The battle for the soul of Chechnya

Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya. Photograph: Oleg Nikishin/Getty

High on a hillside in eastern Chechnya, a new mosque rises serenely in a grove of pear trees, its freshly painted walls dappled with sunlight. In a cemetery nearby, workmen have just finished repairing the white cupola that stands over a simple tomb draped in green cloth.
“With Allah’s help and the support of our president, we are putting this sacred place in order,” said Magomed Daskayev, a stout man in a green tunic who is imam of the local village, Khadzhi Aul.

This ziyarat on the Ertan ridge, an hour’s drive from Grozny, is one of the most hallowed spots of traditional Chechen Islam: the final resting place of the mother of Kunta Khadzhi Kishiev, a shepherd who became a Sufi sheikh.
The new mosque will provide accommodation for a stream of visiting pilgrims. And its construction is a potent symbol of the Sufi revival that is sweeping Chechnya under its impulsive, 31-year-old president, Ramzan Kadyrov. The renaissance comes as the last 700-odd rebels fighting Mr Kadyrov’s pro-Moscow administration have lurched toward radical Islam.

Earlier this month the rebel leader, Doku Umarov, announced he was extended his movement’s battle against Russian-backed security forces to include a wider “holy war” against the US, Britain, and Israel. “All those waging war against Islam and Muslims are our enemies,” he said.

In proclaiming jihad, Mr Umarov marked a final break with the separatists’ aims in the 1990s, when they gained international sympathy in their attempt to break away from Russia.

Chechnya’s rebels started out as a largely secular force, led by the dapper former Russian air force general Dzhokhar Dudayev, who sported a pressed uniform and a neatly clipped moustache; now their main commanders are fundamentalists with ties in the Middle East who want to carve out an Islamic caliphate across Russia’s North Caucasus region.

Moderates such as Akhmed Zakayev, the Chechen separatist envoy who lives in London, have been rapidly sidelined. The transformation in the rebel movement has allowed Mr Kadyrov and his pro-Kremlin allies to assume the mantle of moderate Islam by practising Sufism, a mystic form of the religion that emphasises a personal union with God.

The president’s fighters, the Kadyrovtsi, who have a reputation for brutality, have stamped out most of the rebels, ushering in a shaky peace in Chechnya after more than a decade of war. Across the republic, new mosques are being constructed as part of a wider rebuilding programme.

“The Wahhabis offer nothing but death and destruction,” said Sultan Mirzayev, mufti of Chechnya and a close ally of Mr Kadyrov, in an interview at his offices in Grozny. “We want to revive our homeland and give its people hope.”

Sufism has been the dominant form of Islam in Chechnya for almost two centuries but was forced underground in Soviet times.

During the 19th century, its followers, called murids, drew strength from their belief as they battled the soldiers of the invading Russian empire.

Imam Shamil, the legendary leader of the resistance, who fended off tsarist advances from his mountain stronghold for over 20 years, was a member of the Naqshabandi Sufi order.

And when Russian troops attacked breakaway Chechnya in the early 1990s, separatist fighters were often seen performing the stirring ritual the zikr, during which murids dance in a circle while crying hypnotic chants.

But these Sufi forces were later slowly replaced by radical militants who despised their devotion to saints and dervishes.

Today, it is not independence fighters who are leading the Sufi revival but rather the supporters of Mr Kadyrov, who has strong backing from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Mr Kadyrov, a murid of the Qadiri order, holds a zikr at his home every Thursday evening in honour of his father, who was assassinated in 2004. Vakhit Akayev, an expert on Sufism at Grozny State University, said it was not so strange that the pro-Moscow administration was now championing Sufism.

“Even the great Imam Shamil in the end gave himself up and lived in comfort at the tsar’s court in St Petersburg,” he said. Central to the revival of Sufism is the construction of a huge, multimillion-dollar mosque in Grozny named after Mr Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, which will be the biggest in Europe after it is completed next year.

The building’s four 50 metre-high, fluted minarets and main chamber are already an impressive landmark at the end of the city’s central Prospekt Pobedy. Turkish workers climb over its multiple domes, dressing walls with marble facade.

“Only positive energy flows from a mosque,” said Magomed Abdurakhmanov, 32, an official from the mufti’s administration, as he gave the Guardian a tour of the construction site. “This building will radiate goodness across Chechnya.”

When finished, it will accommodate 10,000 worshippers; an Islamic school and a new residence for the mufti are being constructed next door. It is hoped the mosque will encourage a new generation of believers to rediscover their traditional faith. But the battle for the soul of Chechnya is still far from over. The militants remain a dangerous force, and have vowed to kill “the puppet Kadyrov”.

One government official admits they are skilled at luring recruits into the hills. “Their promises of a glorious death and passage to paradise can be very attractive to disillusioned young people,” he said.


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