Building Mosques, Importing Jihad

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

BY: Interview by Deborah Caldwell

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

; 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


, 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.

Now, their form of Islam has been radicalized by recent events. In their first war with Russia (1994-96), their capital, Grozny, a city of 400,000 people, was in essence wiped off the planet. Tens of thousands of innocent Chechens were killed; hundreds of thousands fled for their lives; half the Chechen nation has scattered; every city in Chechnya has been eradicated; the land is unarable because it's been mined by the Russians; the country has been blasted back to the Stone Age. And nobody in the Christian West, whom they turned to for help, came to their aid as was the case in, say, Kosovo.

Many are pointing to the Beslan killings as evidence that al Qaeda's brand of radical Islam is escalating violence worldwide, but you're saying the reality is more complicated.

I don't think the Arabs drove this. [Russian president Vladimir] Putin would like us to believe that, but these are desperate people whose families have been killed. They want one thing: for the Russians to withdraw from Chechnya. It had nothing to do with al Qaeda's declaration of jihad against Jews and Christians in 1998, and I don't think it was driven by jihadism.

[The Chechen terrorists] are incredibly callous and come from beyond the pale of civilization, but the Russians have turned Chechnya into a place that is beyond the pale of civilization. Putin wants us to believe every Chechen insurgent is an al Qaeda terrorist. This is wrong. Those who took the school in Beslan were terrorists. But were they al Qaeda? Absolutely not.

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