2016-06-30
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.

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.

Why?

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.

So the Chechens have become increasingly violent and desperate. Is that why the school siege happened?

I think so. You have what I call the Kalishnikov-ization of their culture. You have no jobs. Factories have been bombed, their fields can't be tilled because of the land mines, and there is a 70-80 percent jobless rate. What's a young man to do when there are no options? They're angry, they have rocket-propelled grenades. They shoot at people roaming around the country oppressing them, and they're often paid to do it by a new source - Arab charities, which see the Chechens as Muslim brothers and sisters.

No one came to help except for these charities-and by the way it wasn't the Arab governments. Russia is too important to them. The private charities began sending fighters to go fight for the Chechen Muslims.

Jihad has been called the sixth pillar of Islam. These jihadi sects believe in jihad as a form of religion. So they are going to fight for the Chechens, but in the process teach them "proper" Islam. The Chechens view [Wahhabism] as a wacko, New Age religion. They saw these bearded Saudi Wahhabis as wackos, but the Wahhabists fought well, they brought money, they brought wireless communication, sniper rifles, and surface-to-air missiles. And they paid you good money if you killed Russians. The Saudis have given local fighting commanders bounties for killing Russians. If you shoot down a Russian helicopter, they'll give you $5,000. If you shoot a soldier, you get $10,000.

How did the money get there?

The money was siphoned in from Baku, Azerbaijan. It came in from the mountains of Dagestan or Georgia and was distributed to field commanders who espoused Wahhabi traditions. They said, "If you guys grow beards and kill Russians, we'll give you blood money." It was hundreds of thousands of dollars. But many Chechens told me that when they finally beat the Russians, they're going to turn on the Wahhabis and throw them out, too.

So they're just pretending to be Wahhabi?

Some may be genuine. They still speak Russian and are products of the Soviet system, but they're more devout, more radicalized. Some find in these brotherhoods of Arab warriors a sense of purpose. They give them something to fight for. And of course they offer heaven.

But don't make the mistake of seeing the money they offer, which feeds the fight, as the cause of the fight. If there was no Saudi money, no holy warriors coming in, the fight would still be bloody and be driven by its own historical precedents.

So what you are saying is that the Chechens are fighting a separatist movement similar to the Palestinians. But there is a subtext, which is that the Wahhabi Arabs are trying to take over the Chechen Sufis.

Absolutely.

How successful have they been and what percentage of Chechens have been converted?

There are now a few Wahhabi mosques operating in the town of Urus Martan. It all started with a Saudi warlord named Ibn-ul-Khattab, who fought in Afghanistan in the glorious jihad against the Soviets and then led a small reconnaissance group to Chechnya in 1995. Once they arrived there, they found the Chechens speaking Russian, drinking vodka, fighting against the Soviets for their homeland under their national banner, a gray wolf.

Khattab said, "I am here to introduce you to jihad and to the real form of Islam." He fought incredibly well, like the Afghan holy warriors. And his form of jihadism began spreading among Chechens. They began wearing green headbands with Arabic on them, which said "Allahu Akbar"-God is great. These were people who went to school in the Communist Youth League, read Tolstoy, and knew Gorbachev as their president. They knew about four words in Arabic, but Allahu Akbar were among them.

So they started identifying as Muslims.

Yes, it was similar to what happened among the Pashtun, the homeless orphans in Pakistan who became the Taliban. They've been sold out by the West, as they see it. They've seen no humanitarian aid, they've seen no outrage from Western governments over the mass war crimes perpetrated by Russian troops. Tens of thousands of Chechens have "disappeared." Who expresses moral outrage? Who sends them money for building mosques, for buying weapons? The Arab charities.

Are the Wahhabis winning the ideological war?

I don't think so. Only about 5 percent of Chechens have converted to Wahhabi Islam.

And you don't think it will grow?

I think if the conflict dies down, the Wahhabi influence will dissipate. I don't see them transforming the Chechens into some sort of Taliban. What you have are ad hoc Chechens joining Arab fighting units. You have despair. You have readily available funds to help arm them. But I don't see it changing the nature of Chechen society.

I think if the Russians keep at this, you will see an upsurge of people who see the fight increasingly in terms of jihad. I think many Chechens are joining the Wahhabis in the heat of combat. They join an elite fighting unit, they get blood money, they get a sense of fighting not just for independence, but for God.

How did 9/11 change the equation in Chechnya?

The Chechen leadership had distanced themselves from the Wahhabis and had actually tried to have them expelled from the country. The Chechens are led by a fellow named Aslan Maskhadov. He's a pragmatist and can work with the Russians. He's always condemned Wahhabis. He was a gunnery lieutenant in the Soviet army.

Before 9/11, the American government had given a nod to the Chechens. We were aware that these Wahhabi charities were giving money to the Chechens; we occasionally condemned the Russian government for crimes against humanity.

After 9/11, that ended. The Chechens were identified as the ultimate al Qaeda terrorists, as if suddenly the IRA or Colombian narco-Mafias were al Qaeda. That's dangerous and reckless and most importantly inaccurate. The Chechens are not a part of Osama bin Laden's World Islamic Front. There are bona fide jihadi organizations that are part of this group: jihadi groups in Kashmir, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. But not the Chechens and not the Palestinians.

But al Qaeda would like to see those groups as part of them.

Absolutely.

So you're saying that these jihadists who are Wahhabi-inspired are not necessarily al Qaeda.

Exactly. There's a whole movement in Islam of front-line holy warriors. Many of those camps that we bombed in Afghanistan were training grounds for jihadis. A small elite group culled from this mass crowd of fighters were trained for terrorism by al Qaeda. But many of those fighting in Chechnya or Bosnia or Kosovo or India are not al Qaeda. There are thousands of these people who have never heard of al Qaeda. They see themselves as new Saladins who are fighting to save oppressed Muslim men, women, and children from going to rape camps in Bosnia or being tortured by the Russian federal forces or having their villages burned by Indian security forces.

They're missionary warriors. They come with a Qur'an in one hand and a Kalishnikov in the other.