Jonathan Parker


Since he became president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin has sought to portray Russia’s war in Chechnya as part of the fight against global Islamic terrorism, and the Chechens as radical Islamists (specifically Wahhabists) with connections to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Osama bin-Laden. This characterization is, in a word, false. Putin deliberately exaggerates the role of religion in Chechen separatism in order to simultaneously legitimise his own brutality against the Chechens while delegitimising the Chechen perspective. Religion, particularly radical Islam, plays merely a superficial role in Chechnya’s struggle for independence. The real roots of Chechen separatism lie in indigenous politics and culture, and ultimately in Chechen nationalism. Religion is a sub ordinate component of this separatism, and thus does not represent an act of jihad . Chechens use radical Islam as a means to an end, and not for its own sake.

Putin has tried hard since the late 1990s and the beginning of the Second Chechen War to portray the war in Chechnya as a theatre of the global war on terror, especially since the 9/11 attacks on the United States. As early as July of 2000, Putin described the formation of “a sort of fundamentalist international arc of instability” across regions experiencing so-called and actual Islamist insurgencies.1 Later, in an interview with American journalist Barbara Walters, Putin specifically referred to the ongoing separatist movement in Chechnya as a “terrorist attack”, and went on to claim that there are links between the Chechen fighters and Osama bin Laden.2

Further evidence of this desire to characterize Chechen separatism as an example of global Islamic terrorism comes from the official Russian response to ABC News’s controversial airing of an interview with Chechen fighter Shamil Basayev. In the official statement condemning the decision to air the interview, the Russian embassy referred to Basayev as an “internationally recognised terrorist” and “one of Al-Quaeda’s [sic] zealots”. Throughout the statement, in fact, the Russian embassy refers to Basayev as a terrorist, never as a separatist.3 While he can be considered both, this rhetoric clearly serves to emphasize the “Islamic terrorist” aspect of Basayev while deemphasizing his Chechen “separatist” (freedom fighter) aspect. At its conclusion, the Russian statement appeals to a “spirit of Russian-American partnership in [their] joint fight the global threat of terrorism”.4 Thus, Basayev is not merely a terrorist in the Russian story, but he is also a “global” terrorist, whom the United States should be helping Russia to fight. This characterization plays to the American, or even Western, idea of a ‘global war on terror’ and tries to place Basayev in that narrative. It is important to note that not all terrorists have a religious affiliation. However, there does exist a widespread perception that Islam and terrorism go hand in hand.5 Thus the key to understanding the strategy of Putin’s rhetoric is to consider how it influences the perception of foreign audiences, especially Western ones. Putin, and the Russian government more broadly, seek to persuade the West that Basayev and the Chechens are dangerous, radical Islamists who pose a threat to the West. However, to what extent is this characterization of the wider Chechen resistance true?

Historical background of the events prior to the 1990s provides a useful starting point in answering this question. Namely, history shows that Islam of any sort has been a part of Chechen culture for a relatively brief period of time, and has not been without turmoil. Archaeological evidence indicates that Chechens have lived in what is now Chechnya for up to 4000 years, while linguistic evidence suggests that their language originated in Upper Mesopotamia.6 Islam first arrived in the Caucasus region during the Arab-Khazar wars of the 8th through 11th centuries CE, and continued to influence the region through repeated invasions in later centuries.7 The conversion of Chechens to Islam, however, did not begin in earnest until the late 18th century.8 The traditional Chechen system of ‘adat continued to govern Chechen social norms even after the establishment of Islam.9 Thus, Islam was a late arrival to a mature society. 

In addition to its late arrival, Islam also suffered a serious setback during the mid-20th century. During the Soviet period of rule in Chechnya, atheism became widespread especially among the young and middle-aged population at the expense of religious belief, particularly Islam (another important event for the Chechens under Soviet rule was the mass deportation of 1944, but more will be said on this later). By the mid-1980s, only 12% of residents in the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Republic identified themselves as “believers” of any sort, including both Islam and Orthodox Christianity. With all this in mind, Valery Tishkov states the situation best: “[The] postfactual representation of Chechnya as an ‘Islamic Republic’ and of Chechens as ardent followers of Islam is a romantic simplification” (emphasis added).10 In contrast: “… while certain aspects of the ancient Chechen tradition have been vastly modified under Soviet rule, important elements of others still remain.”11 Islam has shallow roots in Chechen culture, and roots which have been badly damaged during its short history among the Chechens. This was the state of Islam in Chechnya prior to the violent rise of Chechen separatism in the early 1990s with the First and Second Chechen Wars. 

For Chechens, the cause of their own nationhood is superior to that of radical Islam. The historical experiences of the Chechen people cause them to feel a national identity more strongly than a religious one. Foremost among these experiences is the deportation of the entire population of Chechnya to Kazakhstan in 1944. During the Second World War, as the German armies retreated west out of the Soviet Union and the North Caucasus, Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered the deportation of 500,000 Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia.12 They were not allowed to return to Checheno-Ingushetia until 1957.13 It was this experience which created a sense of national identity among the Chechens. Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal point to the “closeness of Chechens in deportation” as a major factor in this creation, as Chechens were forced to meet other Chechens from other villages. They also draw a parallel between Chechnya and Israel and Armenia, as places where a national identity became founded on collective memory of an attempted genocide. Indeed, this memory would serve as a source of collective anger against Soviet and Russian rule as the 1980s came to a close.14 Notably, this anger came to a head just a few years before the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the official beginning of Chechen separatism.

There is another important factor, however, to do with the deportations which Gall and de Waal do not discuss: The Chechens were exiled not because they were nominally Muslim, but because they were Chechen. This distinction is important for understanding the psychology of Chechens’ relationship to religion and nationality. When the Chechens asked themselves “why is this happening?” the answer would always be “because I am Chechen” or even “because we are Chechen”. Thus, by persecuting the Chechens for being Chechen, the Soviet regime made them more conscious of the fact that they are Chechen, and strengthened this aspect of their identity. This explains the phenomenon which Gall and de Waal mentioned, that attempted genocide causes the creation of a stronger ethnic identity. This identity forms the basis for national movements in the future. 

Snippets of more recent Chechen culture reveal that this ethnic identity has taken root since the Soviet deportations. A Chechen proverb which epitomizes this development runs as follows: “Mohammed was an Arab, but Allah is Chechen”.15 This proverb demonstrates several things. Firstly, that Chechens recognise Islam as a religion that is ultimately foreign to their lands and which was brought to them by Arabs. Secondly, that Chechens still insist on an “ethno-national particularity” in which national identity overrides religion.16 This idea would be analogous to Americans claiming that “God is an American”. That Allah is said to be Chechen, even if jokingly, shows that Chechens feel that their religion is a deep part of their national identity, but at the same time is a subordinate component to that identity. By claiming Allah as a Chechen, this proverb claims Him and Islam as a member of the Chechen community, but neither as the only member nor as the only characteristic of that community.

The unofficial Chechen national anthem from the 1990s also shows that Chechens feel their ethnic identity very strongly, and underscores the subordinate role of religion in Chechen identity. This song, Freedom or Death, was the most famous national fighting song of the 1990s. Here are the first two verses:

We were born at night when the she-wolf whelped,
In the morning to the roar of lions we were given our names. In eagles’ nests our mothers nursed us.
To tame wild bulls our fathers taught us.

There is no God but Allah.

Our Mothers pledged us to our people and our homeland.
And if they need us – we know how to fight hard.
With the eagles of the mountains we grew up free together.
With dignity we have overcome every obstacle in our way.

There is no God but Allah.17

The main verses of the song clearly refer back to the land of Chechnya itself. The song references the animals with which the singers wish to associate themselves, especially the eagle. The singers tie themselves to their “people and [their] homeland”, emphasising and appealing to this connection. Religion makes almost no appearance, except for the choral lines between each verse. Furthermore, these lines seem more like an afterthought in the song and the way they are interspersed among the stirring, nationalist lyrics seems incongruous. Perhaps they were added as an acknowledgement of Islam’s connection to recent Chechen culture. Regardless, they appear merely as references, not appeals as the main lines are. Clearly then, this song is first and foremost a nationalist song, while religion is a superfluous addition. This reflects the general relationship between religion and nationalism among Chechens: religion, particularly Islam, is seen as a subordinate component of a national identity with much stronger roots in ethnicity. In the words of infamous Chechen fighter and terrorist Shamil Basayev: “Freedom is primary … Shari’a [sic] comes second.”18 It seems likely, given certain aspects of Chechen society, that freedom would continue to remain primary in relation to religion even after a hypothetical Chechen statehood. 

Chechens’ main enthusiasm for radical Islam, particularly Wahhabism, comes from merely practical needs. Paramount among these are economic aid (cash) and organization (both social and military). Tishkov records a number of interviews with Chechens which reveal such motives. One man said, in reference to the Arabs who came to Chechnya to spread Wahhabism, “I liked what they said. I found it all convenient, because I am a busy man. And time is money, as they say on television.” He goes on in the interview to explain that these same Arabs gave him money as a gift for his acceptance of their faith, and then paid him an additional $10,000 for bringing two of his relatives, who were also paid $1,000 each.19 These are not the words of a religious fanatic. Rather, religion here served as a means to acquire much needed aid from any source. As Tony Wood argues, radical Islam among Chechens represents “opportunism … born of necessity, and nourished by a global indifference to the loss of thousands of Chechen lives.”20

Since Chechens had no other sources of economic aid to fund their struggle and their economy, they were forced to turn to extremists, since they were the only ones with ready cash. As another Chechen noted: The Arab Wahhabis “went to the market and paid with dollars… There was no power here; disorder was everywhere, and their influence was very strong.”21 The Wahhabis’ influence here is clearly directly tied to their ability to pay with ready money. This gave them tremendous economic power in a society where money was scarce. Rather than rejecting these wealthy militant missionaries, it made sense to embrace and accept their religion if only for the money, despite that “Wahhabist Arabization, … is totally alien to [Chechen] culture.”22 Thus, acceptance of Wahhabism was necessary for simple personal survival. 

Islam, and religion in general, also served as an important stabilising force for ordinary Chechens, as Tishkov has noted. Elina Salazhieva, citizen of Groznyy, observed that: “… faith was the only thing that supported people. What was happening surpassed the limits of logic. So they turned to God.”23 In other words, ordinary Chechens were simply overwhelmed by the scale of destruction caused by the First Chechen War. They turned to belief in an otherworldly divine force in order to cope with their all too earthly hell. Radical religion served as a coping mechanism. Chechens turned to a new faith in order to survive psychologically, rather than for its own sake. As Anatol Lieven pithily states: “We all pray under fire”.24

Radical Islam has also served as a force to control and mobilise armed resistance to Russian power. Chechens have sometimes been called a nation of anarchists. Lieven refers to the Chechen style of society as “ordered anarchy”.25 This has made it difficult for any central authority to govern the actions of individual militant groups.26 Islam, with its strict moral code, could provide a focusing ideology to control the Chechen combatants. In addition, radical Islam in the form of Wahhabism helped to mobilise Chechen fighters by giving them symbols to rally around, a greater sense of solidarity because of those symbols, and a new justification for their personal sacrifice. Notably, Wahhabist proselytizing was most effective among young combatants in the war.27

Indeed, the plight of young men in Chechnya is a good example of the needs which Chechen society as a whole has for radical Islam. Matthew Evangelista records an interview with the Moscow-appointed administrator of Chechnya’s third largest city, who states that “[t]he poor Chechen people were already suffering so much and young guys couldn’t think… They were ready to accept any ideas.” A lack of economic opportunity and an astronomical unemployment rate did not help matters.28

Radical Islam is a means to survival not only on the individual level, but on the national level as well. When Chechnya declared independence from Russia in 1991, Islam did not play a big role.29 This is evident even in the rhetoric that then Chechen leader General Dudayev used in the build up to and during the First Chechen War. At first, Dudayev “explicitly ruled out the creation of an ‘Islamic Republic’”.30 He told reporters that religious leaders “do not play an essential role here [in Chechnya]. Religious and public figures, representatives of peoples and confessions place their trust in the legally elected president and the government.”31 Lieven reports that the rhetoric of political Islam became more “insistent” as Chechnya and Russia came closer to war.32 This trend would continue. Indeed, in 1994, just prior to the beginning of the war, Dudayev would attempt to use an “Islamic threat” against Russia, stating that if Russia attacked then his government would institute the Shariat, or Islamic law. Here, the official imposition of Islamic culture served as a deterrent. As Lieven points out, this was a blatant attempt to use Islam for political and national ends, and not as an end in itself.33 Further evidence of this trend in the Chechen national government in the 1990s is abundant. Suffice it to say that radical Islam, such as the Shariat, was used to serve the nation rather than vice versa.

With all this in mind then, why has Putin tried to emphasize the image of Chechnya as a radical Islamic state, like another Afghanistan? Simply put, he has done this in an attempt to make his own position more secure. Internationally, Putin has been heavily criticised, especially by European countries, for the ongoing war in Chechnya.34 Once Putin began framing the war in Chechnya as part of the global war on terrorism, however, this criticism subsided.35 Thus, Putin made his position stronger internationally by silencing a persistent source of criticism. The claim that the wars in Chechnya and the ongoing insurgency there are part of a broader global Islamic jihad is thus, evidently, false, and a deliberate misunderstanding. Putin has promoted this image for his own political reasons, and as a result has inflamed the situation beyond any chance of easy conciliation. The truth of the matter is that Chechens have fought, and continue to fight, for ethnic reasons, not religious ones. Chechnya declared its independence purely for nationalist reasons. The majority of Chechens, many with memories of oppression, deportation, and exile, wanted their own nation-state in order to create a space in which it would be safe to be Chechen. Extremist religion became a useful tool with which to further this goal. Chechens converted to Wahhabism in order to receive economic aid from abroad, and to maintain some kind of societal structure. Religion always served as a means to an end, and never as an end in itself.

  1. Wood, Tony, Chechnya: The Case for Independence (New York: Verso, 2007), 123.
  2. Evangelista, Matthew, The Chechen Wars: Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union? (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2002), 180.
  3. Nightline, Reign of Terror, Television broadcast, ABC News, 2005.
  4. Nightline, Reign of Terror, Television broadcast, ABC News, 2005.
  5. Omar, A. Rashied, “Islam and Violence,” The Ecumenical Review 55, no. 2 (2003): 158.
  6. Lieven, Anatol, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 331.
  7. Tishkov, Valery, Chechnya: Life in a War-Torn Society (Berkeley, CA: University of Cali-fornia Press, 2004), 173-174.
  8. Wood, Chechnya, 125.
  9. Tishkov, Chechnya, 165.
  10. Tishkov, Chechnya, 166-167.
  11. Lieven, Chechnya, 332.
  12. Gall, Carlotta and de Waal, Thomas, Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 56-57.
  13. Gall and de Waal, Chechnya, 72.
  14. Gall and de Waal, Chechnya, 74-75.
  15. Wood, Chechnya, 133.
  16. Wood, Chechnya, 133.
  17. Lieven, Chechnya, 358.
  18. Wood, Chechnya, 144.
  19. Tishkov, Chechnya, 173-174.
  20. Wood, Chechnya, 145.
  21. Evangelista, The Chechen Wars, 73.
  22. Tishkov, Chechnya, 179.
  23. Tishkov, Chechnya, 171.
  24. Lieven, Chechnya, 356.
  25. Lieven, Chechnya, 348.
  26. Lieven, Chechnya, 349.
  27. Tishkov, Chechnya, 172.
  28. Evangelista, The Chechen Wars, 73.
  29. Gall and de Waal, Chechnya, 34.
  30. Lieven, Chechnya, 363.
  31. Evangelista, The Chechen Wars, 72.
  32. Lieven, Chechnya, 363.
  33. Lieven, Chechnya, 364.
  34. Shevtsova, Lilia, Putin’s Russia, trans. Antonina W. Bouis (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003), 247.
  35. Wood, Chechnya, 123.

Evangelista, Matthew. The Chechen Wars: Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union?. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2002. 

Gall, Carlotta and de Waal, Thomas. Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Lieven, Anatol. Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998

Nightline, Reign of Terror, Television broadcast, ABC News, 2005.

Omar, A. Rashiev. “Islam and Violence.” The Ecumenical Review 55, no. 2 (2003): 158-163.

Shevtsova, Lilia. Putin’s Russia. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003.

Tishkov, Valery. Chechnya: Life in a War-Torn Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004. 

Wood, Tony. Chechnya: The Case for Independence. New York: Verso, 2007.