Kremlin frets as Russia's once restive Islamist region takes up political Islam

Strongman Ramzan Kadyrov was installed by Putin to squelch Chechnya's Islamist insurrection. But Kadyrov's adoption of sharia and political Islam in the region is challenging Russia's secular constitutional order.

Said Tsarnayev/Reuters
The head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, delivered a speech during a rally in the Chechen capital of Grozny, Russia, in support of Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar (Burma) in early September.

Russia fought two bloody wars in its Caucasus republic of Chechnya, ostensibly to crush an emerging threat of Islamist extremism on its own soil.

So it is with no small irony that the strongman Moscow installed to run a pacified Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, is increasingly posing a similar challenge to Russia's secular constitutional order. Mr. Kadyrov is imposing sharia (Islamic law) on his population – and lately, even defying the Kremlin's foreign policy – with an apparent eye on a global, Islamic stage.

“Kadyrov wants to be considered a leader among world Muslims. His ambitions are very high,” says Alexei Malashenko, an Islam expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center. “He has introduced politicized Islam in Chechnya, and this is definitely a problem for the Kremlin. [President Vladimir] Putin clearly does not like it.”

Kadyrov has always been one of the most, if not the most, noteworthy of Russia's regional leaders, though often for less than positive reasons.

Sometimes his antics look simply baffling to outsiders, as when he recently ordered almost 1,000 divorced Chechen couples to reunite “for the sake of the children,” his ongoing efforts to force Chechen women to adhere to a “Muslim dress code,” or his endorsement of polygamy in Chechnya – which is strictly against Russian law.

At other times even Russian social conservatives look on with horror, as when dozens of gay Chechen men were rounded up earlier this year, beaten, tortured and an unknown number killed. The frustration of Russian security services with Kadyrov over his consistent refusal to permit Moscow-based police to operate in the republic, sometimes punctuated by death threats, is an open secret.

But the wayward Chechen leader launched an open challenge to the Kremlin – and signaled his own widening ambitions – by staging a demonstration of at least half a million people in downtown Grozny earlier this month to express solidarity with the persecuted Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar and demand the Kremlin take action to protect them.

Musa Sadulayev/AP
Local residents walk to attend a mass protest in Chechnya's provincial capital Grozny, Russia, on Sept. 4. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Russia's predominantly Muslim Chechnya to protest what the Chechen leader called 'genocide of Muslims' in Myanmar.

Russia, along with China, supports the Myanmar government, and has largely evaded addressing the plight of the Rohingya. Leaders of Russian regions do not, as a rule, question Russian foreign policies. Asked about it later, a visibly annoyed Vladimir Putin merely said that “each person is entitled to having one’s own attitude regardless of rank or position.” But subsequently, police in Moscow violently suppressed a pro-Rohingya rally by local Muslims in front of the Myanmar embassy, arresting 17 people – all reportedly Chechens.

'A very special place inside Russia'

Kadyrov has been actively reshaping the local strain of Islam – Chechens are traditionally Sufi Muslims – and turning it into a political tool to enhance his own power and posture as an Islamic champion on the world stage.

“Kadyrov has de facto imposed sharia law on Chechen society. It's now an Islamicized region of Russia, the only one,” says Rais Suleymanov, an Islamic expert at the security services-linked Institute of National Strategy in Kazan. “Women must wear hijabs, men wear beards, including officials. Religion has become part of the political system of Chechnya. Imams have the status of peoples' deputies, indeed they are effectively civil servants. Nothing like this happens anywhere else in Russia.”

Another majority Muslim region of Russia that once tried to declare independence from Moscow, the Volga republic of Tatarstan, has managed to expunge Wahhabi influences while obeying Russian law and maintaining the open, multi-ethnic character of its society.  Tatarstan has since become a relative economic powerhouse, and is approvingly cited by officials in Moscow as a showplace for the kind of secular and tolerant Russia they want to build.

Yet Kadyrov's political challenge could make waves even in Tatarstan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (l.) meets with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov at the Kremlin in Moscow on Dec. 10, 2015.

“The head of Tatar Muslims, Mufti Kamil Samigullin, supported Ramzan Kadyrov's position on what's happening in Myanmar,” says Andrei Bolshakov, an expert on conflict studies at Kazan University. “There have been words of support from many religious leaders here. Islam is a united religion and a Muslim, wherever he lives in Russia, is a Muslim.”

The conundrum for the Kremlin is that Kadyrov has pacified Chechnya and sidelined the internationally backed Islamist extremist forces that in past years carried out dozens of terrorist attacks in major Russian cities. And Kadyrov seldom misses an opportunity to express his total loyalty to Putin personally.

“Putin considers Kadyrov to be a pillar of Russian control in the Caucasus,” says Mr. Malashenko. “Kadyrov has made so many enemies in Chechnya that, without Putin's backing, he probably would not last. So, they need each other.”

But the strains are growing, he says.

“Chechnya has become a very special place inside Russia. Kadyrov uses Islam as a tool of social and political management. And he does seem to have the enthusiastic support of young Chechen men, who totally embrace this Islamization.

“But most of society probably does not care for it. There are many indications that women, in particular, are becoming weary of the burdens it places on them, the headscarves, forced subordination to husband, and so on. Most Chechens grew up in secular conditions, they are aware that life goes on more normally in the rest of Russia, and they want something different.”

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