How to Islamize a Secession

Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation, considered as the homeland of Chechens (95.3%*1.2 millions). The large majority is Muslim, which is not original regarding to many republics of the Federation. What is different is that Chechnya declared independence and tried twice to get secession by force (1994–1996; 1999–2000). These wars have enforced a high national homogenization. The federations forces are present in the territory and Russian government fights against Islamic organizations or sects suspected of political Islam. We chose to consider the role of Islam in the secessionist conflict in Chechnya according to the “variety of different Islamic doctrines and practices and attempts to analyze the interaction of these doctrines and of the actors motivated by them”. We took care to distinguish the different influences and religious schools within Islam to show that only Wahabism makes mandatory total violence against the “infidels” and is considered as political Islam.

Chechnya has originally a Sufi tradition which aims at attending God by knowledge. Sufi is organized in orders and different branches, with particular practices (dhirk) and religious teachers (sheiks). Religion is part of the social organization of Chechen society, through the structures of clans (teips) and brotherhoods. In XVIIIth and XIXth centuries, religious leaders often took the lead of military and politics during resistance to Russia, such as Sheik Mansur in 1785. Imam Shamil (1797–1871) embodies well these charismatic figures who framed the rebellion as a “Holy War”, involving disciples (murids). These ancestral conflicts have many things in common with the two Chechen wars ((1994–6 and 1999–2000). During the Soviet Period, two of Sufi’s branches called Nakshbandi and Kadiri, the first violent and the second non-violent, survived and succeeded in extending. After 1985 and Michael Gorbachev’s reforms (glasnost), the repressions stopped and many mosques were even built. In Chechnya, the Salafi theologian and politician Ahmedquadi Ahtaev created an Islamic party, cooperating with Islamic factions, but rejecting the idea of Jihad and armed resistance against Russia. The doctrines of pure Islam had “no perceptible impact on Chechen politics” until 1995.

In 1990, the first Chechen party for the Chechnya independence, the Chechen National Congress, was secular. Its leader, the general Dzhokhar Dudaev, became in 1 November 1991 the first president of the independent Chechen Republic. The first public religious sign was on 9 November, when the president swore on a Koran. It has to be understood in the context of Russian military intervention, when the nationalist leader tried to get the support of the clergy. In 1994, the president proclaimed Islam the ideology of the State and his successor, Imam Akhmad Kadyrov, declared a gazavat against infidels in 1995. This growing political Islam was fed by transnational influences, from Arabia Peninsula, to Bosnia, Herzegovinia and Afghanistan. These Islamic countries, through jihadi fighters like Amir Khattab, provided funds, guerilla tactics, training camps and propaganda. In 1996, the ceasefire and the de facto Chechen independence enforced “pure” Islam in the everyday life. After Dudaev’s murder, many politicians “embraced Islam”. It is still a debate among scholars to know if it is a factor or a consequence of the Russian defeat. After being used as a political weapon, it also served to delegitimize the men in power. It became also a struggle between political Islam and Sufi Islam which divided the elites, such as in the battle in the town of Gudermes in July 1998.

In 1999, Khatteb and Basaev moved wahabit troops to Dagestan to create a more stable Islamic State there, but were pushed back by the Russian troops. Newly in office, Vladimir Putin enforced a “full-scale invasion of Chechnya”, which forced President Maskhadov to rally political Islam, and Sufi to join Russians. In 2000, the most of the country was under the Russian control and the Akhmad Kadyrov’s administration. Elected president in 2003, Kadyrow reinforced new Islamic policies to get support and to weaken political Islam and oppositions. He defended the traditional Sufi Islam, with a few wahabit practices. Since, the State has been more and more Islamized until the self-proclaimed Emir Doku Umarov. Political Islam is no more visible, which does not mean it disappeared. The secular Chechen government in exile has no influence.

To put on a nutshell, this article showed how Political Islam was instrumentalized for different political means (independence, control) in various contexts in Chechen history. It allows getting some distance with too widespread approaches which focus only on religious doctrines and try to explain the violence only from the “Holy Scriptures”, such as Gilles Kepel’s work. It does not mean that religion has not influence at all, but that politics and religion have “elective affinities” (Weber) on power claims, and that we must focus on the real practices and representations of the actors involved.




A. PAVKOVIC, Chechnya: The Islamization of a secession, 2014;

M. WEBER, Die protestantische Ethik und der “Geist” des Kapitalismus, 1905;

G. KEPEL, Jihad : expansion et déclin de l’islamisme, 2000.

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