CHECHNYA: Chechnya’s Cold War curse
Paul Goble

Russia’s leading military newspaper has said Islamist threats to the Russian Federation represent the playing out of Western policies launched a generation ago during the Cold War, and because of that the Bush administration should be viewed as a hostage of these policies rather than their initiator.

In an article titled “The strategy of contemporary extremism” published in Krasnaya Zvezda on September 16, commentator Boris Nikanorov makes three interrelated arguments:

• First, he suggested the Wahhabi Islamist extremists who now threaten Russia and other countries have little in common with the Arab group from which they take their name. Instead, they can best be understood as “a Muslim heresy of the Western security services” in the 1970s.

At that time, he noted, “certain elitist circles” in the West who were committed to globalization and interested in radically redrawing the geopolitical map of the world that existed during the Cold War decided to fashion “a new political instrument” to promote the disintegration of the Soviet Union “by exploiting the errors of the Kremlin leaders.”

They found that “instrument,” Nikanorov continued, in radical Islam. And as a result, he adds, “the idea of controlling the post-Soviet space by means of the dissemination of a quasi-Islamic doctrine based on a mix of Wahhabism and Zaidism, a teaching of the semi-Shia Yemeni sect of Zaidis was born in one West European capital” with extensive experience “in manipulating the Islamic world.”

Nikanorov did not identify this West European capital further, but it is almost certain he was referring to Paris where a group of scholars led by the late Alexandre Bennigsen produced works about the possible role of Islam in the demise of the Soviet system under such titles as, “The Islamic threat to the Soviet Union.”

• Second, Nikanorov argued, because of this heritage, it is entirely inappropriate to blame the current US administration of President George W. Bush for the Wahhabi threat to Russia. In fact, he insisted, the Bush administration itself is today “a hostage of a grandiose geopolitical game of influential supernational supporters of globalization.”

Consequently, Nikanorov continued, it is not in Russia’s national interests either to blame Washington for Russia’s current problems with Islamist extremism or to be pleased by the difficulties the Bush administration faces in dealing with the world of Islam. Such views, he suggested, are especially inappropriate just now because “the coming to power of the Democrats would not promise us anything good.”

• Third, Nikanorov concluded, many Russians have failed to understand just how much of a threat to Russia Wahhabism in its current form is – and even more, will be in the future.

He noted the leaders of mainstream Islam in Russia have understood this threat far better than many non-Muslims and seem more prepared to take action against it than are the Russian authorities.

He quoted with approval a declaration by the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus to the effect that “for many years, we have sought to explain the dangerous and criminal essence of Wahhabism, which not only serves as an instrument for the destabilization of the situation but which also inflicts enormous harm on Islam.”

Nikanorov also welcomed the remarks of Perm Mufi Mukhammedgali Khuzin who has called for the legal prohibition of Wahhabism in Russia, a movement that he calls “a pseudo-religious radical and extremist trend close to totalitarian sects.”

Nikanorov would undoubtedly have been pleased to cite the statement of Valiulla Yakupov, the deputy chief of the Muslim muftiate in Kazan. In an interview published by Russkiy Kuryer, the same day as Nikanorov’s article appeared, Yakupov suggested that Wahhabism is “a manifestation of fascism” within Islam.

Yakupov added that he and other mainstream Muslim leaders had appealed to the Russian authorities to take steps against Wahhabi schools and newspapers in Russia but that the authorities had failed to do so, at least in part because of corruption.

Nikanorov’s article indicated there is likely to be less tolerance in Moscow for such failures by local and regional officials in the coming months and more willingness to bring the entire power of the federal center down on any institution that one or another member of the Muslim establishment identifies as having links to Wahhabism.

Such an approach virtually invites abuse with one Muslim group denouncing another as Islamist to enhance its own status – something that appears to be happening already in a few places in the Middle Volga region.

But it does point to a new seriousness in the Russian government about taking concrete actions against this Islamist threat than simply discussing it in highly charged ideological terms.

Paul Goble teaches at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia