A Religious War?
By Bill Powell
Azha Ibragimov has the look in his eyes that is the stuff of Russian nightmares. He is a true believer, and in the minds of many Russians, the once and future enemy. "We are great admirers of the Taliban," says the soft-spoken 20-year-old, who edits a newspaper published by the Islamic youth league in the capital of Chechnya, Grozny. "And when we impose Islamic law here, we hope to do it harder and stronger than the Taliban."
Where will such rhetoric lead? For the future in Chechnya, say alarmists, look only to Afghanistan, lost to the fundamentalist Taliban. Tajikistan, meanwhile, is teetering, as 40,000 Russian troops try to shore up a shaky secular government. Chechnya may be a relatively tolerant Muslim region today, but who's to say, in the wake of war, poverty and political chaos, that the fundamentalist night couldn't also descend on Grozny, as it has on Kabul? Not Azha Ibragimov. "This," he said quietly last week, "was a religious war."
Few foreign-policy issues in Russia resonate more than the prospect of Islamic fundamentalism spreading in what the Russians call "the near abroad"--the former republics of the Soviet Union. Opponents of President Boris Yeltsin sow such fear to undermine the otherwise popular peace deal struck in late August by former general Aleksandr Lebed. "Conventionally speaking, this is a conflict between 'Westerners' and 'fundamentalists'," wrote Delovoi Mir, a business newspaper, two weeks ago.
But is it? Those who argue yes point to the Chechen imposition of Sharia, or Islamic law, in mid-September, after publication of what is known as the "little green book": a pamphlet the rebel chief, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, issued calling for thieves to have their hands cut off and public drunks to be flogged publicly. Then there is the continued presence in the Chechen hills of fighters and hundreds of "students" from a range of Islamic countries. Chechen fighters train them in the art of guerrilla warfare, and they teach the Koran. Alarmists say the combination of war, poverty and political chaos could radicalize what is now a moderate Muslim region.
In truth, the opposite is probably the case: in Chechnya, fundamentalism's appeal is easily overrated. Rebel chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov derides the idea that fundamentalists are about to come out of the woodwork. "Chechnya is Muslim and always will be," he told NEWSWEEK, but soon there will be elections, "and then the government elected will carry out the policies that the people want."
The fact is that few Chechens want the fervent fundamentalism that Azha Ibragimov describes. For the overwhelming majority of Chechens, "this was not a religious war, but a war for independence," says B. C. Davgladov, a 57-year-old Grozny newspaper editor. And while it may now be tough to find vodka or beer in the public markets of Grozny, thanks to the imposition of Sharia, both are still available from black marketers. And are thieves really going to have their hands chopped off? Well, concedes Ahmed Dzhankhotov, who will be the public prosecutor in the new Grozny government, "for the first and second offenses they'll probably just get fines. But after that, yes, definitely. Sharia will be imposed."
In a place where people have long memories, the history of the Caucasus may also be an obstacle for the radicals. In the mid19th century, an imam named Shamil gave the Russians fits in the eastern Caucasus for more than 20 years before he was finally defeated by the czar's army. To this day he is revered in Chechnya--with one caveat. "He tried to impose a hard form of Islamic law," says editor Davgladov, "and that just didn't work. It wasn't a very good idea in the Caucasus." Then and, most likely, now.