Building Mosques, Importing Jihad

Puritanical Arab Wahhabists are trying to wrest control of Chechens' Sufi Islam. Will they succeed?

Brian Glynn Williams, an Islamic historian, has lived all over Central Asia, including Kazakhstan and Georgia. He's picked his way through minefields in Kosovo and Bosnia, traveled the West Bank and Gaza, and toted a machine gun to interview warlords in Afghanistan. But while he has studied their history and interviewed many Chechens, he has never been to Chechnya. "It's the most dangerous spot on the planet, the heart of darkness," he told Beliefnet. "It scares me to death." We talked to Williams about what is unfolding in Chechnya and how the terrible Beslan school siege could have happened.

Put the Russian school siege in context.

Islam is not the driving machine behind the

Chechen resistance

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; it is merely a part of Chechen identity. Chechen Islamic identity was forged over hundreds of years of gradual Islamification, but it retains ancient pre-Islamic traditions. Their form of Islam is

Sufism

, but I consider it a kind of "folk Islam." So Chechens go to local shrines, visit holy men to receive blessings, and engage in dancing or chants to achieve unity with God. It's a very mystical strain of Islam.

So if the Chechens are mystical, laid-back Muslims, how did they become radicalized to the point that they're taking hostages in a school and blowing themselves up?

We in the West have a huge problem in dealing with the Islamic world. We think that anybody in the Islamic world who does anything does it because of his faith, as if Hitler invaded the Soviet Union because he was a Christian. Or we invaded Japan after Pearl Harbor because we are Christians. People fight for different reasons. Chechens are fighting because they want their land.

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