Islam in Chechnya Becomes Kremlin Propaganda Tool to Rebuild Image in Muslim World
As the [Russian occupied] Chechen Republic has been gradually rebuilt following the destruction of two wars, the Islamization of the region has become increasingly evident. While the federal center is not involved in Islamizing Chechnya, it has taken no steps to prevent it.
The primary reason for the federal authorities’ inaction in regard to the Islamization of Chechnya is that they are trying to outplay the Salafis. The “impossibility” of freedom of worship within the Russian Federation is the key premise of the insurgents. Even those Salafis who are not part of the armed resistance but still sympathize with it also operate on the assumption their ideology and the Russian state cannot coexist. Meanwhile, Moscow is turning a blind eye to the Islamization of Chechnya in order to weaken the Salafis’ appeal among the local population. The [pro-Russian] Chechen state TV company Grozny, which broadcasts via landlines, cable and the Internet, is the main mouthpiece of the regional government. Every Friday, the channel broadcasts the [pro-Russian] regional leadership performing a group prayer. Sermons by the [pro-Russian] republic’s imam are also broadcast and all of the channel’s programming is interrupted to give room to the imam’s preaching. The TV channel’s female broadcasters are invariably dressed in hijab.
There is also a dedicated Islamic TV channel, The Way, named after Akhmad-Haji Kadyrov. Adam Shahidov is the head of the Way TV channel, which belongs to the [pro-Russian] Chechen Ministry for Nationalities’ Policy, Print and Information. The Way broadcasts in the [pro-Russian] republic as well as via the Internet. This channel runs movies that are popular with the local audience, especially the older generation, and come with a Chechen translation. However, special attention is given to the sermons, delivered by well-known Chechen theologians, who explain the [pro-Russian] Chechen government’s policy in regard to Salafism and Sufism. Most of the featured theologians – Adam Shahidov, Ramzan Daev, Magomed Elgaraev, Magomed Adikhadzhiev, Arbi Ilesov, Suliman Magamedov and others – are young people who were educated in Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Jordan and Egypt.
Islam is actively instilled in all realms of Chechen society. In the rest of the Russian Federation, which has a total of between 15 to 23 million Muslims, there is no so-called hafiz school – a school for Quran memorization. In Chechnya, there are three such schools – in Tsentoroi, Gudermes and Grozny – and another such school is planned to be opened soon in Urus-Martan.
Chechnya has the largest mosque in Russia, which is by some accounts the largest in Europe. The mosque is called the Heart of Chechnya and is named after Akhmad-Haji Kadyrov. Besides this mosque, the republic has 600 other primary and lower ranked mosques. Nearly half of all residents of Chechnya gather in its mosques for Friday prayers. Chechen girls have to wear special school uniforms after they turn six years old. Girls are not allowed to wear slacks and are required to wear headscarves. Boys are encouraged to wear Chechen skullcaps. Female students and professors are not allowed to enter the premises of Chechen higher educational institutions without wearing headscarves. At the same time, attempts to wear the black hijab like those worn by Saudis and Iranians have provoked an outcry from the [pro-Russian] Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has demanded an end to this practice.
The Russian government, in particular the Foreign Ministry and Russian embassies in the Middle East, has started to facilitate bringing relics of the prophet Muhammad to [Russian occupied] Chechnya. These relics are deeply revered by all Islamic teachings. Having acquired the prophet’s bowl, Chechnya also became the owner of hairs from the prophet’s beard. Finally, an entire museum of holy Muslim relics is expected to arrive in Chechnya for the first time in the last several centuries. The relics from the private collection of Sheikh Ahmad Khazraji from the UAE include a garment of the prophet and a braid made of his hair. It is especially emphasized that two hairs of the prophet will remain in Chechnya after the exhibition.
Moreover, relatives of Ramzan Kadyrov invariably receive the honor of going on the hajj. The pilgrimage includes not only visiting Mecca and the holy mosque there, but also viewing the enigmatic Kaaba. The ruling Saudi dynasty allows only a few chosen people to see this holy site.
The well-known singer of Muslim chants and Quran reciter from Kuwait, Mishary Rashid Al-Afasy, performed together with Ramzan Kadyrov’s daughter in Grozny on May 15. The concert was broadcast to the entire Arab world. However, much more astounding was the fact that it was also broadcast by the major Russian TV channels NTV and the First Channel.
So what is going on in [the Russian occupied] Chechnya? Is this an Islamization policy by Ramzan Kadyrov directed against the federal center? Or perhaps Moscow is not in control of this Islamization trend in the region? No: in fact, officials in Moscow and Kadyrov’s Grozny coordinate this policy and work together. By transmitting Muslim chants across the Arab world, Moscow resolves two issues simultaneously: first, it sends the message that the conflict in Chechnya is over; second, it sends the message that Muslims in Russia can develop freely within the Russian state. This latter goal is very important in the view of the tarnished image of Russia in the Arab world as the direct result of Russian policy in Libya and Syria. Thus, Russia is using Chechnya to try to make up for its missteps in the Arab world. The Russian government does not care about particular audiences among the Arab countries: it is prepared to deal with both the liberal UAE and the conservative Saudis. The primary goal of the Kremlin is to use Russian Islam in Chechnya as a bridge to reconnect with the outside Islamic world at a time when its image in the Arab world has been severely tarnished by its continued military and political support for the regime in Syria.
12.07.2012 – The Jamestown Foundation