The Kremlin's holy war

Editorial Notebook

December 11, 2004|By Will Englund

TEN YEARS AGO today, Russian armored columns jumped off from three starting points and crossed into Chechnya. By sundown they had met little resistance, but that was deceptive, as so much is in the Caucasus. The war they launched still rages. Once it was about statehood, but now it is heavily laced with Islamic fervor. Dec. 11, 1994, paved the way for jihad in Russia.

In the decade since then, the Russian government has pursued a remarkably maladroit policy toward Islam -- not only in fierce little Chechnya but throughout the entire federation, home to 11 million and possibly as many as 20 million Muslims. Christian Russians have lived side-by-side with Muslims -- Tatars, mostly -- for a millennium; Muscovy was a vassal of the Tatars until it turned the tables 452 years ago, under Ivan the Terrible. Yet Russia today, in reaction to the bewildering war against would-be martyrs in Chechnya, and to the humiliation of its retreat as a major power, is embracing a national identity that is thoroughly and exclusively Orthodox. In good times, Russia can be a tolerant and ecumenical nation, but not now. In the largest country in the world, it's as if there is no room for Muslims.

It's not that official Islam is repressed, but it has fallen under the direction of the state. The result, as Shireen T. Hunter, author of the book Islam in Russia, points out, is a clerical hierarchy that's weak on theology and of dubious legitimacy. This opens the door to freelance imams preaching more radical interpretations of Islam. Ordinary Muslims, shut out by the Orthodox national myth, often abused by the police and at times pursued by skinheads, find solace and meaning in Islamist preaching.

Anyone with a darker complexion is subject to harassment or worse in Moscow and St. Petersburg; Azeri or Tajik migrants who never visited a mosque at home naturally look for sanctuary among fellow Muslims once they get to the big cities.

Some Russians have begun to suggest that Russia has once more taken on the role of the protector of Europe from the Muslim hordes. This is an enduring legend, though a seriously misleading and highly corrosive one. It has enabled Russian Christians to justify the mistreatment of Muslims while at the same time resenting what they see as European ingratitude. It feeds the idea that Russia -- which is a place where cultures in fact have met and mixed for centuries -- is the front line of European or Western or Christian civilization, a war zone where the usual rules of civilization don't apply.

And as a constant reminder, there is the bloodletting in Chechnya. Half a million Russian soldiers have now served there. Thousands have been killed, along with tens of thousands of Chechen civilians. Radical Islamists, encouraged by the defeat of Russia in Afghanistan in the 1980s, chose Chechnya as their next battleground a decade later. Where Chechen fighters began by seeking "Freedom or Death," now they pursue "Victory or Paradise." Chechen women blow up planes. The violent radicalism has already spread beyond the Caucasus, and there's no reason to expect that it will be permanently confined to Russia.

The Russian reaction has been to place icons on tanks before they shoot up Chechen villages; some priests have described Russian soldiers as "Christ's warriors."

After the siege of the school this year in Beslan, President Vladimir V. Putin paid his respects at an Orthodox church, even though most of the victims were Muslims. It was almost ostentatiously tone deaf (and the sort of thing his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin, never would have done, for all his faults). Russia is sowing resentment and bitterness among its Muslim population -- especially in the Caucasus but even in the more settled and conservative communities along the Volga River -- and because of radical Islam's international character, this is not a solely Russian concern. The world may pay the price.

-- Will Englund

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