Building Mosques, Importing Jihad

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

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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.


How did Chechnya become Muslim?

It started in the 1600s and 1700s with the wandering Sufi missionaries from


, which had been conquered by the Arabs hundreds of years earlier. They gradually converted the Chechen highlanders, not by espousing a rigid form of Islam, but by accommodating their ancient pre-Islamic traditions, much as Christians have Yule logs and Christmas trees left over from pagan ancestors who converted to Christianity. The Chechens retained their beliefs in magic and the power of going to holy places in the mountains.

The Chechens are not only Sufi Muslims, but they've also been tremendously Sovietized by 70 years of atheist Communist rule, in addition to already having a lax easy-going frontier form of Islam. During the Soviet era, their mosques were closed and their imams were executed. Official Islam was blasted out of the public sphere.

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