’ ongoing conflict with Russia that started in the 16th century. The first war started in 1991 when Chechnya under the leadership of Djokhar Dudayev declared its sovereignty vis-a-vis Russia. Attempts by the Yeltsin regime to maintain the republic within the Federation were unsuccessful as Chechens rejected the proposed autonomy for complete sovereignty. Finally on December 1994, “the Russian Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior units entered Chechnya” and full-fledge war began (Dunlop, 1998:209). Referred to as the First Chechen war, this conflict lasted for three years and killed 100,000 Chechens out of a population of 1,000,000. It eventually ended with the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechen territory in 1996. However Chechen sovereignty was short lived. In 1999 President Putin declared the Chechen parliament illegal and ordered the invasion of the country by Russian troops. Chechens under the leadership of president Aslan Maskhadov took up arms to defend their country against this new Russian invasion. Although large scale military incursions ended officially in 2000, the conflict soon entered its insurgency phase opposing Russian forces and Chechen paramilitary to Chechen separatists.
Learning from their previous disastrous and costly incursions into Chechnya, the Russian authorities opted for a policy of “Chechenization” as a counterinsurgency strategy during the second war (Lyall; 2010: 3). By granting political power to ambitious Chechen officials susceptible of supporting the Kremlin’s desire to maintain Chechnya within Russia, they effectively created a split in the Chechen front. Akhmed Kadyrov, a mufti once loyal to the Chechen opposition, was nominated in 2003 as the head of the Chechen Republic by the Kremlin; only to be assassinated by the rebels seven months later. In 2007, Putin signed a decree nominating Ramzan Kadyrov, son of the late Akhmed Kadyrov, as the president of Chechnya. One of the main pillars of the Chechenization policy was the formation of combat units consisting of Chechens-only to conduct sweep operations.
Until early 2003, the counterinsurgency campaign was primarily ran by Russian units. However, this soon changed with the creation of joint patrols with Chechen police units. In an effort to further put a Chechen face to the counterinsurgency effort, Chechen-only Ministry of Defense units (Special Battalions Vostok and Zapad) were trained and equipped to assume sweep operations (Lyall; 2010: 3). The Kadyrovs also took advantage of this policy by creating their own paramilitary forces, known as the Kadyrovtsy, to participate in sweep operations targeting the rebels and their supporters. “In total, about 20,000 Chechens had joined Vostok, Zapad, or a Kadyrov affiliated organization by the end of 2005, when large-scale sweep operations were phased out as Ramzan Kadyrov consolidated power.” (Lyall; 2010: 3). Since his nomination as president, Kadyrov has maintained a climate of fear through selective disappearances, targeted assassination of regime critics, and the nighttime burning of suspected insurgents’ homes in a bid to pacify Chechnya.
In October 31, 2007, “the then leader of the Chechen separatists, Dokku Umarov, announced the creation of the Caucasus Emirate—an Islamic theocracy based on Sharia rule, which spread across the territory of the autonomous North Caucasus territories of the Russian Federation” (Souleimanov, 2011:161). The insurgency which was previously confined to Chechnya eventually spread to five other republics (Dagestan, Ingushetia, the Nogay Steppe, North Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachay) with members loyal to the Caucasus Emirate becoming active throughout the region. While today the insurgency has entered its dormant phase, the Chechen desire for independence is far from extinguished. Both Chechens in the diaspora and at home still dream of one day seeing a free and sovereign Ichkeria.
Figure A: Map of the Caucasus
Clash of Civilizations or colliding hegemonic projects
Both Samuel Huntington and S.N Eisenstadt propose mechanisms of conflict embedded within civilizational entities and triggered by precise dynamics. Each one suggests specific scenarios that are crucial to the understanding of conflict from a civilizational dimension. Huntington in his clash of civilization theory highlights colliding religious and cultural values as another trigger of his civilizational conflict mechanism. According to him, the general tendency throughout history has been to think in terms of two worlds. “People are always tempted to divide people into us and them, the in-group and the other, our civilization and those barbarians” (Huntington, 1996:32). Even scholars are constantly trying to categorize the world into two distinctive groups in their analysis, whether they phrase it as the Orient and the Occident, the North and the South, or the centre and the periphery (Huntington, 1996:32).
In the 14thcentury already, Muslim scholars divided the world into Dar al-Islam (the abode of peace) and Dar al-Harb (the abode of war). “Depending upon how the parts are defined, a two-part world picture may in some measure correspond with reality” (Huntington, 1996:32). Identities are drawn along the lines of these distinctions and specific groupings coalesce around a shared sense of cultural and religious values stemming from a sense of belonging. The cultural bifurcation at the heart of this great divide tends to create a polarization into two opposing camps “where the emphasis is less on differences in economic well-being and more on differences in underlying philosophy, values and ways of life” (Huntington, 1996:32). Huntington reiterates that the world is far too complex to be simply “divided economically between North and South or culturally between East and West” (Huntington, 1996:33). He promotes instead a vision of a multicivilizational and multipolar world where contacts between different civilizations lead to conflicts.
The secession of the Chechen republic from the Russian federation and the ensuing war could be interpreted, from a Huntingtonian perspective, as the result of a confrontation between two sets of distinctive cultural and religious values. For the Chechens, promoting the rebirth of Chechen-Muslim values necessitated a free and sovereign territory where this project could blossom. However, for the proponents of a unified Russia this was seen as a rejection of the Slav and Orthodox values which constitute the core of Russian identity. As the conflict intensified so did the confrontation between these opposing values. The resurgence of a Chechen culture and an increasingly vibrant Islamic revival led to the rebirth of a Chechen national identity. Breaking away from Russia was not only politically motivated but was also an attempt to consolidate this nascent sense of nationhood. The turmoil of the post Soviet Union climate provided them with an opportunity to reclaim their territory. By changing the name of their country from the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, they were in fact reiterating their distinctive cultural, historical, and religious identity. The secession of Chechnya from the greater Russian Federation was not merely a political act but rather an attempt to create the necessary climate for a cultural rebirth of the Chechen nation.
Conflicts appearing in regions where contacts between civilizational entities occur are called fault line wars by Huntington. These conflicts can occur between states, between non-governmental groups, or between states and non-governmental groups. However, whether these conflicts involve clans, tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, or nations their rational “is always rooted in the identities of people” (Huntington, 1996:252). Fault lines wars can manifest themselves as a struggle for the control of people or the control of territory. “The goal of at least one of the participants is to conquer territory and free it of other people by expelling them, killing them, or doing both, that is, by ethnic cleansing” (Huntington, 1996:252). This explains the extremely violent nature of such confrontations leading often to the usage of indiscriminate massacres, rape, terrorism, and torture. “The territory at stake often is for one or both sides a highly charged symbol of their history and identity, sacred land to which they have an inviolable right: the West Bank, Kashmir, Nagorno-Karabakh, the Drina Valley or Kosovo” (Huntington, 1996:252). Fault line wars can be notoriously instable and can “flame up into massive violence and then sputter down into low intensity warfare or sullen hostility only to fame up once again” (Huntington, 1996:253).
The Chechen struggle for sovereignty resonated with many other ethnic groups living in the Caucasus and facing the same Russian hegemony. From a Huntingtonian perspective, one could say that the expansion of the conflict outside of Chechnya’s borders is due to the rise of a civilization consciousness built around the concept of Caucasian and Muslim identity. The struggle is no longer just one for Chechen freedom but rather one for a broader Caucasian rebirth. The implication in the insurgency of Kin countries such as Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachay as well as a very active Chechen Diaspora has not only created a broader Caucasian and Muslim solidarity, but has also intensified the conflict. In that context, one can no longer simply speak of a Chechen war but rather a conflict opposing a core Slavic/Orthodox state (Russia) to weaker peripheral Muslim republics located in the Caucasus (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, etc…)
A rather different perspective of civilizations and their influence in world politics was elaborated by S.N Eisenstadt. Instead of the concept of civilizational clash promoted by Huntington, he elaborated on the concept of axial civilizations. These civilizational entities not only attempt to reconstruct the world in accordance to their ontological and cosmological vision but they also express a certain proclivity toward expansion. They mobilize pre-existing political ideologies, religious impulses, and to some extent economic structures in order to nourish this endeavour. They adopt a “distinctive ideological and reflexive mode of expansion with potentially strong semi-missionary orientations” (Eisenstadt 2003:41). This pattern of expansion creates a better awareness of civilizational frameworks encompassing different societies made up of a multitude of political and ethnic groups. According to Eisenstadt’s theory it is not so much civilizations that are at odds but rather hegemonic projects embedded in civilizational frameworks.
Civilizational conflict mechanism according to Eisenstadt:
|Components of civilizational conflict
||Triggers in the Chechen conflict
|· Basic ideological premises (the Dominion of Mother Russia vs. Ichkeria/free Chechnya)
· Core Symbols (The Russian Bear vs. The Chechen Lone Wolf)
· Construction of collective identities
|Distinctive ideological and reflexive modes of expansion
|| (3 key periods)
1)Tsarist Russia vs. Ottoman Empire
2) USSR vs. Chechnya
3) Russian Federation vs. the Caucasus Emirate
|Internal civilizational dynamics
||· Religious, ideological, political and economic impulses
· Center vs. Periphery (Russian Federation vs. Peripheral republics)
The development and institutionalization of specific ontological and cosmological visions and new modes of consciousness within Axial civilizations is connected very closely to the emergence of a “new social element, of a new type of elite, of carriers of models of cultural and social order” (Eisenstadt, 2003:38). The tendency to reconstruct the world according to specific symbolic, ideological and institutional precepts, and to partake in continual expansion has been a common feature of Axial civilizations. The multitude of existent civilizations and their diversity is the work of different patterns through which these elements are being implemented. All these civilizations try to “reconstruct the world in their own mode, according to basic premises, and either to absorb the others or consciously to segregate itself from them” (Eisenstadt, 2003:42). Two elements are crucial in the shaping of the different modes of institutionalization and civilizational expansion. “One such set consists of variations of differences in the basic cultural orientations. The other is the concrete structure of the social arenas in which these institutional tendencies can be played out” (Eisenstadt, 2003:43).
In the case of the Chechen conflict, there are two distinctive ontological and cosmological visions at odds. A vision of a unified Russia is colliding with that of a free and sovereign Ichkeria (Chechnya). During this conflict, symbolic, ideological and institutional precepts have been utilized in order to justify the ongoing hostilities. For the proponents of the Federation, the dominion of Mother Russia already weakened by the crumbling of the Soviet Union needs to be protected from further balkanization. The integrity of the territory must be preserved in order to safeguard the status and the weight of Russia in the international arena. The military incursions in the Chechen territory were framed as a legitimate attempt to protect the nation from peril, and the victory of the Russian army as the proof of the strength of “the Russian bear” representing the Russian strength of character.
On the other hand, the proponents of secession in Chechnya framed their struggle around the question of national freedom. Chechnya, they claimed was never a willing member of the Federation but rather an occupied territory demanding to be released. For them, the conflict was not so much one of self-determination as much as an attempt to put an end to Russian colonialism. Ichkeria was a sovereign nation before the Russian penetration into the Caucasus and will be once again free from oppression. Largely surpassed by the Russian military in terms of resources, the Chechen victory during the first war against a vastly superior military machine was framed as the victory of the “lone wolf against the Russian bear”. This image evokes a struggle similar to that of David vs. Goliath, and in doing so reiterates the perseverance and the courage of Chechens against an enemy far superior to them in numbers and in resources. The continuation of the conflict has in fact institutionalized the ontological and cosmological visions supporting the political agendas of both sides while impacting on the construction of collective identities.
In order to reconstruct a social order according to any given ontological and cosmological vision, it is crucial to develop a strong “tendency to define certain collectivities and institutional arenas as most appropriate for the implementation of their respective transcendental visions” (Eisenstadt, 2003:38). This tendency creates new types of collectivities and groups harboring a special meaning derived from those distinctive transcendental visions. These groups help to institutionalize a “new type of intersocietal and intercivilizational world history” which justifies the proclivity of civilizations for expansion (Eisenstadt, 2003:41). Ideological, religious, as well as political and economic impulses are then mobilized in order to trigger distinctive ideological and reflexive modes of expansion. These expansions could be geographical in nature, religious or cultural; however, it is important to reiterate that these processes are not necessarily linked. Depending on the realities at hand, the civilizational frameworks of these expansions can change as different internal civilizational dynamics come into play.
The Caucasus, as the crossroad between different ethnic, religious, and political entities has been the theatre of many expansionist endeavours. There are key moments in the history of the region which reflect distinctive ideological and reflexive modes of expansion. In the eighteenth century, the Caucasus became the frontline of a war opposing Tsarist Russia to the Ottoman Empire. Since neither of these empires are indigenous to the region, they both mobilized different impulses in order to justify their expansion, while trying to render their rival’s position illegitimate. While the Ottoman Empire utilized religion in order to establish alliances with local ethnic groups sharing the same religious beliefs, Tsarist Russia utilized instead cultural arguments pertaining to the superiority of Russians to the barbarians and savages of the Caucasus. During the twentieth century, the USSR utilized political and ideological arguments to justify their presence in the region. The Chechens on the other hand framed their struggle around the question of cultural identity and national autonomy.
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