June 1, 2008  

From red to green

The rise of jihadism in Russia

When studying the rise of global jihadism, one often sees the term “Islamofascism.” This label is not very workable and emerges not so much as an explanatory model but as a way to make jihadism as repulsive as possible. An appropriate explanatory model would relate the rise of jihadism in Russia and elsewhere not so much with Nazism or fascism as with a revolutionary movement.

The rise of Islamic extremism in Russia is indirectly connected with the end of the Soviet Union, which was not just a transition from totalitarianism to political liberty and a self-policed society but also a collapse. Not only state and societal structures but also the very structure of daily interaction between individuals started to change. Analogues to these events can be found in early modern Europe, when the feudal order, with its hierarchical structure and tightly knit groups that both restrained individuals and provided them with a safety net against the vagaries of life, started to fall apart. With the disappearance of both restraint and protection, people could enjoy its “liberties” mostly through starvation and misery. As Thomas More, author of “Utopia,” proclaimed, “sheep eat men” — tenants were thrown from the land that was more profitable as pasture to produce wool. In post-Soviet Russia, the process was essentially the same, and radical intellectuals looked for an antidote. They either would build their own intellectual/political utopia or look back to the past as happy.

Radical and nationalist-minded communists and out-and-out nationalists — in popular parlance, “red to brown” — believed that outraged masses, mostly workers, would launch a new edition of the Bolshevik Revolution and overthrow the regime of the capitalist predators. There was an uprising in Moscow in fall 1993, but it was localized and quickly crushed by Boris Yeltsin. Later experience was disappointing for the opposition. There were occasional strikes, but they never reached the level of threatening the regime. And as radicals’ belief in the revolutionary potential of Russian workers declined, other forces emerged.

These Russian radicals were hardly unique. The same could be seen in 1960s and ’70s Europe and the U.S., when radical intellectuals, disappointed in the passive Western proletariat that hardly behaved as Marx intended, turned to groups that had no desire to be integrated in capitalism, such as criminals, deviants and racial minorities. In Russia, this role was assigned to Muslim minorities, mostly from the Northern Caucasus, especially Chechens.

Geidar Dzhemal, an ethnic Azerbaijani, was one of the first Russian Muslims to look at Muslims as a potential revolutionary force. He began in late- and post-Soviet Russia as an intellectual ally of Alexander Dugin, philosopher and quasi-politician proponent of Eurasianism, the doctrine born in the 1920s among Russian émigrés. Eurasianists believe that Russia is a unique blend of Orthodox Slavs and Muslims, mostly Muslims of Turkic origin. Russia/Eurasia is a spiritualized, collectivist civilization quite different from the crass materialistic West. In Dugin’s interpretation, the negative characteristics were attributed just to the U.S., not to the entire West. Dzhemal later split from Dugin, for personal but also ideological reasons. He objected to Dugin’s vision of Orthodox Russians playing the lead role in Eurasia/Russia and was displeased by Dugin’s gravitation to the authorities. In Dzhemal’s view, not Orthodox Slavs but Russian Muslims, mostly those from various ethnic groups of the Caucasus, should lead Russia/Eurasia to save it from the destructive influence of the West.

Dzhemal’s evolution in viewing Muslims as a revolutionary force, a savior of both themselves and others, is similar to that of other Muslim thinkers such as Ali Shariati, one of the intellectual forebears of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Shariati, who matured intellectually in France under strong influence from the neo-Marxist, postmodernist left, replaced Marx’s proletariat, which should save itself and humanity, with the Muslims. These forces were Iranian Shiites for Shariati; for Dzhemal, they were mostly Muslims from the Northern Caucasus, especially Chechens, the most active force in post-Soviet Russia.


The rise of Chechnya was similar to events in other regions and times. The end of the Soviet regime could be compared with the rise of the Middle Ages, during which privatization of land was the same as privatization and weakening of central power. The Yeltsin-era successors to the medieval barons, with their retinue and relatives, weakened the power of Moscow in order to plunder state reserves. In Chechnya, friction with the local elite and Moscow flared into open rebellion and the first Chechen War (1994-1996). At the beginning of the conflict, Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudaev thought about separation, or at least broad autonomy, from Moscow. The new state was seen as basically a modern Western state with due respect to Islam and local Chechen tradition. But soon a strong jihadist ideological and political streak emerged. Movladi Udugov, propaganda chief of the Chechen state and editor of Kavkaz Center, the most influential Chechen resistance Internet site, has been a major ideologist of the new trend.

Udugov and those with similar views have accepted Dzhemal’s assumption that Muslims will deliver themselves and the rest of the people from the evils of present society. Dzhemal — following Marx without perhaps acknowledging it — put his hopes in the Muslim populace. But for Udugov, the masses left to themselves would achieve nothing and be easily misled. Highly centralized, disciplined Islamists, rather than the masses, are essential to victory. In stressing this importance of organizations, Udugov moved close to Lenin, who — quite different from Marx — saw in the party organization the pathway to victory. In fact, the new generation of Russian Islamists openly acknowledge following in Lenin’s footsteps. One of them stated that although both Lenin and Hitler were, of course, kafirs (infidels), their view of the importance of party had sound principles that could be adopted by the mujahidin.

Furthermore, they saw no goodness in Russians, past or present, no original wholesome core. Russians and the Russian state have been rotten from the beginning — one can find similar ideas in Dzhemal’s later works. Russians are rotten, not because of their ethnicity, but because of their refusal of Islam. A Russian state and society broken into pieces and Islamized would be embraced by the umma (the global community of true believers) and be a potentially important force for worldwide Islamic revolution. Similar to the worldwide proletariat revolution designed by Marx and Lenin, this would lead to worldwide Khalifat. Khalifat is seen not so much as a return to the historical Khalifat as an ideal future state of harmony and justice, similar to the millenarian models entertained by early Christians and by Marxists and later Leninists.

These visions of history put jihadists in conflict not just with the Russian state but also with Chechen nationalists who have the limited goal of an independent state or a semi-independent body inside the Russian Federation. These nationalists almost achieved their goal through the so-called Khasavyurt Accord in 1996, which nearly acknowledged de facto independence. This created a chance of a peaceful settlement of the crisis and could dampen the jihadist hope of transforming the Northern Caucasus into a launchpad for the worldwide jihadist revolution.

Logically, in the views of jihadists, this agreement should be broken and a new open-ended war begun. Displeasure with the agreement also could be found among some people in the Kremlin who believed — not without grounds — that the virtual independence of Chechnya is an invitation to follow suit by other regions of the Russian Federation. Finally, there were those, most likely among Yeltsin’s inner circle, who believed that a new war with Chechnya could help put Vladimir Putin — a strongman the Russian public wanted after an era of unruly barons and general chaos — in power. Putin was welcomed by Yeltsin’s inner circle, his so-called “family,” as a man who would not touch Yeltsin or reverse privatization. It is quite possible that the collusion of these mutually antagonistic forces — each pursuing his own goal — led to one of the bloodiest events in Russia’s recent history. In summer 1999, several Moscow apartment buildings were blown up and hundreds of people died instantly. At the same time, mudjahidin forces from Chechnya invaded Dagestan. Putin became instantly famous by publicly stating he would hunt down terrorists anywhere, even into the toilet, and became president. The second Chechen War started and soon was marked by a new wave of spectacular terrorist attacks. One of them, almost in Moscow’s downtown, at the Dubrovka Theater, left hundreds dead. Later, in 2004, the attack in Beslan resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people, mostly children. In response, Putin changed the overall policy of ruling the country and the approach to Chechnya.

Putin’s policy was contradictory. On one hand, he took advantage of the attack to abolish the principle of the election of the governor. Western observers proclaimed that this was because of Putin’s lingering authoritarian propensities. They usually ignore the fact that electing the governor had provided ethnic minorities an independent base to develop their latent separatist proclivities. Governors also could play with the usually strong anti-Moscow feeling of the provincial folk, even in regions populated by ethnic Russians. On the other hand, Putin provided much autonomy in Chechnya, where he placed in charge young Ramzan Kadyrov.

Kadyrov’s Chechnya became, all but in name, independent from Russia. With generous financial help from the center, he was able to improve the situation for many Chechens. A considerable number of ex-fighters with a nationalistic agenda joined his troops. However, discontent and fighting against Moscow spread into other regions of the Northern Caucasus, notably Dagestan and Ingushetia. The nationalistic ideology of the resistance became less and less viable, and internationalist jihadism became a natural ideology of resistance.

The spread of jihadism and its polemics with nationalists were recorded in Internet discussions between Akhmed Zakaev, then foreign minister of the virtual Chechen government in exile, and Udugov. Zakaev, a nationalist moderate, declared that the resistance should be concerned primarily with ethnic Chechens to create an independent Chechnya, a Western state recognized by the international community. Udugov absolutely rejected this plan. First, he said he did not understand why Western states should be examples or why they were so different from Russia. They are all basically the same oppressive, heathen system. If a Chechen state emerged according to the Western model, oppression, corruption and all sorts of spiritual pollution would prevail. Second, quite important to his line of argument, he did not understand why he and his fellow mujahidin, who fought for the glory of Allah, should be concerned with all Chechens, regardless of belief and behavior, or why corrupt and anti-Islamic Chechens should be his brothers. Not blood but spiritual ties should unify the people. For him, Udugov, a man of Allah, the brother is rather an ethnic Russian who has converted and become an even more dedicated Muslim than himself.


Moscow seems to be watching the polemics and sending signals that it is ready to compromise with Zakaev. An article in the semi-official newspaper Izvestia presented Zakaev in a most positive light. It emphasized that Zakaev was an actor at the beginning of his career and an intellectual. He actually hated Boris Berezovsky, the influential tycoon who lived in London and became Putin’s archenemy, and hobnobbed with him only as a result of a dire financial situation.

Zakaev also sent signals that could be regarded as conciliatory toward Moscow. For example, he stated that some of those who served Kadyrov were actually mujahidin, good Chechen nationalists, and Kadyrov was moving Chechnya toward independence by the logic of events.

Tensions mounted between moderate nationalists and universalist jihadists, and by October 2007, the split became open. Doku Umarov, president of the virtual Chechen Republic, declared the republic abolished. Instead, he created an emirate to which not only the Northern Caucasus but also other lands in Russia historically belong. Umarov also proclaimed that Russia was the enemy of Chechen mujahidin and those who fought with them. The mujahidin, warriors of Allah, should fight all enemies of Muslims, wherever they are. The U.S. and Israel are enemies of Muslims and abuse them and occupy their land, and also should be enemies of the emirate.

The proclamation of the emirate led to a commotion in the Chechen diaspora and a virulent response from more moderate Chechen nationalists led by Zakaev. They argue that this action by Umarov — they believe Udugov and his brother were behind it — is disastrous for the Chechen cause. Previously, they argue, the West, including the U.S., had a sympathetic view of the Chechen resistance. But from now on, all Western countries will regard it as just a branch of al-Qaida. Russian authorities now would have absolute prior approval to do whatever they wished in Chechnya; the West could well even help Putin in his genocidal war on Chechens. And, of course, this decision would create additional problems for the many Chechen refugees in the West, for the Chechen community now would be regarded as a breeding place of al-Qaida terrorists. Umarov’s proclamation is positive for Russia, so there is no doubt that Russian authorities arranged it. Zakaev believes Umarov received a $500 million bribe.

In the view of Zakaev and his supporters, Umarov and his ideological alter ego Udugov had become “green commissars,” like those of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution but inspired by utopian jihadism, not utopian Marxism. There is a striking resemblance. The Bolsheviks dreamed about worldwide revolution and universal utopia; the green commissars about worldwide jihad and a mystical, universal Khalifat that would transcend human history. And, like the Bolsheviks, the green commissars are not interested in real people and their suffering.

Umarov, Udugov and those who follow them had their own line of argument. They stated — not without grounds — that their critics have powerful sponsors, including such unsavory characters as Berezovsky, that the mujahidin are only following those who fight along with them, and that most of these fighters are young people inspired not by nationalistic slogans but by jihadism. Moreover, the mujahidin are of various ethnic backgrounds, so nationalistic ideology would not be workable. As for the West, its view should plainly be ignored because it provided no real help to Chechens through all the years of fighting against Russians.

What are the implications of these charges? To start, the increasing jihadization of the Northern Caucasian resistance would make it easy to coordinate their efforts and cooperate with the global terrorist network. This would perfectly fit al-Qaida’s plans. Indeed, it recently announced that all Muslim fighters should forget their differences and nationalistic prejudices to join hands in the common jihad. The new trend would have even greater implications for Russia. Jihadization would help unify the resistance all over the Northern Caucasus and also in Russia’s heartland.

It is true that if the Russian state is strong, the jihadists could not make much difference. But in, say, a major economic crisis, the jihadists, together with other forces, could shape the political landscape of Russia and Eurasia in general. For this reason, Western observers should pay attention to events in the Russian Northern Caucasus.

DMITRY SHLAPENTOKH is an associate professor of history at Indiana University South Bend. He graduated from Moscow State University and has taught at Harvard and Stanford universities.