Window on Eurasia: Destruction of Chechen Mosques Opens Way for Radicals

by Paul A. Goble  |  June 13, 2005  |  ARTICLES

Approximately 300 of the 350 mosques in Chechnya have been destroyed or heavily damaged as the result of the Russian invasion of that republic. That devastation in turn has reduced the influence the traditionally tolerant mosque-based Chechen Islam and allowed radicals, including Wahhabis, to expand their influence there.

To reverse that trend, the newly elected mufti of Chechnya has announced plans to seek funding from Moscow and abroad for the reconstruction of mosques throughout Chechnya and threatened to purge any mullah there who fails actively to combat Wahhabism and other radical trends within Islam.

In an interview published in the newspaper of the Southern Federal District, “Yuzhniy Federal’nyi,” on June 15, Sultan Mirzayev talked about both his own career and the problems he and his fellow Chechens face in overcoming the damage to their traditions as a result of the war (http://religare.ru/print18741.htm).

Mirzayev, 41, was elected mufti of Chechnya at the end of May, after his predecessor Akhmad Shamayev resigned owing to ill-health. Before becoming Shamayev’s deputy, Mirzayev had served as a mullah and then as advisor on religious affairs to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. 

In 1999, he was appointed head of the Supreme Shariat Court of Chechnya on the recommendation of pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov, but throughout his service in these posts, Mirzayev has often adopted an independent line, criticizing both Maskhadov’s regime and Moscow’s actions against Chechnya.

But there has been one theme on which he has remained constant: the irreconcilable differences between traditional Chechen Islam and Wahhabism.  In Mirzayev’s view, Wahhabism is not only incompatible with Islam but represents a threat to the faith as such.

His hardline position on that point and his argument that traditional Chechen Islam promotes tolerance toward other faiths may be precisely the reasons why Mirzayev was promoted to the top Islamic position in Chechnya just now.

Mufti Mirzayev pointed out that in the mountainous regions where the violence of the war has been the greatest, “almost all mosques” have been destroyed. Indeed, the only place where many mosques have survived is precisely in those valley regions that have significant Russian-speaking populations.

And as evidence that Chechens have traditionally shown themselves tolerant toward other faiths, the new mufti pointed out that it is precisely the Chechens who are engaged in the rebuilding of the only Russian Orthodox Church in their capital city of Grozny.
 In his interview, Mirzayev said that he considers his primary tasks to be the rebuilding of mosques and the education of the young.  He expressed the hope that the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) would help him do the former, but he said that he and local mullahs and imams must take responsibility for the latter.

“We can be proud of our young people,” Mirzayev said. “But we need to help them. The misfortune of the republic is that many of them up to now remain among the militants.  Moreover, many young people use drugs.  [And] the task of the imams, including me personally, is guiding the rising generation onto the true path.”

The civil authorities in Chechnya are helping with this task, he continued. Recently, they introduced the study of the principles of Islam and its relations with other faiths into the educational program of the public schools. 

But every Muslim and especially those mullahs and imams who are the most authoritative people in their communities must do more.  Mirzayev described how he had overseen the Islamic education of his own three sons, first at home from seven to 12 and then at the mosque “when they were old enough to listen quietly.”

But the new mufti said that in his capacity as spiritual leader of the Muslims of Chechnya, he would work to ensure that mullahs and imams take up this struggle to promote the true way and oppose those like the Wahhabis who are trying to distract the young from that path.

Those religious leaders who do so, he said, will gain his respect and support.  Those who don’t, Mirzayev pointedly added, “will be forced to leave.”