What is so convenient about Islamic terrorism, and about our ‘global war’ against it, is that it leaves much room for creative speculation and conspiracy theories. Governments in the West as well as in Russia and Central Asia are not eager to release reliable information, and often they build up a ‘global’ threat where they are in fact fighting regional separatism pursuing specific economic agendas. Islamic groups, on the other hand, feed the internet with claims that are equally unverifiable; their stated goals, put forward in a language of Islamic symbols, also raise the questions whether their authors pursue a rational policy or are just fanatics. The analyst is left with the task to compile the media releases from both sides, to try to make sense of their contradictions, and to come up with a coherent explanation in a field where ambiguity is rampant.
Gordon M. Hahn does just that. In his Russia’ s Islamic Threat, he argues that the Chechen resistance movement has completely changed from a nationalist agenda to an Islamic one, and that it has come under the sway of ‘global revolutionary jihad’ and al-Qaida. Based on Chechen websites as well as Russian official statements and journalism, Hahn contends that the Chechen Islamists are successfully expanding their terrorist networks to other North Caucasian republics of the Russian Federation, especially to Kabardo-Balkaria and Dagestan. Up to 2005 (when the book manuscript was obviously finished), terrorist activities in these areas were clearly on the rise and occurring almost on a daily basis. According to Chechen Islamist websites (like KavkazCenter.com), the terrorists in various republics were coordinated by the Chechen underground/exile ‘government’ under Abdulhalim Sadulaev and Shamil Basaev. This picture is generously supported by Russian officials who tend to blame the Chechen ‘Wahhabis’ for all turmoil in the region.
Allegations of ‘Wahhabism’, however, obscure more than they explain. At least in Dagestan, which I know from my own fieldwork, the prevalent type of Islamic thinking is not an import from Chechnya or Saudi Arabia but home-grown, and based in the local mountaineer tradition of independent village communities that goes back to pre-Tsarist times. Hahn acknowledges that separatism is, in general, not very widespread in multi-ethnic Dagestan, and that Dagestanis strongly resisted Basaev’s incursion into north-eastern Dagestan in August 1999. However, he fails to notice that almost the whole Islamic establishment in Dagestan, including the official Muftiyyat and most of the Islamic schools in the country are dominated by shaykhs of the Dagestani branch of the Naqshbandiyya mystical path, which is the natural ‘traditionalist’ enemy of ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘Wahhabism’. Islamic terror in the North Caucasus is therefore as much a civil war between Muslims of various trends as it is directed against Russian hegemony.
Hahn goes on to explain that the Chechen terrorist networks have already reached other regions of the Russian Federation with Muslim populations, like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in the Volga-Kama region and the Southern Urals. This, he believes, might in the medium or long run lead to a widespread jihad, and might even bring about the break-up of Russia (p. 226); or it might lead to a situation where Russia turns into a full-fledged populist dictatorship. A frightening scenario indeed. In how far is it justified?
In previous contributions (2003), Hahn analysed what he calls President Putin’s ‘anti-federal counter-revolution’. In fact, Putin has been eliminating the regional autonomies that Russia’s republics, above all Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, had won during the Yeltsin period. Particularly, he forced the republics to change their first constitutions of the early 1990s in order to conform with the RF constitution (for example by eliminating the claim to the republics’ ‘sovereignty’). More importantly, the republics' presidents are today no longer elected by the regional parliaments but just appointed by Putin. Moderate nationalism, as pursued by Tatarstan’s president Shaimiev, failed to resist these encroachments on national sovereignty. Is this, however, enough to turn the disappointed ‘Muslims’ of these regions into Islamists? First, one tends to forget that only about half of the population of republics like Tatarstan is of Muslim origin and among them observant ‘believers’ are not in the majority. For the time being, any evidence of an Islamic upsurge is extremely meagre. In Tatarstan, the only political group using a clearly Islamic rhetoric that Hahn identified so far is Fauzia Bairamova’s Ittifaq. Ittifaq, however, is rather marginalised in the political spectrum, and it has never been brought into connection with militant Islamism of the Chechen type. To be sure, individual Tatars have been arrested for attempts at acts of terrorism, but the circumstances, and the evidence released to the public, have never been clear enough to speak of Tatar radical Islamism. Hahn is cautious enough to estimate the number of ‘radical Islamists’ in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan as not higher than ‘thirty to one hundred’. From this perspective, it is rather far-fetched to assume an Islamic threat for the Russian state emerging from Tatarstan.
As this example shows, Hahn’s projection is not devoid of essentialisms and simplifications: Muslims are per se expected to fall back into their religious identity if the thin surface of modernisation and secularisation cracks. Accordingly, Hahn mentions the rising number of mixed marriages and of ethnic Russian converts to Islam merely as a security problem: Muslims ‘who do not exactly fit the typical ‘Muslim’ physical profile will, once they become al-Qaida members, find it easy to ‘infiltrate the West’ (225). From this perspective, not only every believer, but even every ‘nominal’ Muslim is a potential terrorist. That Islam might be attractive to many people just as a cultural and religious system does not occur to the political analyst.
From his generalising perspective, Hahn does not pay particular attention to the different historical identities of Islam in the various republics. Even where he briefly discusses Islamic resistance movements of the nineteenth century, he takes most of his information from Russian internet sources, not from the existing research literature. This leads to a huge number of factual mistakes, which are of special relevance for his discussion of the relationship between ethnic and religious identities. To give some examples from his discussion of the North Caucasus: Hahn maintains that the famous late-eighteenth-century jihad leader Imam Mansur and the late-twentieth-century Islamic activist Nadirshakh Khachilaev were ethnic Avars (pp. 95, 105). However, the former was in fact a Chechen and the latter an ethnic Lak. Similarly, the Islamic Muftiyyat in Dagestan is described as alienating the ethnic Avars of the country because it is in alliance with Dargin leaders of the Dagestani government (111), while in fact the Islamic elite of Dagestan comprises a huge amount of Avars. To assume, like Hahn does, that the Hanafi school of Islamic law is more ‘moderate’ or ‘liberal’ than the Shafi‘i school, and that therefore Shafi‘i Chechens and Avars are more inclined towards ‘fundamentalism’ than Hanafi Noghais (p. 24), is sheer nonsense. Rather, each school tradition allows stricter as well as less strict interpretations of the law, and ‘fundamentalism’ tends to be opposed to all school traditions.
Hahn’s lack of familiarity with Islamic law is reflected in the fact that throughout his book, Islamic (originally Arabic) terms are rendered in transliterations from the Russian language. Thus madhhab (Turkic mazhab), the common Islamic term for a school of Islamic law, is spelled in the Russianised form ‘maskhab’, and ijtihad, the concept of Qur’an interpretation by qualified scholars, is rendered as unintelligibly as ‘idzhtikhad’. This strange usage reveals that Hahn did not consult any Western scholarship on Islamic law in Russia (except for, ironically, one article of Kemper, which he used however not in the German and French originals but only in its secondary Russian translation, p. 176). Familiarity with Islamic law and Islamic history is, however, crucial for understanding the current Islamic discourse in the North Caucasus.
In consequence, Hahn's documentation of Islamist websites is impressive, but his analysis does not go beyond the listing of names. For instance, the reader is completely left in the dark about the stated goals of the Chechen Islamists: What does it mean if a radical group claims to fight for the establishment of an ‘Islamic Caliphate’ in the North Caucasus, or to turn huge areas of South Russia, inhabited by ‘nominal’ Christians, into an Islamic state? Hahn presupposes that such a caliphate is an attractive political vision for a radicalised Muslim youth, but he fails to mention that this vision is hardly elaborated at all by the militants, and that throughout the Muslim world the idea of a caliphate is highly outdated. It appears that the most inflated goal may in fact be the poorest argument, and that a separatist movement deprived of its national base may be doomed to failure. To do justice to the author it should be mentioned that at one point Hahn reasons that the Chechens’ alleged export of terrorism beyond the North Caucasus, e.g. to Moscow or Tatarstan, may in fact be a token not for its successful expansion but for the failure of radical Islam at home (220). This frank statement, of course, challenges Hahn’s general hypothesis of a growing Islamist threat to Russia (and the two Chechen leaders whom Hahn assigns crucial roles, Sadulaev and Basaev, were both killed in summer 2006, obviously before the book went to the press). It appears that the sensational title of the book would have benefited at least from a question mark.
Hahn’s book ends with a list of wise recommendations to US and Russian policy-makers. In particular, the author draws attention to the great danger that poorly secured nuclear weapons and materials in Russia might fall into the hands of terrorists, which would elevate Chechen or international terrorism to a new stage. Furthermore, the West should urge Russians and Chechens to negotiate a settlement of their conflict, and an international effort should be made to develop the North Caucasian economy. As the spiral of violence is fed by the rampant and unchecked violence of the various Russian (and Kadyrov’s, one should add) military and security forces in the area, Russian officials should be strongly urged to protect Muslims’ political, civil, and human rights, for violations of these rights and massive war crimes against the local population clearly support the growth of radicalism. Together with Hahn’s analysis of the negative effects of Putin’s current decentralisation policy, this book, if closely read, ends as a critique of ‘Russia’s Threat to Muslims’ rather than of ‘Russia’s Islamic Threat’.