The past and the future of the Salafi/Wahhabi trend in the former-Soviet Union

Thepossibilities for Islamic political space in the Former Soviet Union continues to create support for a singular trend from many surprising constituencies argues Zviad Jughashvili.

As the Saudi regime is going through its most vulnerable phase the regime’s soft-power outreach through its Wahhabi educational institutions is losing traction even within its immediate constituency. There is however, a geographic locale where the Salafi/Wahhabi understanding of Islam will continue playing an important role, namely, the territories of the former Soviet Union (FSU).  

The Background

As correctly pointed out several years ago in the oldest Islamic monthly current affairs magazine, Crescent International “many Muslims of the USSR, totally alienated from Islam during the Communist era, heard for the first time cries of Allahu-Akbar from Chechen fighters on TV. As Chechens pulled off numerous daring military operations against the Russian army, they came to be identified with what a good Muslim should be like. This idea of a good Muslim vis-a-vis a Chechen manifested itself in many fields starting from daily prayers, specific Sufi dhikr orders particular to Chechens, beards and even to a specific style of dress imitating Chechen fighters.”

The impact of the Chechen war upon many Muslims of the former Soviet Union cannot be overemphasized. The socio-political mindset of many Muslims of the former Soviet Union is attached to the Chechen conflict. The bitter historical interrelations of Muslims with the Russian empire contributed to Muslims viewing the Chechen conflict through this historical prism. 

On the contemporary level, perhaps nothing highlights the influence of the Chechen conflict upon the diverse Muslim population of Russia more than the fact that one of the strongest public defenders of the Chechen pro-independence movement was a Russian Shia Muslim intellectual, now deceased, Heydar Jamal. In his function as the chairman of the Islamic Committee of Russia, Jamal was a regular guest on Russian media presenting the analysis of the situation in the North Caucasus from the angle of the pro-independence movement in Chechnya. Even though Jamal’s public support for the Chechen cause was likely being tolerated due to a tacit agreement with the Russian authorities, nevertheless, Jamal was a passionate advocate of the Chechen cause who had the ear of many ordinary Sunni and Shia Muslims in the FSU region. The fact that a regular guest at many Muslim functions attended both by Shia and Sunni Muslims would openly advocate for a cause led by Salafi Muslims is perhaps an unparalleled phenomenon in the Muslim world. 

Another key social indicator of how influential the Chechen war is in terms of shaping the Islamic identity of Muslims of the former Soviet Union is the popularity of a Chechen guitar singer, Timur Mucurayev, who himself was a Chechen fighter, but under a negotiated amnesty, returned to Chechnya in 2008. Mucurayev’s songs about Islam and the war in Chechnya were so powerful that even the Russian army would listen to his songs. In addition, to this day, Muslims in the former Soviet Union who identify as Sunni, Shia, Salafi and Sufi listen to his songs. Some of Mucurayev’s songs, labeled “extremist” by the Russian government, are posted on YouTube and have attracted millions of views. During the first (1994-1996) and the second Chechen wars (1999-2003) Mucurayev’s songs helped inspire hundreds of fighters from across the former Soviet Union to fight on the Chechen side.

Those who have not lived through the 1990s in the Caucasus might be puzzled by the cross-sectarian sympathy towards a Salafi/Wahhabi led trend. However, the phenomenon is not so puzzling to those who experienced that decade. When the Soviet Union began collapsing at the turn of the 1990s, Moscow attempted to save the decaying empire. Troops were dispatched to Baku, Dushanbe, Riga and Tbilisi. With the help of the local communist leaderships, within a few days the Russian army took control of those cities. In December 1994, residents of Baku, Tbilisi and other Muslim cities were glued to the screens of their television sets, astonishingly watching how the Russian army could not take a city of just over 300,000 for over three months and when they eventually did it was at a very high cost. The Chechen pro-independence movement did what others could not dream of doing; they humiliated an army which many Muslims of the FSU saw as a fearsome historical opponent.

This worldview, unfortunately, came to haunt the region in a very ugly way.

Wahhabism Gains Clout

One of the most active advocates of the Wahhabi trend during the second Chechen war, was the notorious Chechen commander Shamil Basayev. The irony is that on YouTube today, one can find a speech made by Basayev in Grozny some time in 1996, right after the Chechens forced out the Russian army and gained de-facto independence that lasted until 1999. In that speech, made to a delegation of influential Muslims from various parts of the Caucasus, Basayev discusses the dangers of Wahhabism and how it must be avoided. Fast-forward to 1999, Basayev’s right-hand man was Khattab, a Saudi national with a murky past and who many credit with popularizing the Wahhabi understanding of Islam among leading Chechen military commanders and the society at large.

Another prominent factor in contributing to the spread of the Wahhabi/Salafi trend in the post-Soviet space was the cross-sectarian appeal of an online Chechen news-website called Kavkaz Center, which was the go-to resource for many Russian speaking Muslims for daily news and religious information. Kavkaz-Center played a significant role in formulating the political worldview of many Shia and Sunni Muslims in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While the website later lost its appeal , it had by then made a significant soft-power impact on a generation of Muslims from the post-Soviet space. 

Towards the start of the second Chechen war in 1999, the Chechen forces and the semi-autonomous foreign militias present in Chechnya adopted a Salafi narrative and methodology. The resort of the Chechen forces in the second Chechen war to un-Islamic terrorist methodology undermined the legitimacy of their cause and created a split within the Chechen population.

By the end of 2007, the Chechen pro-independence movement had lost its way as it declared the so-called Caucasian Emirate and Wahhabized its political objectives by aiming to establish some sort of Islamic Emirate encompassing most of the North Caucasus. The so-called Emirate objective proved to be a fatal long-term socio-political mistake.

Chechnya and its Islamic Narrative of Today

When the proxy war against Iran within the borders of Syria was launched in 2011, Muslim citizens of Russia flooded into the ranks of Al-Qaeda minded groups and later formed the military backbone of Daesh. However, it was not just Muslims of Russia who got drawn towards the regressive message of Daesh, Muslims from many parts of the Soviet Union joined the Saudi educated terrorist outfit. In January 2017, Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry said that around 1,100 of its citizens were fighting in Syria and Iraq. One of the Tajiks who joined Daesh was former Tajik special-forces commander Gulmorod Halimov.

The presence of a substantial number of Tajiks within Wahhabi groups in Syria is a serious indicator that Wahhabism had gained a solid presence in the FSU region. Tajikistan was the only Central Asian country with an officially registered Islamic party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), that participated in the government due to its popularity and active role during the struggle for Tajik independence. However, over the last decade the dictator of Tajikistan, Emomali Rakhmonov, has severely persecuted IRPT members and also declared the first Islamic political organization of the FSU region illegal.

The Wahhabi organizations did not just attract recruits from traditional Sunni heartlands of the former Soviet Union. Hundreds from Azerbaijan, the second largest Shia country percentage wise, joined the takfiri groups in Syria.

Nevertheless, after Russia managed to pacify the pro-independence movement in Chechnya in the last 12 years, it granted the region a vast degree of autonomy. In April 2015, Chechnya’s regional head, Ramzan Kadyrov, publicly stated that Chechen police officers should open fire upon any law enforcement agents from other Russian regions if they operate in Chechnya without the permission of the local Chechen administration. This is a bold statement that probably no other head of the Russian region would get away with. Prominent Islamic current affairs magazine, Crescent International, recently noted that “ in a practical sense today Islam in Russian controlled Chechnya is implemented in a far broader sense than in the so-called independent Muslim states of Central Asia and South Caucasus.”

With the above in mind, Salafi/Wahhabi Islam is still a very potent force in the region of the FSU. With the crackdown on legitimate Islamic socio-political organizations from Azerbaijan to Tajikistan, the Salafi/Wahhabi trend is still viewed by many youths as a type of “opposition Islam” which cannot be co-opted by the ruling regimes.

One example of how fragile “official Islam” is in the former FSU region, is the revival of the pro-independence narrative in Chechnya by an exiled Chechen blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov. In the past 12- 18 months, one of the hottest topics of the Russian-speaking internet community has been videos and debates of Tumso with various Chechen and Russian public figures. A lone wolf blogger, he has managed to attract millions of viewers and present a strong intellectual challenge to the official narrative of local Moscow backed Chechen authorities. While Tumso’s intellectual challenge is located strictly within traditional Sunni Islam and is distant from the Wahhabi trend of the pro-independence movement of the late 1990s, one of his main constituencies is the Salafi-minded youths of the North Caucasus, of whom there are a significant number.  

The ruling regimes in most of the post-Soviet space are illegitimate and are despised for their autocratic practices by the indigenous population. And the fact that after decades of brutal crackdowns on the Salafi/Wahhabi trend, it has managed to ship out a significant number of fighters to the most regressive Islamic militias in Syria, shows that it is still popular and powerful. In fact, a strong case can be made that the primary reason Russia got involved in the conflict in Syria is because of the presence of large number of fighters from Russia and post-Soviet Union countries. Moscow reasoned that if the militias filled by Wahhabis from its territory would gain a safe haven in Syria to organize and train, sooner or later they would return to Russia for a rematch of the second Chechen war.

Prognosis

In the days of the Soviet Union, the KGB and the government apparatus in Moscow used to promote “clandestine” Ulema (Islamic scholars) who “secretly” ran religious ceremonies. To the intelligent people back then it was obvious that if many grandmothers knew whom to reach out to for religious rites like marriage and burials, the “secret Ulema” were not secret at all, but informers for the atheist state. This distrust of the official state-sanctioned Islam persists in the minds of many people in the post-Soviet space. Thus, by default many people view Islamic scholars associated with state institutions as sell-outs. The closer one gets to state institutions, the more distant the masses get from the scholars. This phenomenon is present not only in mainly Sunni post-Soviet states, but also in Shia ones. As an example, one can cite the backlash on social media against Azerbaijan’s popular Muslim preacher, Haji Shahin Hasanli, who until his official association with the state controlled Religious Council of the Caucasus (RCC), was seen as a credible independent preacher. That credibility clearly eroded after his association with the RCC.

The ban on IRPT in Tajikistan, crackdown on the Muslim Unity Movement in Azerbaijan and the harsh methods of the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership against those not conforming to the official version of Islam, continues to act as a catalyst for the spread of underground Salafi/Wahhabi ideas. While the Salafi/Wahhabi card is being utilized by the ruling regimes to crack down on legitimate socio-political movements in the post-Soviet space, it acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy in that it indirectly promotes the Wahhabi trend as an authentic Islamic opposition movement. This aura of “authenticity” created due to official crackdowns makes many poorly informed Muslims blind to the regressive ideas and methodologies of the Wahhabi/Salafi trend, as they often do not look past the opposition of the Salafi/Wahhabi trend towards the autocratic regimes.

The Salafi/Wahhabi trend in the post-Soviet region has significantly lost its appeal in comparison to the late 1990s and is unlikely to ever appeal to wider Muslim communities, but it will continue to remain a potent force capable of destabilizing the region to a significant degree. In the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the participation of many Salafi minded Chechens fighting against the pro-Russian separatists is another indicator of how the Salafi/Wahhabi trend can be put to political and military use with ease in the post-Soviet regions.

Until legitimate Islamic socio-political organizations are not given legal and political space to freely operate in the post-Soviet space, the Salafi/Wahhabi trend will be one of the main “rebellion” options against the state enforced Islam. The forceful crackdown against Salafi/Wahhabi minded groups will contribute further to their radicalization and the radicalization of the overall socio-political landscape in the post-Soviet Union.

In regions of the former-Soviet Union drastic social, political and institutional change is very unlikely to come through an evolutionary process. For example, after the death of dictator Islam Karimov in 2016, Uzbekistan witnessed a swap within the ruling elite. Karimov’s family was sidelined and the presidency was taken over by Karimov’s Prime Minister, Shavkat Miromonovich Mirziyoyev. Thus, it was a simple change of faces unaccompanied by any substantial policy or institutional transformation. Kyrgyzstan has proved to be the country of major surprises in Central Asia. The Kyrgyz people overthrew the remnants of Soviet rule in 2005” and a second revolt toppled another government in 2010. While Salafi minded groups did not play a significant role in Kyrgyz revolts, they did increase their presence in post “revolutionary” Kyrgyzystan. 

As in Syria, in all Muslim majority locales, the Salafi/Wahhabi trend has failed to offer any substantial alternative to the existing governing systems. However, as in most of the Muslim world, just like in Syria, when nudged by Western powers to destabilize the situation, this trend has always answered the call of imperialist powers. In all corners of the Muslim world, one way or the other, the Salafi-Wahhabi trend has advanced NATO’s strategic interests. In Libya,  the Salafis of the Madkhali bent act as the cannon fodder of the pro-NATO warlord  Khalifa Haftar.

In Egypt, the Salafi political party, Al-Nour, openly supported Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s autocratic regime against the elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even in Palestine, as highlighted in a analysis by Crescent International, “Abu Nur al-Maqdisi, a follower of the Jordanian al-Maqdisi (a prominent Salafi scholar) went so far as to launch an armed insurrection against the Islamic administration of Hamas in Gaza claiming to restore “true Islam” in Gaza, somehow “forgetting” that the main beneficiary of such an action is Israel.

The Chechen scene was no different. When Aslan Maskhadov was elected President during the de-facto independence period from 1996 to 1999, he was summoned to Sharia courts by the Salafized Chechen commanders and questioned about his legitimacy, thus undermining his Islamic credentials among the population which had only recently re-discovered Islam. Ironically, the court session was chaired by Akhmat Kadyrov, who later sided with the Russians.  

Overall, the greatest challenge Maskhadov faced was the open challenge of Salafi minded commanders in constantly creating conflict within Chechnya. The decision by Shamil Basayev and Amir Khattab, the architects of Salafization in Chechnya, to launch a military campaign into Dagestan in 1999, legitimized Moscow’s policy to re-enter Chechnya and abort its de-facto independence. 

From Libya to Indonesia, unfortunately the Wahhabi/Salafi trend has proved to be a useful Trojan Horse of destabilization and it will continue to remain so until credible Islamic socio-political organizations of whatever trend(s) or none, led by non-state connected Islamic scholars, are given political space to operate. In the post-Soviet space where no credible and independent Islamic socio-political movement is tolerated even on a minimal level, the Wahhabi/Salafi trend will continue to remain as one of the most potent sources of opposition.

Zviad Jughashvili has been writing about issues mainly covering the former Soviet Union for over 8 years.  He has studied International Relations and taught Business Studies at college level.