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 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.

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 Dagestan, 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.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus