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Regions of the Northern Caucasus; Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Islamic Fundamentalism, Political Islamism as Main Ideology for Rebels in Northern Caucasus


Northern Caucasus insurgency, broke out after two wars led by Russia in the region, provoked spread of radical Islamism and fundamentalism among the local rebel groups, which currently attract mostly young people becoming a part of youth “Jamaat” – terrorist groups and cells driven by Islamist extremism and being organized according to the networking principle. These separatist rebel groups, seeking independence of their countries from Russia, became a real threat to the region and Russia as well, as they’ve implemented terrorism activities as one of the main means of their struggle. Terrorism, connected to Chechen conflict, became a branch of international terrorism.

Rise of Islamist fundamentalism and religious based radical ideology has started in the region between the two wars and significantly increased after the Second Chechen war (1999-2000) and during the following period of insurgency. It has been often used as a tool of political power and resistance, stated many experts studied the issue (PhD Igor Dobayev, Eduard W.Walker, Katherine Jensen, Aleksander Iskanderyan). According to A. Iskanderyan, director of the Center of Caucasian studies in Moscow, Chechen independence movement had no Islamic dimension at all at the beginning, as there was struggle for independence. But when the conflict began to attract more media, many Islamist extremist groups abroad and foreign jihadists migrated to Chechnya. Over the last decades international organizations, such as Al-Qaeda, have co-opted a Chechen case as a part of international jihad, what caused spread of radical and politicized Islam in Northern Caucasus (Chechnya, Ossetia, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Dagestan), state Igor Dobayev.

Talking about Chechnya and Northern Caucasus region in connection to religious extremism, spread in the latest period, it’s important to mention connections between the state and religious beliefs in the region and the role of religion among the people. In other words, it’s important to understand: are the previously existing and deeply rooted religious beliefs responsible for the emergence of national identities of Chechens, or are the new political circumstances responsible for the emergence of new commitments to religion?

Chechen people started to convert to Sunni Islam in 15th century, when Russia first invaded their territories. Spreading of Islam and its mass adoption happened in 18th century, during the new Caucasus wars led by Russia. Islam was considered as a symbol of Chechen resistance since then. In times of USSR, religions were oppressed in Soviet republics. However, in post-war Chechnya Islam is experiencing a revival as well as a transformation into a politicized Islam.

Chechnya’s return to Islam is also connected to the local customs and traditions and traditional hierarchy and structure of society, as families, clans, historical and language identities have great impact on the Chechen society along with religious identities. Thus, Islam in the region is mixed with the old local customs and traditions.

The brand of Islam adopted by Chechens is mostly Sufism – a mystical form of Sunni Islam.

Later, after Chechens started to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform hajj, Wahhabism was brought on the territory of Chechnya. Wahhabism is an Islamic puritan movement that emerged in early 18th century and was adopted then by the Saudi ruling family. It is fundamentalist and advocates the return to the original teachings of the Qur’an and Prophet Mohammed and opposes changes in Islamic doctrine.

In Russia though, this term is usually misinterpreted and tends to be used very loosely to refer to any kind of politicized Islam or non-sanctioned Islamist organizations and to any form of religious extremism and terrorism.

Wahhabism isn’t so popular in Northern Caucasus and is mainly opposed not only by the traditional clergy, but also by political elites. Wahhabism as a form of radical Islamist fundamentalism finds its support mostly among the young rebels and militant groups, as the idea of struggle for Chechen independence has transformed with time into an idea of jihad and creation of Islamic state in Northern Caucasus and imposing of Shariah Law (for example, Northern Caucasus Emirate, declared by Dokku Umarov in 2007).

The wars in Chechnya resulted in a breakdown of the governing system and brought instability, injustice, corruption and systematical human rights abuses. The idea of Shariah Law based state found its popularity, because Shariah promoted moral values and accountability of the leaders and discouraged corruption. Most Chechens supported implementation of Shariah Law as a mean to combat societal ills rather than a step towards establishing an Islamic state.

Spread of radical Islamist and extremist religious-political teachings started after the war and was adopted mostly by rebel fighters, who saw it mostly as a political tool. Foreign jihadists had also serious influence in Chechnya, as many ideologists of the militant groups and movements were of Arab origin (for example, Omar Al-Khattab). Chechen fighter often drew inspiration from Afghan mujahedeen and their struggle against USSR too. Rebel commanders thus started to use more Islamic symbols along with ideas of their fight, in part, maybe because they wanted to get more support from the Islamist groups abroad, widening the Chechen case to the part of global jihad.

The issue of financing of these rebel groups is also important, as many of them receive it either from a local source, or from international Islamist organizations or individuals. Russian intelligence and FSB often claim that the increase in financing the rebel groups and terrorist cells could be the main reason for the increase of their activities, but it’s not exactly the case, because even closing financial channels cannot resolve the problem due to the importance of religious, ideological and political doctrines and autonomous organization of these groups.

It’s worth mentioning that Islam also provides an effective ideology for Chechen fighters (cult of mujahedeen, concept of shaheed), which was used by militant commanders, as Islamic teachings are also often misinterpreted and changed in order to justify the fighting and terrorism.

In conclusion, the Second Chechen War has brought into Chechnya and the region ideological issues of international Islamist extremists and formed here the so-called “quasi-Wahhabism”, religious-political extremism that has a big impact on the rebel groups, but fails to find wide support among the majority of the Chechens. Chechen rebels and militant commanders often view Islam as a political tool to consolidate Chechens in their fight against Russian occupation. The war, in short, led to the politicization of Islam and its transformation, not the opposite, and “quasi-Wahhabism” became the main ideology being used by the rebel groups in the region.

Julia Lugovska is a Ukrainian journalist based in Kiev.

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