Building Mosques, Importing Jihad

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

BY: Interview by Deborah Caldwell


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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.

Folk Islam adjusted in certain ways, and they kept their traditions alive at home. You might have dances or chants at home. Even Chechen Communists kept their folk Islam alive. They would visit a shrine if they wanted to get pregnant or were fighting cancer. They might visit a holy man. It existed below the surface during the Soviet era, and it was a very tolerant, accommodating form of Islam.

The images we have of harsh Islam, with people's hands being cut off and people wearing full veils, and spewing harsh rhetoric against Jews-these things that we associate with

Wahhabi Islam

have no application in Chechnya. You have to remember in the 1970s and 80s, Chechnya was run by the Committee for State Security, the KGB. During the same time, Saudi Arabia was being run by the Committee for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. The Saudis were trying to reconstruct a past much like when Muhammad was alive, whereas the Chechen Soviets were building a proletarian utopian future. They could quote Marx, not Muhammad.

The Chechen resistance was led by a fellow named

Dzhokhar Dudayev

-a Russified Chechen, who'd never been to a mosque, drank vodka, didn't know how many times a day a Muslim was supposed to pray, who was married to a Russian woman, who'd been a Soviet air force general. He was fighting to create an independent state based on Western secular models.

What happened during the first war, when the Chechens came to the attention of the Saudis?

There are Saudi quasi-official charities, most notably the

al Haramain Islamic Foundation

. These are non-governmental organizations with a link to wealthy Saudi families. They gave hundreds of millions of dollars to good causes across the planet, but also to Muslims who were being oppressed across the planet, much as Christians in America support Christians in Sudan or Christians in China. These charities siphoned money to fight for front-line Muslims who were being oppressed-whether they were Muslims in rape camps in Bosnia, or they were being ethnically cleansed in Kosovo, or being killed by Indian security in Kashmir, or being obliterated in Chechnya. I have personally been to mosques where zakat money (charity) was collected "to help the Muslim brothers and sisters undergoing oppression by Christian infidels in Chechnya."

This process began when the West turned its back on Chechnya during the first war. [The West] didn't help them in their resistance struggle as they did the Kosovars or the Bosnians or the Estonians.


The Russian Federation has nuclear weapons. The Russians have mass reserves of oil. They have also become a key player in the war on terror. So Chechnya, which is the size of Connecticut, was sold out. The idea of spreading democracy and the rights of national self-determination were flushed away in the interest of post-Soviet Russia.

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