How Moscow's War on Islamist Rebels Is Backfiring

Chechen President Ramzan Kadirov his home. Davide Monteleone / Contrasto-Redux

The video shows a gun barrel jutting from the rear window of a shiny black Lada sedan as it cruises slowly down Putin Prospect, a new boulevard of designer shops in the Chechen capital, Grozny. Spotting a pair of young women in long skirts but without headscarves, the vehicle’s occupants open fire. The two pedestrians scream, but they don’t fall. A blot of red paintball ink is spreading across one young woman’s blouse. As the vehicle pulls away, the camera shows the two women dashing for safety into the nearest shop.

Chechnya’s enforcers of supposed Islamic propriety have struck again. In the name of combating terrorism, President Ramzan Kadyrov has declared war on what he regards as public indecency. “My dream is for all our women to wear scarves, in accordance with Islamic law,” he told NEWSWEEK recently. To assist in that fight and correct supposedly un-Islamic conduct, he established his own Taliban-style morality police, the Center for Spiritual and Moral Development and Education, last year. For backup, Chechen militias prowl the streets in black cars and black uniforms, on the alert not only for uncovered hair but for short-sleeve T shirts, short skirts, and public displays of affection. Although many Chechen women have accused them of paintball attacks in the past few months, Kadyrov brushes off the charges, blaming “somebody who wants to blacken my politics.”

Kadyrov, 34, has become the standard--bearer for the Kremlin’s efforts to pacify the rebellious North Caucasus once and for all. His bare-knuckle style has brought at least some degree of law and order to Chechnya, and that crude success is why the Kremlin trusts him. The region has resisted Moscow’s control for centuries, but in the past decade or so, the violence has spread and intensified as Islamist extremism has flourished elsewhere in the world. “Our Afghanistan is inside Russia,” says Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center. Hundreds of civilians died after Chechen rebels seized a Moscow theater in 2002 and a school in Beslan in 2004. This year, suicide bombers killed more than 40 people in the Moscow subway and more than 150 in a series of attacks in the North Caucasus. The brutal tactics of the Russian military and its local proxies have only boosted support for the rebels.

Now the country’s leaders are trying a new approach. The idea is to cultivate a different, more docile strain of Islam among Russia’s estimated 20 million professed Muslims. To that end, the Kremlin is spending $300 million to open seven new Islamic universities in Russia and sponsoring hundreds of students to pursue advanced degrees in approved universities in Syria and Saudi Arabia. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has moved to boost the authority of accredited imams, affirming that they have “a special place” in Caucasian society and calling on them to help the Kremlin “confront terror through spirituality and high ethical standards.” At the same time, the military is continuing its efforts to hunt down and kill rebels and radicals in the Caucasus.

At first glance, Kadyrov might seem to be the perfect tool for the Kremlin’s needs. Russian leader Vladimir Putin (Kadyrov calls him “my idol”) appointed him president of Chechnya in 2007, as soon as he became old enough to take the post legally. His brand of Islam is far from the Saudi-derived Wahhabism espoused by many of the Chechen rebels—and by Osama bin Laden. Instead it’s an eclectic blend of Sufism (a traditionally pacifist, mystical branch of the Sunni sect) and ancient Chechen traditions like the zikr, an all-male hybrid of circle dance and prayer. His father, Ahmed Kadyrov, had been Chechnya’s chief mufti (spiritual leader) when the tiny mountain republic tried to break Russia’s grip in the 1990s, but he eventually reconciled with Moscow—and was assassinated in 2004. The younger Kadyrov now casts himself as his father’s spiritual and political heir, delivering long sermons to gatherings of religious students and scholars, wearing the traditional robes of a Sufi teacher, and proposing recently that he renounce his title of president in favor of mekkh-da, a Chechen term meaning “father of the nation,” usually associated with the legendary imams who led the resistance to Russian occupation in the 19th century. In person, he prefers to be addressed as Padishah, Farsi for emperor.

magnitogorsk-photos-of-a-steel-city-in-decline-image0 Magnitogorsk: Photos of a Steel City in Decline

rue to the Kremlin’s wishes, Kadyrov has set out to promulgate his own idiosyncratic version of Islamic law in place of the Wahhabi dictates of Moscow’s adversaries. Trouble is, it’s not always easy to see much difference. “Sisters, we would like to remind you that every Muslim woman is obliged to wear a veil!” says a widely distributed pamphlet issued by the Chechen state publishing house Put (“The Path” in Russian, and a pun on “Putin”). “Today we mark you with paint—do not provoke us to use harsher methods!” He’s poured millions into building mosques all over Chechnya, tightly restricted the sale of alcohol, and made the wearing of Islamic attire compulsory in all Chechen schools and universities. The morality police are under his personal direction; according to the human-rights group Memorial, they punish suspected prostitutes by shaving their heads and eyebrows and painting their scalps green, the color of Islam. Kadyrov has also gone on record defending honor killings of “loose” women: “If a woman runs around, and if a man runs around with her, both of them are killed,” he said last year. And his education policies strongly discourage access to the outside world’s “corrupting” influences, such as the Internet.

Kadyrov’s home life is a peculiar mix of Sufi piety and the extravagant luxuries of an old-fashioned warlord. He often invites as many as a thousand loyalists at a time to his private compound (it boasts its own mosque, a zoo, and a park full of llamas) to dance the zikr for as much as five hours at a stretch. And tears roll down his cheeks as he tells of the pilgrimage he made to Mecca this past July. He says Saudi King Abdullah gave Kadyrov and 27 companions special dispensation to enter Islam’s holy of holies, the Kaaba—the sacred black cube at the heart of the city. Kadyrov says he was so overcome with “euphoria” and “absolute happiness” that on his return he ordered 117 Chechen families to abandon their decades-old blood feuds and formally reconcile in the name of Allah.

Kadyrov vigorously promotes his brand of Islam as an antidote to what he calls “the evil so-called denomination Wahhabism.” He’s been lobbying the Kremlin to place all Russian muftis under the supervision of Chechen imams, who would draft a monthly sermon covering religious and political issues to be taught at all Russian mosques. “If people in Russia do not take the path of traditional, pure Sufi Islam, Russia will lose out,” says Kadyrov. “All the other denominations, like Wahhabism, are new inventions for our country—we have never had it, and we will never accept it.” But the architect of the Kremlin’s new approach to Islam, a non-Muslim academic named Yuri Mikhailov, warnsthat endorsing Kadyrov’s Sufism or any other form of Islam above the others would be a horrendous mistake, sure to provoke a holy war between the sects.

Meanwhile, Moscow pur-sues its same old brutal policies in the region, sabotaging its own efforts to encourage peace and harmony. Well-meaning Kremlin-funded scholars like Oleg Khimakov, deputy director of the Foundation to Support Islamic Culture and Education, may recruit Sharia legal specialists from Islamic universities in Qatar, Egypt, Oman, and Malaysia in the name of weaning Russian Muslims away from extremism. But in Chechnya and its neighboring republics there’s a vast reservoir of bad blood from so many years of relentless oppression. Villagers’ homes continue to be burned, although now it’s done by Chechen militias rather than by Russian soldiers. And mistreatment in custody is practically universal. “Every arrest, every criminal case opened in North Caucasus, involves torture, severe beatings in detention,” says Oleg Orlov, Moscow director of the rights group Memorial.

p in the mountains, no more than a few miles from the fancy boutiques of Putin Prospect, the rebellion continues. Several dozen insurgents attacked Kadyrov’s family village of Tsentroi in late August, torching cars and houses and killing seven police officers who were serving as his personal security guards. Kadyrov personally led a retaliatory raid a few days later, but the rebels got away; he has promised a $3 million reward for information leading to the commanders of the assault. Just outside Chechnya’s borders, entire villages in neighboring Dagestan have been emptied of young men who have fled to join the rebels in the mountains rather than risk being killed by Kremlin-backed death squads.

Russian authorities do their best to suppress the almost daily reports of clashes and bombings in the region. It’s possible that Kadyrov’s version of Islam, combined with a continued heavy reliance on extrajudicial disappearances and torture, may provide the Kremlin with a temporary means to curb the ethnic nationalism of the Caucasus rebels. But the cause of long-term peace may be ill served if those efforts only radicalize Russia’s Muslims. Kadyrov, for his part, seems unfazed. “As long as Putin backs me up, I can do everything,” he says. “Allahu akbar!”

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