Reviews

The thirteen “chapters” of this volume deal mainly with the republics of the North Caucasus. The individual contributions vary widely in scope and in their approaches, and unfortunately there are no cross-references between the chapters. In general, however, the volume provides good insight into the political processes since the 1990s, and especially into the growing Islamicisation of initially secular ethnic movements and the states’ failure to react adequately.

In chapter one (pp. 1-18) — announced by the Editor as providing a model necessary for properly understanding any conflict in the region — Maxim Barbashin discusses the importance of informal power structures, and observes that in Russia and the Northern Caucasus, personal networks have more weight than formal structures and even governments. M. Barbashin argues that most interethnic conflict results from the struggle of individual élite leaders for positions in government and economy; the mobilisation of the rest of the ethnic community, from this viewpoint, is mainly a product of ideological manipulation. Regrettably, the author rarely bolsters his argument with elaborated references to actual case studies. Also, the other chapters of this volume do not use M. Barbashin’s élite network approach but have structural entities as their objects (ethnic groups, the young generation, political movements, and religious communities).

Irina Babich (chapter 2, 19-27) gives an overview of the relation between Islam and legal systems in the North Western Caucasus from the nineteenth century to the present. The article suffers from its brevity; thus one would like to know where, when and by whom customary law was “codified and made an integral element of [Tsarist] Russian state law” (p. 20). Similarly, it appears doubtful that in the first years of the Soviet Union, the newly introduced so-called shari‘a Courts “considered all cases, criminal as well as civil, according to the legal norms of the shari‘at” (p. 21); judging from what we know about early Soviet Dagestan, I would argue that these shari‘a courts, in spite of their Islamic designation, applied mainly customary law with some Islamic elements and increasing interferences of Soviet state law. Babich’ discussion of recent processes, based on her extensive fieldwork, raises questions of interpretation. According to her, “the majority of [Muslim] believers [in the North Western Caucasus] have no understanding of fundamental dogmas, principles and perceptions of the Islamic faith,” and Islamic education has been replaced by “so-called ‘popular’ forms of Islam” (p. 24). This lack of proper Islamic knowledge the author detects not only among the “traditional” (“funeral”) Muslims of the older generation, but also among the young generation that is influenced by Turkish and Arab Islamic education; “out of ignorance” or “impatience” they take over elements from Islamic legal schools (madhhabs) to which they do not belong (p. 25). This interpretation, which can also be found in some other contributions to the present volume, seems to indicate that in order to be a proper Muslim one has to have a sound knowledge of orthodox dogma and law, and act accordingly. Those “popular forms” of Islam (that, we may assume, are at the core of Islamic identity among huge parts of the population) appear, from this point of view, to be not worthy of description.

Other contributions to this volume are valuable case studies, and less ambitious in scope. Chen Bram (ch. 3, 28-49) analyses the influence of the Adyghe (Circassian) Diaspora on the development of the Adyghe national movement. His observations at the occasion of several congresses of the International Circassian Association reveal that it was Circassians from Turkey and the Middle East who introduced Islamic elements to the initially secular Circassian national movement; and several “returnees” started to offer Islamic education in Adyghea. Julietta Meskhidze (ch. 5, 68-85) discusses the relations between the (Turkic) Balkars and the (Circassian) Kabartays in their common republic of Kabardo-Balkaria. The Balkars had been deported under Stalin, and since their repatriation they have been striving for full legal, political and economic rehabilitation. As J. Meskhidze shows, in 1991 both Balkars and Kabartays seemed to support national delimitation, and in November 1996 a Congress of the Balkar People even declared the establishment of an independent Balkar republic. This attempt was, however, suppressed by the Kabartay republican leadership, which has since then attempted to appease the Balkar national movement by the promise of economic development of the Balkar mountain regions. Walter Richmond takes the discussion on Kabardo-Balkaria further by analysing the recent rise of Islamic militancy in this republic (ch. 6, 86-101). First major shoot-outs occurred in 2003, and in October 2005 several hundred militants seized a number of official buildings in Nalchik and attacked the airport. While this attack is often seen as an action to procure weapons for Chechen Islamists, W. Richmond emphasises that most of the militants were ethnic Kabartays. As the author points out, the rise of militancy among the Kabartays results from the Russian and republican strategy to declare any Islamic movement not specifically indigenous to the region as “Wahhabis” — a vague term which leaves the law enforcement agencies with ample room for random repression of imams and opposition groups, and which leads to the alienation especially of the young generation. Even Turkish groups, like the Nurcus and the Gülen schools, are denounced as “Islamists” and “Pan-Turkists”, which in fact reminds us of the confused late Tsarist Islamophobia.

Several contributions deal with Chechnya. Viktor Shnirelman (ch. 8, 139-47) introduces us to the little-known Orstkhoy (Karabulak) ethnic group of the Sunzha district, a “divided people” whose territory has been claimed by both Chechnya and Ingushetia. The post-Soviet Orstkhoy identity revival oscillated between assimilation into, respectively, the Chechen and Ingush populations, the claim to be recognised as a separate ethnic group, and an advocacy for a greater Vaynakh state comprising both republics and the Orstkhoy.

On the basis of her interviews with Chechen citizens, Ekaterina Sokirianskaia discusses how Chechen historical “memories of grievance” were used and fostered by the Chechen President Dudaev for the nationalist cause (ch. 7, 102-38). The author also analyses Chechen attitudes towards Maskhadov and Basaev and the rising success of Islamic ideologies. Again, it is the young generation that, through feelings of revenge and personal insecurity, is attracted to militancy. Sokirianskaia quotes from the jihad songs of the Chechen bard Timur Mutsaraev, whose popular lyrics link Islam with the long-standing Chechen “memories of grievance,” a “glorification of the fight for freedom,” and a “romantisation of death.” And again, it becomes clear that the Russian counter-propaganda (especially the equation: nationalism = separatism = terrorism = international terrorism) turned out to be highly counterproductive. Today, the war in Chechnya has turned into a “collective blood feud” — a civil war where all lines are hopelessly blurred. Yagil Henkin (ch. 9, 148-55) discusses the First Chechen War of 1994-6, and in particular the surprisingly successful strategy of Aslan Maskhadov (then chief-of-staff of the Chechen Republic, later President) to stand up against the ill-prepared Russian invasion not by guerrilla tactics but as a well-coordinated and full-fledged army of a “real” state. The Second Chechen War is covered by Brian G. Williams (ch. 10, 156-78), who provides an assessment of the role of foreign fighters and al-Qaeda, with special emphasis on Amir Khattab — “globe-trotting neo-jihadis” and “ascetic warrior-fanatics,” as he labels them. It is obviously due to this author’s contribution on the “Kalashnikovisation” of Chechnya’s culture (p. 164) that the book’s list of abbreviations begins with “AK-47”. For the time being, it is hard to escape journalism when reading about these issues. In chapter 11, Moshe Gammer provides a brief overview of the various nationalisms and the rise of political Islam in the multi-ethnic Republic of Dagestan (179-93). When, in 1996, the Islamic community of Karamakhi (in Central Dagestan) declared itself “independent” from the Dagestani state, the authorities first tried to attain a compromise with these villages. In August 1999, however, the invasion of Dagestani villages in the border region to Chechnya by Chechen rebels under Basaev and Khattab provided the rationale not only for Putin’s new invasion of Chechnya but also for the Dagestani authorities to destroy and conquer the Karamakhi community. Like in other Caucasian republics, the official ban on vaguely defined “Wahhabism” incriminates a wide range of Islamic groups, and supports the monopolist status of the official Dagestani Spiritual Muslim Board. In the case of Dagestan, this state-loyal Islamic administration now perhaps contributes more to an Islamicisation of politics in the republic than the oppositional “Wahhabis” (p. 188).

Two articles do not discuss Islam and ethno-nationalism but deliver attitudinal and demographical statistics, and therefore somehow stand outside of the volume’s framework. These are Cemre Erciyes’ “The Republic of Adygheia: Perceptions of Rights, Freedoms and Life Chances of Ordinary People” (ch. 4, 50-67, based on a respectable field survey of 532 questionnaires) and Mark Tolts’ “Demography of North Caucasian Jewry: A Note on Population Dynamics and Shifting Identity” (ch. 13, 212-24). M. Tolts discusses the changing self-designation of Dagestani Jews in Russian censuses (as “Mountain Jew”, Tat, Dag-Chufut and others) and compares their demographical development since the 1970s with that of Jews in the urban centres of Russia, yet without going into detail about the religious, social and political situation of the remaining Jews in Dagestan.

The only contribution on the South Caucasus in this volume is Sofie Bedford’s interesting study (ch. 12, 194-211) on two mosques in Azerbaijan, the Sunni Abu Bakr Mosque (which is, again, denounced as “Wahhabi” by the government) and the Shiite Friday Mosque, both in Baku. Based on interviews with mosque leaders and attendants, S. Bedford concludes that both communities have similar audiences — mainly the younger generation as well as the well-educated who are estranged from the regime. Paradoxically, in the Baku case the “Wahhabi” mosque, whose leader calls for a retreat from the public sphere, is less of a problem for the state administration than the Shiite community, whose leader has embraced a “Western” discourse of democracy, liberalism, and civil society; he even resisted his forceful eviction from the mosque by appealing to the European Court of Justice in 2006, albeit without success. The attractive character of both Sunni isolationist pietism and the Shiite quest for civil society are explained mainly by the failure of the state-owned “traditional” Islamic establishment, which is often associated with corruption in the eyes of the population. S. Bedford’s Baku study thus confirms the findings of the North Caucasian case studies in this volume.

A sensitively different version of this review has been published in the Journal of Islamic Studies.

Michael Kemper, University of Amsterdam
CER: II-7.3.A-589