For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia
By Robert D. Crews
(Harvard University Press, 463 pp., $29.95)
Russia's Islamic Threat
By Gordon M. Hahn
(Yale University Press, 349 pp., $35)
Poskrebi russikogo i naydyosh tatarina: scratch a Russian and you will find a Tatar. The origin of this quip is uncertain (attributed to Napoleon, it is found in Michelet, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Marx, and Lenin); but its accuracy has made it into something of a Russian proverb. This past summer the adage even found its way into one of Vladimir Putin's long, surly, preening, and occasionally vulgar monologues disguised as a press conference.
The observation about Russia's largest Muslim people is literally true of some of Russia's most distinguished families, who trace their origins to the Golden Horde conquerors. Rasputin's assassin, Prince Felix Yusupov, was from one such family; Vladimir Nabokov, whose ancestor Nabok Murza was a fourteenth- century Russianized Tatar prince of Moskovy, was a scion of another. And the reference to the Tatars certainly is correct in a larger historic sense. Outside of Spain, where the Muslim presence was ended by expulsion at the end of the fifteenth century, the thirteen hundred years of Islam's continuous presence within its current borders make Russia Europe's oldest and largest Muslim nation.
Russian Muslims rightly claim that Islam arrived in what was to become Russia before Orthodox Christianity. By the time the Great Prince Vladimir of Kiev baptized his subjects in the Dnieper in 988, Muslim communities had been well established along the Volga River (the future home of the Tatars) and in the northern Caucasus (Dagestan), later spreading east to the Ural Mountains and Siberia and into the Kazakh steppes. In 1613, when Russia's nobles offered the throne to the first Romanov czar, Mikhail, several Tatar princes were among the electors.
Between 20 million and 23 million strong, Russia's Muslims are more numerous and constitute a greater share of the country's population (14 to 16 percent) than in France (5 to 6 million and 8 to 10 percent), Germany (3.4 million and 4 percent), Britain (1.6 million and almost 3 percent), or the Netherlands (almost 1 million and nearly 6 percent). Only tiny Bosnia-Herzegovina, with 40 percent of its 4.5 million citizens, has a larger proportion of Muhammad's followers.
Islam has been a major and durable aspect of Russia's history, geography, and culture. Two of the finest works of Russian prose, Tolstoy's Hadji Murat and Lermontov's A Hero for Our Time, were inspired by the longest and most tragic episode of Russia's engagement with Islam: the almost sixty-year colonial war on the Muslim peoples of the northern Caucasus, especially the Chechens, who between 1834 and 1859 waged jihad under the red-bearded Imam Shamil. Both Tolstoy and Lermontov fought in that war, and in Hadji Murat Tolstoy contrasted the bravery and nobility of the Chechen warriors with the callousness and incompetence of the Russian high command.
Forever associated with the quest for freedom, the Caucasus also inspired some of the best Russian poetry: Pushkin's gorgeously mellifluous eight lines of "In the Hills of Georgia" (1829) and Lermontov's "Dream" (1841, about a Russian dying of wounds "in the noon heat in a Dagestan valley"), "Dagger" (1838), and "Valerik" (1843). The latter work, whose title is derived from the Chechen vallarig or "dead," is about one of the bloodiest battles of the Chechen war, on July 11, 1840, for which Lermontov was recommended for a medal. Both Pushkin and Lermontov wrote poems titled "The Prisoner of the Caucasus," about a Russian soldier captured by the Chechens. Pushkin's longer "Fountain of Bakhchisaray" (1824), like much else in his work inspired by Byron's Romantic poems, is set in the eponymous capital of the Muslim Crimean khanate. And on at least one occasion the Russian entwinement with Islam proved lethal to high Russian literature. In 1829, a fanatical mob in Tehran, unleashed by the mullahs to avenge alleged slurs against Islam, broke into the Russian embassy and killed all the diplomats, including the head of the mission, the brilliant Alexander Griboedov, Pushkin's contemporary and friend and the author of the classic Russian verse play Grief From Intelligence.
The conquest of the Kazan Khanate by Ivan the Terrible in 1552 brought the Tatar homeland into the rapidly expanding Russian state. (St. Basil's Cathedral was erected on Red Square to celebrate the victory.) Peter the Great pushed south and east, securing for the empire the lands between the Volga River and the Urals and, with them, the Bashkirs: Russia's second-largest Muslim people, after the Tatars. Catherine the Great wrestled the Crimean peninsula from the Ottomans in 1791 and began to incorporate the southeastern steppe "borderlands" populated by the Kazakh nomads. In the last third of the nineteenth century, the Russian empire gobbled up "Turkestan," now known as Central Asia, with its ancient cities of Tashkent, Kokand, Khiva, Osh, Bukhara, and Samarkand, the latter two revered by Muslims around the world for their madrassas, or Qur'anic schools. The first census in 1897 found that almost one in ten Russians profess Islam.
So how has the modern Russian state done in four and a half centuries of co-existence with its Muslim subjects? And how useful is this rather unique history for today's West, desperate for peace with its own rapidly growing populations of Muslim citizens? The answer to the first question is, not as badly as could be expected of the corrupt empire that Lenin rightly called the "prison of peoples" (and which, when in power, he promptly upgraded to a maximum-security facility).
Responsible for this fairly remarkable accomplishment, as Robert D. Crews argues persuasively, was a rather sophisticated policy of state support of "official" Islam, in which Islamic clerics were granted a substantial degree of power and autonomy in religious, cultural, and communal matters in the hope of "grounding" imperial rule in religious authority. The Kremlin viewed Islam as an "anchor of stability" in the giant multi-ethnic and multi-confessional empire, and sought to use it to "enhance respect for order." As in the Ottoman Empire, Russia's neighbor and perennial rival, this partial delegation of authority to the leaders of self-ruling religious and ethnic communities allowed Moscow to rule with fewer complications and, ultimately, with less violence. At least by the crudest--but also the most vital--measure of the frequency and scale of rebellions, Moscow succeeded impressively. The Caucasus aside, Muslim revolts were relatively few and small, from Catherine, when the Bashkirs mutinied under mullah Batyrshah in 1775, to Nicholas II, when the Muslims of "Turkestan" rose in 1916 in response to the drafting of nearly half a million men to serve in Russian work units behind the front lines of World War I.
Crews's book is solid and enlightening, and his research is prodigious, documenting a century and a half of the state's role as mediator, enforcer, and supreme resource for the claimants to the leadership in Muslim communities. Crews has studied police reports, court records, the writings of Russian Muslim clerics, and the petitions of Muslim subjects, and he comes away with a fascinating and important story, which he tells skillfully. (Though the gentle reader ought to be prepared to translate into plain English sentences such as "The institutional environment facilitated maneuvering that challenged religious scholars' claims to exclusive monopoly of religious knowledge and enabled a more dynamic contest about the definition of Islamic norms.")
It was Catherine who thought it useful to make the imperial regime a "patron of Islam." Even in the middle of the first of several Russo-Turkish wars of her reign, Catherine disregarded the bloodthirsty urgings of her pen pal Voltaire (in 1771 he advised the empress to "exterminate the two great scourges of the earth--the plague and the Turks") and re-affirmed the right of the Turks' co- religionists, the Turkic-speaking Tatars, to build stone mosques "in the presence of"--that is, a stone's throw from-- Orthodox churches, despite the strenuous objections of the Russian Orthodox Episcopate in Kazan. Half a century later, while fighting the Turks in the northern Caucasus, a Russian general advised the Muslim Adygei people, one of the largest ethnic communities of Dagestan, that "this war does not concern you" and that "the Russian government will not confuse you with the Turks." At about the same time, in 1823, the first mosque in Moscow was dedicated, and Crews reports that all the while a copy of the Qur'an was kept in the Kremlin so that Muslims could swear the oath of allegiance.
"Official" Russian Islam began with the establishment of the "Ecclesiastical Assembly of the Muhammadan Creed" in 1788, in the Bashkir capital of Ufa. The head of the assembly was appointed the mufti of all Russian Muslims and given a princely state salary of fifteen hundred rubles a year. Later moved to the city-fortress of Orenburg in the southeastern Urals, the assembly was granted supreme authority over the theological matters, daily rituals, and family affairs of the Islamic community. Birth, marriage, and divorce became "the exclusive domain" of "Mohammadan clergy," and the Muslims were to follow the legal opinions, or fatwas, of the supreme mufti. Between 1836 and 1888, the assembly licensed almost 14,000 clerics, and on its hundredth anniversary it oversaw 4,254 parishes, where more than 7,000 clerics ministered to 3.5 million Muslims.
When the relentless imperial expansion brought Russia in contact with the Kazakh pagan nomads, their conversion to Islam became an official policy, designed to turn them away from cattle-stealing and slaving raids on the Bashkirs, Russians, and Kalmyks along the southern frontier and to make them into law-abiding imperial subjects. To that end, Moscow dispatched Tatar clerics to the Kazakh steppes, and in 1787 Catherine ordered the printing of the Qur'an in St. Petersburg to be distributed to the Kazakhs. (By the end of the eighteenth century, 3,600 copies were also sold to Russian Muslims.)
Moscow's policy certainly succeeded where it mattered most: among the Tatars. Inspired and enabled by the great liberalizing reforms of Alexander II, the progressive Tatar intelligentsia in the 1860s and 1870s sought to redress the "backwardness" and "stagnation" of Islam and to bring it into line with European "enlightenment" and "progress." The reformers, who became known as "jadids"--from the Arabic usul-i jaded, or "new method"--started publishing a bilingual Turkic and Russian newspaper, and Kazan merchants and entrepreneurs supported Russian-language instruction in the Qur'anic schools and colleges that they funded.
Of course, there always was a powerful international dimension-- "geopolitical," as we would call it today--to Russia's Islamic policy. Russian Muslims were a coveted prize in the bitter contest for the Caucasus with the Ottoman Empire and Persia, and later in the "Great Game" between Russia and Britain in Central Asia and Afghanistan. At the outset of World War I, the Ottoman sultan--who was also a self-proclaimed caliph, or supreme political leader, of the entire umma (the worldwide community of the faithful)--issued a fatwa from Istanbul commanding all Muslims to wage jihad against the Russians, the British, and the French.
The German kaiser, too, dreamed of a "wild revolt" of the world's Muslims against the Entente. A German fighting song (to which a German Orientalist scholar reportedly had contributed) called on "Muslim comrades": "I am a Christian, and you are a Muslim, But that doesn't harm a thing!/Our victory is certain,/Our fortune is not a dream!" (The German campaign prompted a clandestine counter-effort by British intelligence, which was masterfully portrayed in John Buchan's novel Greenmantle in 1916.) The Orenburg mufti duly responded with a call to his coreligionists to show their devotion to "our fatherland, near and dear to our hearts, the hearts of Muslims."
Like other subjects of the empire--most notably the ethnic Russians themselves--Muslims resisted conscription or deserted, and some may have emigrated from the Volga and the Urals regions to the Ottoman empire during or right after the Crimean and Balkan wars with Turkey, but in the end Russia's Muslims passed the ultimate test of citizenship--from the Bashkir cavalry in the eighteenth-century campaigns against the Swedes and later against Napoleon to the more than one million Muslims fighting for the fatherland in World War I. When, on February 21, 1913, the Muslim nobility came to the St. Petersburg mosque to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of the Romanov dynasty, they were joined not only by the Muslim members of the parliament, but also by an army general.
Still, for all its relative tolerance and sophistication in managing its Muslim subjects, Russia remained a police state, complete with domestic passports and residence permits, which, although deployed most notably against Jews, affected Muslims as well. Proselytizing to non-Muslims and converting them to Islam were criminal offenses. After the Main Administration of the Religions Affairs of Foreign Confessions was created in 1810, there was never any doubt that ultimate and unchallenged control over "Muslim affairs" was in the hands of the state bureaucracy. (Two decades later the administration found its proper and permanent home in the Ministry of Internal Affairs--that is, the police.) Just as it did with the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church since the time of Peter the Great, the government "trusted but verified" by creating a carefully vetted Muslim clerical nomenklatura. In one instance, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the job of the Orenburg mufti was given to a Tatar noble who had no religious background but was politically very reliable. In the last third of the nineteenth century, separate state administrations were established for the Sunnis and the Shia in the Caucasus.
Unlike the rulers of Spain, the czars never presented their Muslims with the choice of conversion or expulsion. Yet the Russian army's brutality and the senseless destruction it left in its wake--which Tolstoy recounts in heartbreaking detail in Hadji Murat--forced hundreds of thousands of Muslims to flee the Caucasus and the Crimea. In 1820, Crews tells us, Nicholas I defined his army's mission in the Caucasus as "the pacification for good of the mountain peoples or the extirpation of the recalcitrants."
In the early 1830s, after the Russian field commanders in the Caucasus identified the religious leaders (the "guides") of the Sufi school of Islam as "agents of fanaticism" and the "backbone" of the guerilla resistance (Imam Shamil was a Sufi), the Foreign Ministry attempted to rescind Alexander I's twenty-seven-year-old decree permitting Central Asian hajjis to travel through Russia to Istanbul and Mecca. "Instead of going to Mecca for worship," the ministry reported, "[they] have stayed among us in places inhabited by Muhammadans, [and] incited in the latter fanaticism and have engendered all kinds of subversive principles." A decade later, Nicholas I prohibited "the entry across our borders of any figures of Muhammadan ecclesiastical rank," and the War Ministry secretly ordered the Orenburg governor to deny Muslims permission to go on the hajj. The pilgrimage to Mecca, the ministry argued, "diverted" Muslim soldiers and officials form the service to the state," while the hajjis returned with an "influence on their co-religionists [that is] unfavorable to us."
Despite their clearly official status, the Russian state also withheld from Muslim clerics the rights and privileges accorded to Russian Orthodox priests, most significantly tax-exempt status. The authorities never hesitated to interfere forcefully and openly in intra-Muslim theological, legal, and social affairs, so as to promote those interpretations of Islamic legal norms and doctrines deemed most beneficial to the state and to support the clerics advocating them, while curbing or banishing those considered subversive. Local administrators were empowered to abrogate the rulings of Islamic courts. (In some instances, painstakingly documented by Crews, such interventions were progressive, as in the case of the two women in the Fergana Valley sentenced by a local justice of an Islamic court to several months in jail for wearing Russian clothes and appearing on the streets unveiled.)
The empire, Crews notes, "needed Islam but feared its guardians." Mosques were closed, and dissident men of religion were harassed and spied on. The Muslims' ties to foreign hubs of scholarship (Kabul, Istanbul, Baghdad, Cairo, and Mecca) were closely monitored and occasionally severed. Protests were suppressed resolutely. And so finally, for all its richness and all its consonance with the concerns of today, there are sharp limits to the usable past for anyone seeking to learn from the Russian experience of "the search for peace between Muslims and their non-Muslim rulers," as Crews puts it. Bought at so steep a price in civil and political liberties, such stability would be too costly for our idea of a democracy. In the end, Crews rightly concludes, the mixture of "co-optation, patronage, and policing [that made Islam] the enduring pillar of the tsarist imperial order" may be ill-suited for states that "value democracy and human rights."
And what of post-Soviet Russia, where a return to pre-1917 conditions surely would have been an enormous advance over the Soviet totalitarian state's complete ownership of religious institutions (together with everything else in the country)? With the strategic vision and tactical brilliance that he wielded until unimaginable stress, multiple illnesses, and painkillers mixed with alcohol ruined him, Boris Yeltsin pulled Russia from the brink of disintegration in the early 1990s first by resurrecting the tradition of cultural and religious autonomy for ethnic minorities, and then by quickly going beyond it to democratic self-rule for all of Russia's (then) eighty-nine federal regions. When, in 1995, he authorized the direct election of regional governors, for the first time in its history there was a Russian state that was both radically decentralized and whole. Until then, the only alternative to chaos had been autocracy or dictatorship.
Tellingly, Yeltsin chose Ufa as the place from which to proclaim the policy that was to save Russia. "We are saying to the Bashkir people," he declared in August 1990, when he was the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, "take as much power as you can swallow!" Three months after the Soviet Union's demise, in March 1992, the Kremlin and the ethnic "autonomous republics" agreed on the Federal Treaty, which laid the foundation of Russia's new federal state.
Of the sixteen republics, only two refused to sign the treaty. One was Chechnya, the other was Tatarstan. Yeltsin stubbornly pursued negotiations. He succeeded with Tatarstan, the heavily Russified nominal home of the 5.5 million Tatars (more than half of them living outside the republic), about the size of Ireland. In February 1994, a bilateral treaty was signed between Moscow and Kazan, Tatarstan's capital. Unprecedented for Russia, and with few analogies in modern history, the Republic of Tatarstan was declared "a state united with the Russian Federation" rather than its subject. Moscow granted Tatarstan most of a sovereign nation's rights: flag, constitution, taxation, the ownership of very formidable oil deposits. Tatarstan was allowed to conduct its own foreign trade, and its youths were exempt from the all-Russian military conscription. Soon other ethnic republics and smaller ethnic enclaves (oblasts, or provinces), as well as some of the largest ethnic Russian regions, demanded such treaties. These, too, were duly negotiated and signed, bringing the total number to thirty-one by the summer of 1997. Not one province since then has threatened to leave Russia.
But Chechnya's story grew steadily, and then irreversibly, darker. Less than two years after declaring independence in November 1991, Chechnya's elected president, Dzhokhar Dudaev, formerly a major general in the Soviet Air Force, dissolved the parliament, killed scores of protesters, and became an erratic and paranoid dictator. Dudaev's enemies, real or imagined, were swiftly murdered by his small army of bodyguards. Chechnya was turning into a lawless enclave, with a population of 1.2 million people and almost as many small arms. Trains passing through the republic were routinely robbed, and passengers were advised to barricade themselves in their compartments. To prevent the spread of irredentism to other Muslim areas of the northern Caucasus, to protect a pipeline that carried hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil through Chechnya from the Caspian fields to the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, and to deny the left-nationalist bloc in the Duma yet another propaganda tale of the "liberals" who were "destroying Russia," the Kremlin tried everything from economic blockade and covert subversion to support of the unsuccessful anti-Dudaev uprising in November 1994. On December 11, 1994, Yeltsin ordered 40,000 federal troops to "restore order" in Chechnya.
A combination of prison, torture chamber, and hard-labor camp, the sullen and dysfunctional Russian army was no match for the fearless, skillful, and tenacious Chechen fighters, spurred by the memories of nearly two centuries of the bloody contest with Russian and Soviet imperialism and of genocide. (In 1944, Stalin deported the entire Chechen nation of 489,000 people to Central Asia; an estimated 200,000 died of disease and starvation). Trapped in the streets of Grozny, the untrained, hungry, and cold eighteen-year-old Russian draftees were mowed down by the hundreds: machine-gunned, blown to pieces by grenades, burned to death by flame-throwers, and crushed by their own tanks, as Russian commanders kept sending more and more troops into the ambushes. By the time Grozny was taken in Stalingrad-like house-to-house fighting a month later, an estimated 24,000 (perhaps as many as 30,000) Chechen civilians were dead, together with 1,800 Russian troops officially reported killed. (The actual number is almost certainly higher, perhaps by orders of magnitude.) The Chechens also began a very effective guerrilla campaign increasingly punctuated by stunning strikes outside Chechnya, including mass hostage-takings. Fought with extreme brutality on both sides, most of the war's casualties were inflicted by the Russians, who killed, tortured, pillaged, and raped with abandon.
In the middle of a very tough and freely contested presidential race, with public opinion a key factor in Russian politics and the still-uncensored and often privately owned television stations nightly feeding millions images of the Chechen carnage, Yeltsin pledged to end the war. After his re-election, he kept his word. In the pre-dawn hours on August 31, 1996, in the Dagestani town of Khasavayurt, General Alexander Lebed, then secretary of the Kremlin's Security Council and one of Russia's most popular politicians, signed an agreement that granted Chechnya "full control" over its internal affairs, including finance and natural resources.
Although its "final status" was to be decided in negotiations with Moscow in five years, and although not one country except Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was to recognize it as such, for all intents and purposes the Republic of Ichkeria--a lone howling wolf on its flag--became a de facto independent state, even as Moscow continued to send millions of rubles for reconstruction, pensions, schools, and hospitals in support of the legal fiction of the republic's continuing membership in the Russian Federation. By January 1, 1997, not a single Russian soldier or policeman remained on Chechen soil.
It was too late. The transformation of the Chechen conflict from a largely secular movement of national liberation into a religious war had already begun. The symbol of the Chechen resistance, General Dzhokhar Dudaev--nattily dressed and smoothly shaven (save for a tiny, expertly trimmed moustache), a former member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union--was killed by a Russian missile in early 1996, and he was replaced by a coterie of Wahhabi warlords with luxurious beards and hairless upper lips, shaved heads, and baggy short cotton trousers. The most resilient and determined and lethal among them, Shamil Basaev, became Ichkeria's prime minister under President Aslan Maskhadov. By then he had reportedly already trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Even before Maskhadov declared it an Islamic republic in November 1997, Chechnya introduced Islamic courts, which swiftly started passing sentences on those who violated sharia, or Islamic law. In April 1997, in the first of the executions broadcast on Chechnya's state-run television, a group of hooded men slit a man's throat. Subsequent executions by firing squad took place in Grozny's Friendship of Peoples Square in the presence of thousands of spectators. In February 1999, sharia became the official law of Chechnya. In response to statements by Yeltsin and the Duma, horrified by "barbaric," "medieval," and "impermissible" acts in what was nominally still part of Russia, the Chechen presidential spokesman said: "The disapproval by Russia and the West of our actions--shooting by a firing squad and public executions--means that we're heading in the right direction. There is no doubt that only the laws of Allah and norms of sharia will be in force in Chechnya."
From an internal affair of Russia's, largely neglected by the Muslim world, Chechnya turned into a Muslim cause, a major battlefront of world jihad. Already by 1995, along with mujahideen from Bosnia and Azerbaijan, some three hundred "Afghan" Arabs were said to be fighting in Chechnya. Among them was the Saudi-born Jordanian Abu Ibn Al Khattab, who soon became a top commander and Basaev's friend and confidant. Khattab's goal was a North Caucasus caliphate.
In December 1996, Osama bin Laden's deputy Ayman Al Zawahiri tried clandestinely to enter Chechnya and develop a new base for the organization after Sudan expelled the Al Qaeda leadership. Arrested in Dagestan, which borders Chechnya in the east, Zawahiri spent six months in prison in Makhachkala, the capital. He was found guilty of entering Russia without a visa and was released in May 1997. In a handwritten statement in Arabic made public by the Russian authorities five years later, Zawahiri claimed to be a "businessman" who had entered Dagestan "to study the local market and to build contacts for our business." In a file stored on a laptop computer found in an Al Qaeda safe house in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban, Zawahiri wrote that "God blinded [the Dagestani authorities] to our identities."
According to testimonies in 2002 at the trial in Hamburg of Mounir Motassadeq, a Moroccan accused of assisting the September 11 hijackers, his friends and co-conspirators--who were "obsessed with jihad" and "cheerfully" sang songs about martyrdom--"always talked about Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Chechnya." In the fall of 1999, three of the September 11 pilots--Mohammed Atta, Marwan Al Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah--left Hamburg for the Al Qaeda training camp near Kandahar, in Afghanistan, with the intention of "fighting the Russians in Chechnya." They were told that there were "enough fighters" in Chechnya. Instead, according to German investigators, the Al Qaeda leadership ordered the three to "begin laying plans" for what became the September 11 attack.
By then there were reportedly at least a hundred Al Qaeda fighters among the Chechen resistance force that used the Pankisi Gorge on the Georgian side of the Chechnya-Georgia border as a staging area for raids into Chechnya. According to Georgian investigators and to American "intelligence sources," the Al Qaeda contingent "split their time between helping the Chechens in their war against Russia and helping the [Al Qaeda] international organization in its war against the United States." (Three years later, the American-trained Georgian commandos captured fifteen Arabs in the Pankisi Gorge and immediately extradited them to the United States. Among the prisoners was the Egyptian Saif Al Islam El Masry, a member of the Al Qaeda military committee. Trained by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and sent to Somalia in the early 1990s, he was mentioned in the federal indictment of a prominent Muslim charity, the Illinois- based Benevolence International Foundation, as an officer of the foundation's "Chechen branch.")
The agenda of the Chechen resistance began to change. For most field commanders, the goal of peace and prosperity for an independent Chechnya seemed to be gradually displaced by martyrdom and victory in jihad against Russia. After a series of raids, assassinations, and kidnappings outside their new country, Basaev and Khattab led the invasion of Dagestan on August 2, 1999 with the goal of establishing an "Islamic republic of North Caucasus." Basaev called on the Dagestanis to "rise up and end 140 years of occupation by the Muscovite infidels."
Two months before the invasion, Chechnya's president, Aslan Maskhadov, told an interviewer: "After the [1994- 1996] war I was tired, I was dreaming about a respite, as was the rest of the Chechen nation. But even then it looked like war was imminent. With dismay I listened to the speeches of a variety of [Chechen] politicians and [military] commanders. These calls for holy war, the liberation of the Caucasus, flying green flags [of Islam] over the Kremlin. I knew everything was heading toward war." After the invasion was repulsed, Shirvani Basaev, Shamil Basaev's brother, declared that "the assault on Dagestan was just a rehearsal. It was nothing to do with oil or territory. This is jihad."
Appointed prime minister a month later by a panicked and very sick Yeltsin, in large measure to defend Dagestan, Vladimir Putin would later complain that it took almost a month for the Kremlin to put together a force of battle-ready and equipped troops to confront between one thousand and two thousand Chechens: "There was nobody to send to war." The invaders were repelled primarily by Dagestani troops, local militia, and private citizens whose attachment to personal firearms easily matches, say, that of Texans. But once the troops were assembled, Putin pursued Basaev into Chechnya. Determined to bomb rather than to storm, the Russians reduced Grozny to rubble and forced the resistance into the mountains again.
What happened afterward is the heart of Gordon M. Hahn's book about "Russia's emerging revolutionary jihadist terrorist network." Russia's Islamic Threat is almost certain to become the definitive work on the subject. Exhaustively researched, it is dense and sometimes wearying, with all the elegance of a graduate school paper. Its wooden and arid language is littered with acronyms and flooded with names, facts, and figures, as well as long verbatim passages from Islamic websites. But the tale that Hahn tells is as substantial as it is striking. He describes his book as an effort to fill a "shocking" void in our knowledge, and he has a few shocks of his own to deliver. That the book is at times alarmist does not make it less alarming--not with potential terrorists on the loose in a land with 16,000 nuclear warheads, half of the world's highly enriched uranium (at least 400 tons) and weapons-grade plutonium (another 100 tons), 40,000 tons of chemical weapons (including at least 1.9 million artillery shells filled with deadly nerve agents), and unknown quantities of deadly biological substances.
Should the loyalties of most of Russia's Muslims start to waver between the motherland and the jihad, the demographic trends, as everywhere in Europe, would spell a very troubling future. Of all Russia's myriad ethnic groups, the fertility rates of its Muslim peoples are the highest. Between the censuses of 1989 and 2002, the number of ethnic Russians declined by 3 percent and the number of Muslims increased by 20 percent. To make matters worse, the largest population increases have been recorded in the Muslim North Caucasus (especially in the autonomous republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino- Balkaria), where the levels of unemployment are also the highest--as is involvement in militant Islamist networks anywhere in Russia outside Chechnya. By mid-century, Hahn surmises, such decidedly inauspicious circumstances may produce "a torrential river of jihadist volunteers."
In addition to his meticulous examination of the fundamentalist networks, Hahn's signal contribution is in placing the threat in a larger context of what he correctly labels Putin's "counter-revolution." Having won a few battles, Hahn suggests, Putin (or rather, Russia) may be losing the war for the North Caucasus and, in the longer run, for the hearts and minds of many of its Muslim citizens.
Between the years 2000 and 2004, it looked like Moscow was losing the war on terror as well. The number of attacks grew exponentially every year, reaching 561 in 2003 (from 20 in 1999). Just as troubling was the symbolic orchestration of the assaults. The same Chechen fighters whose daring and acumen resulted in casualties that were only a fraction of those they inflicted on the enemy, and who again and again defied enormous odds by slipping through seemingly impenetrable perimeters set by the Russians (and bringing out their wounded and dead with them), now seemed to be celebrating death and seeking martyrdom.
On the tape aired by Al Jazeera the day after the spectators in a Moscow theater were taken hostage in October 2002, one of the black-clad Chechens said: "I swear by God we are more keen on dying than you are keen on living." The terrorists spoke against the backdrop of a green banner with the words "God is great" written in Arabic. The women wore hijabs, which had not been seen on Chechen women before. "We have come to die in Moscow," one of them was heard saying on the same tape, "and we will kill hundreds of infidels."
In a radio interview from inside the theater, the hostage-taker's leader called his troop "Islam's suicide brigade." "Our motto is freedom and paradise, " one of his soldiers added. "We already have freedom as we've come to Moscow. Now we want to be in paradise." Shortly thereafter, Shamil Basaev renamed the "brigade" Ryad as-Salahin, the Arabic for "gardens of peace," which can also be interpreted as "salvation" or "paradise." (The group would claim the responsibility for all major terrorist attacks in Russia since then, most recently the derailment of the Moscow-St. Petersburg express this past August.)
Yet nothing prepared Russia and the world for the bacchanalia of violence in 2004. Hahn mentions the subway bombing in Moscow in February (more than forty killed and over 130 injured); the assassination in May of Chechnya's Moscow-installed president Akhmad Kadyrov (together with at least five others, as well as fifty-three injured); the murder of the two highest-ranking police officials in Ingushetia in June; the simultaneous crash of Russian planes caused by two female suicide bombers on board in August (eighty-nine killed); another Chechen woman blowing herself up at the entrance to a Moscow Metro station (nine people killed and at least forty-one injured). And then, the next day, the grisly climax: the seizure of 1,200 hostages in School Number One in Beslan, in North Ossetia, by thirty-two heavily armed Chechen-led terrorists. At the end of three days of utter confusion and incompetence by the Russian authorities, more than 300 people, including 186 children, were killed by fire, explosives, and bullets.
Since then, the number of terrorist attacks has gone sharply down. We can only guess why. Perhaps the best-trained and most dedicated cadres died in suicide attacks and replacements were hard to find, since Iraq has likely consumed most of what the Jihadi International has to offer. The relentless pressure in Chechnya, where Russian authorities found effective allies in the thuggish former rebels, has resulted in the hunting down and killing of Maskhadov, along with several other top commanders. Finally, in July 2006 Basaev was killed by the accidental detonation of an explosives transport he was accompanying.
But there was no respite. Instead of spectacular terrorism, the jihad effort shifted to the North Caucasus, especially the largest of the "autonomous republics," Dagestan. Unlike 1999, it was not an invasion, but what experts on subversion and terrorism call "low intensity" warfare. Whatever its intensity, it was very deadly.
An ethnic quilt of thirty-four peoples, two million in total, all of them Muslim (save for Orthodox Christian Russian settlers and Ossetians, as well as a handful of the "mountain Jews," the Tats), Dagestan is a promising target, a classic "weak link" that may precipitate the collapse of Moscow's authority in the northern Caucasus. Along with Chechnya, Dagestan held out the longest and cost the Russian empire the most in treasure and blood to conquer and to colonize. Islamic since the seventh century (one of Russia's oldest mosques is in Derbent, on Dagestan's Caspian shore), Dagestan, a little bigger than Maryland, before the Bolshevik revolution had 1,700 mosques and 400 madrassas. Since the Soviet collapse, Dagestan's "re-Islamization," as Hahn calls it, was perhaps the fastest anywhere in the former Soviet Union. Where in the mid-1980s only 27 mosques remained, there were at least 1,600 mosques in 2001--and 17 Islamic universities, 132 madrassas, and 245 Qur'anic schools, led by more than 2,000 imams and mullahs.
It is out of this ardent piety that Basaev and company have, since 1999, sought to fashion the nodal point of the all-Russian jihad. Of the known "combat jamaats" (from the Arabic for a society or association) set up in the largest "autonomous republics" of the North Caucasus outside Chechnya-- Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkariya, and Karachaevo-Cherkessiya--Dagestan's Shariah Jamaat under Basaev's close associate, dubbed the "emir of the Dagestan front," was the largest, with perhaps as many as 2,000 fighters. The Jamaat's Internet postings, Hahn reports, began with blessings to the "Emir of all the mujahadeen," his family and followers, and all who have followed them "in a jihad to the Day of Judgment." "We, soldiers of Allah," the texts go on, "having begun on the path of jihad sacrificed our lives, property, shelter, families, and relatives in exchange for HEAVEN!"
In November 2004, as Dagestan was slipping out of control, Putin dispatched his top adviser, Dmitry Kozak, to Makhachkala to be the "presidential envoy" to the Southern Federal Okrug--one of Russia's seven super-districts created by Putin to enhance the Kremlin's control over provinces--that includes the entire northern Caucasus. (Kozak was not only Putin's confidant, he was also a talented jurist and the principal author of the very progressive Criminal Procedural Code of 2001, which is today violated left and right by the Kremlin's prosecutors.) But even Kozak could achieve very little, except to survive ambushes, drive-by shootings, car bombs, and roadside mines that killed scores of local officials, prosecutors, and policemen in the past six years. By the summer of 2005, when terrorist attacks occurred on average every three days, Kozak reported to Moscow that "a macroregional socio-political and economic crisis" was possible, as was the "sharp growth of radicalism and extremism."
Today Dagestan is barely governable: mired in relentless violence, in unemployment and poverty, and overflowing with Muslim youths with nothing to do. The formerly quiet Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya in the west, is almost as bad, with explosions, mortar attacks, and shootings occurring almost daily. In August, Putin ordered an additional 2,500 troops to the republic, which is smaller than New Jersey and has a population of less than half a million.
And yet the prospect of an all-Russian jihad, with which Hahn opens his book, is a very remote eventuality today. Toward the end of the book, he wisely re- casts his original thesis into the suppositional and subjunctive moods, with should's, would's, may's, perhaps's, seem's, and appear's, hedging his earlier and darker bet.
The single most important reason for the lowered probability of an all-Russian jihad is the Tatars, the country's largest ethnic minority and by far the most numerous of Russia's twenty-three main Muslim peoples. (At least every third Russian Muslim today is an ethnic Tatar.) They are also the best educated- -Lenin graduated from the University of Kazan, the Tatars' ancient capital--and have long been recognized as the Russian umma's cultural leaders. While united in their quest for autonomy and self-rule, and proud of their culture and religion, a vast majority of Tatars do not seem to consider Islam the central component of their identity, much less the sole one. Until now, Tatar nationalism has been solidly secular.
Although there were three ethnic Tatars among the eight "Russian Taliban" detained in Guantanamo and one Tatar among the Beslan hostage-takers, they seem to have been aberrations rather than trendsetters. Hahn's assiduous investigation turned up very thin evidence of even an inchoate Islamic militancy in Tatarstan. Among the explanations are the Tatars' adherence to the moderate Hanafi school of Islam and the legacy of the Jadidism. "I live in Tatarstan and do not want to live like an Arab of the Middle Ages," one of the public opinion leaders, an adviser to the republic's president, declared in 2003. The most urbanized and assimilated among Russia's Muslims--along with Jews and Ukrainians, Tatars have long been the largest non-Russian minority in Moscow--they are part of the Russian political, scientific, and cultural elite, as they used to be of the Soviet one.
Yet the secular character of the Tatars' pursuit of autonomy should not be taken for granted. Their aversion to religious fundamentalism may be tested by what Hahn calls Putin's "counter-revolutionary anti-federalism." Like the United States, Brazil, India, and China, Russia is too big and diverse to be a "unitary" state, governed from one center in the absence of a dictatorship. Among the many risks of Putin's "sovereign democracy"--a hodgepodge of illusory shortcuts to stability without democracy or the rule of law, and to prosperity through government ownership of oil and gas exports--the erosion of provincial self-rule is among the most acute. Yeltsin wisely let the spring uncoil, but Putin is unwisely compressing it back toward the "center" (that is, Moscow).
Since 2002, the Kremlin has worked relentlessly to nullify most of the sovereignty clauses in its constitution (as it has in those of other ethnic autonomies), effectively abrogating the treaty of 1994. The campaign culminated in one of those cynical propaganda non sequiturs in which the present Russian government excels: Putin used the Beslan tragedy as a reason to abolish elections of regional governors, who are now all but directly appointed by Moscow. (Tatarstan's president Mintimer Shaymiev was the first among Russian regional leaders publicly to oppose what the Tatar political elite immediately labeled Putin's "coup d'etat.")
Just as disturbing has been Moscow's increasingly aggressive infringements on the cultural autonomy of non-Russians. Whereas Yeltsin always used the word rossiyanin, or "citizen of Russia," to describe his nationality and that of his compatriots (as opposed to russkiy, which describe ethnic Russianness), the present administration is gradually reverting to a Soviet-style representation of the country as emphatically and dominantly the state of ethnic Russians. The Kremlin's party, United Russia, recently sponsored the "Russian Project" television series, which emphasized "Russian civilization" as the state's foundation. In 2002, a law prohibited the use of any alphabet other than Cyrillic anywhere in the country, nullifying Tatarstan's transition to a Latinized script for Tatarlanguage texts.
Moscow is playing with a particularly hot fire in gradually elevating Russian Orthodoxy to the status of state religion, which the constitution of 1993 (the "Yeltsin" one) explicitly prohibits. The Russian Orthodox Church already has been granted a spiritual monopoly in the armed forces, and classes in Orthodox Christianity have been made mandatory in many regions of the country. This past August, Russia's Council of Muftis issued a statement opposing the introduction of such a course in all state schools. Hahn is right to worry that the failure of Tatarstan's "moderately nationalist nomenklatura" to protect the enclave's political and, increasingly, cultural sovereignty from the encroachments by Moscow may discredit secular nationalism and precipitate the evolution of this loyal and prosperous region toward the North Caucasus's Islam-based sovereignty.
In the meantime, a more proximate danger derives not from a carefully nurtured network of "combat jamaats" all over Russia, but from the near-chaos in the North Caucasus. Should the region irretrievably slide into Somalia-like armed anarchy (especially if accompanied by a series of "high-profile" terrorist acts inside Russia), popular revulsion and fear may force the government to abandon the region entirely, leaving it to the assortment of various Islamic warlords and "emirs" to fight over, precipitating ethnic massacres and cleansings, and in the end almost certainly resulting in the emergence of a haven for fundamentalist militants and, perhaps, Al Qaeda.
One cannot read these very different and very useful books side by side without becoming vividly aware of the stubborn circularity in the Russian Muslims' saga, its palimpsest-like texture. "Ichkeria" returned to become the official name of the newly founded Chechen Islamic state a century and a half after Lermontov recorded it in Valerik for the first time in Russian literature. Another Shamil emerged to lead the jihad against Russia almost another century and a half after his namesake was captured by the kafirs (Arabic for infidels)--as the Russians are again referred to among the Muslim fighters in the North Caucasus. In a meeting with the mayors of Dagestan's towns at the end of August, at which the republic's president declared "combating political and religious extremism" as their "most important priority," he singled out as "particularly vulnerable" the Untsukul District, where a few days earlier gunmen had fired on a police convoy, killing two people and injuring seven. It was in a village in the Untsukul District that Imam Shamil was born, two hundred and ten years ago.
Leon Aron is resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of Russia's Revolution: Essays 1989-2006.
By Leon Aron