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The recent war in and around Afghanistan, which aimed to drive the radical Islamic Taliban out of power and pave the way for a new political order, has also shed new light on the armed conflict in Chechnya.

In connection with the fighting for Mazar-i Sharif and Kunduz in the north of the country in the Hindu Kush, it became clear to the general public for the first time that in addition to the local Taliban or those from Pakistan, many thousands of fighters from Islamist “brigades” in Afghanistan were the battalions of the Afghan “warriors of God” “Reinforced by Mullah Muhammad Omar and Osama bin Laden. In addition to members of Arab countries, there were also quite a few Chechens. It was heard that they stood out for their particular severity and cruelty.

Did you defend your homeland against the Russians in the Hindu Kush? Or was it not simply a matter of participating in the building of the Taliban state and then in the expansion of its radical Islamist ideology into Central Asia within the framework of the “Islamic solidarity” demanded by the Islamists - with the long-term goal of Russia? In addition to the fight against the organization al-Qaida, which was closely intertwined with Mullah Omar and the Taliban regime, the background to the war in Afghanistan also included the elimination of new threat potentials that were emerging for the Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan's northern border: in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan. In these states, the goings-on of the Taliban, but also the fighting in the Caucasus, had been watched with great concern for some time. This worry is not made obsolete because these regimes are anything but flawless democracies, but post-communist autocracies.

The region of Central Asia is separated from the Caucasus by the Caspian Sea, but what may have been a geographical obstacle to the spread of militant movements and their propaganda in earlier times is no longer today, in the age of information and mobility. The threat to the Central Asian countries, all of which are members of the CIS, was something that - regardless of the events in Chechnya - could not leave Russian President Vladimir Putin unimpressed. This sucks the most political honey out of the Afghanistan crisis; in the fight against terrorism in his own country - that is, against the Chechens - he was finally given “carte blanche”, if not expressly, then at least unspoken. Today, the religion of Islam is largely discredited among his Russian compatriots, and the Chechens have made a considerable contribution to this. The 9/11 attacks in the United States, as elsewhere, heightened these aversions.

To anticipate one thing: like all peoples, the Chechens have the right to political and cultural self-determination. They have "belonged" to Russia for almost 200 years now, first to the Russian Empire of the Tsars, then to the Soviet Union, now to the Russian Federation, without ever having been asked if they even wanted to. Stalin had them temporarily deported from their settlement areas to Central Asia in 1944, together with the Ingush, who were related to their tribe, under blanket pretexts. It is not only from their point of view that they have been resisting unloved occupiers and foreign rule since the fall of the Soviet Union. The new Russia, too, has been guilty of numerous crimes in Chechnya since 1991, not just in the first war, which lasted from 1991 to 1996, but also in the second, which began in 1999 and continues.

But the Chechen process of religious and cultural self-reflection, which was supposed to be a connection to Islamic traditions, fell more and more into the hands of fanatics. The building of an Islamic society in Chechnya was, to say the least, a disaster. The ten-year history of the "Republic of Ichkeria" - the local name of Chechnya - has been a single military, human and political catastrophe. And by no means all Chechens, who in principle welcome their people's aspirations for freedom, agree with the terrorist manner in which the war was waged on their side, with the radical Islamic, Islamic zeal of the most important "field commanders" like Shamil Basayev or Salman Raduyev, not to speak at all.

This increasingly terrorist character of the Chechen struggle made it easy for the Russians to label all Chechens as “terrorists” and “bandits”. Even in Soviet times, the Caucasians did not have a good reputation in Moscow or Leningrad (today St. Petersburg), as they and the Azerbaijanis were associated with terms such as “drug mafia” or “Caucasian mafia”. This has increased in the last decade. Very soon the Chechen mafia was whispered in the newly reunified Berlin - and not without good reason.

The Chechen disaster began in the winter of 1991. Admittedly, nobody could have suspected that at the time. The Soviet Union disintegrated, and its peoples, which had been harmonized and oppressed up until then, seized the opportunity that had emerged since Gorbachev's perestroika and was now becoming a reality. On October 27, the Chechens also elect a president in general parliamentary elections: Jokhar Dudayev, a former Soviet Army aviation general; he receives 85 percent of the vote. On November 2, Dudayev, who will subsequently be repeatedly accused of mafia activities, unilaterally declares Chechnya independence. This also encourages all those forces who want to give Islamic Chechnya an Islamic order.

"Back to the Scheriat" (Sharia) is the motto. In the auls, the Chechen villages, the men are dancing the zikr again, the rite that ties in with the ancient Caucasian dervish order of the murids, a fighting alliance of a mystical nature. Independent Chechnya is to emerge from its traditions and the Islamic order. However, the longer the process of cutting the cord from Moscow, in connection with the war, continues.

But in contrast to neighboring Dagestan, which produced recognized Islamic scribes a thousand years ago, Islam in Chechnya is a relatively new phenomenon. He is illiterate with no significant traditions of theology or Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). The last villages of the Chechens and the Ingush were only converted to Islam in the 19th century. It was also an Islam that was heavily influenced by the brotherhood of the Murids. In it ideas of popular mysticism mixed with elements of religious law (Sharia) and Caucasian customary law of the tribes (adet).

The Murids achieved their greatest influence between 1829 and 1859 under their third imam, the famous Shamil, a prince of the Avar people, whose name is now on everyone's lips in the Caucasus. Shamil led the resistance of the Chechens and other Caucasians of the north against the advancing Russian troops for 30 years until he finally had to surrender with his fighters, all of whom belonged to the Murid order. The Russians captured him and then exiled him. There he died in the holy city of Medina in 1871. Chechnya became tsarist, eventually communist.

Under Shamil, whose word had been law, there was a kind of crypto state in the North Caucasus for about a generation, in which an Islamic order was established that was entirely subject to his personal authority as the leader of the Murids and was only partially based on religious law. Before this state could develop structurally, it collapsed again under Russian pressure. The battle between the Russians and Chechens a century and a half ago was incredibly bloody, but an element of chivalry that moved both sides was always evident.

Not so in the last two of the Caucasian wars. Both Chechnya wars are characterized by a rare level of brutality. The Russians, who marched in on December 11, 1994 after years of skirmishes with great armed forces in order to finally put an end to separatism, criminally underestimated the military strength of the Chechens and were hardly prepared for their tactics. They were also not prepared for the fact that among the fighters of the Caucasians they would also meet people from all over the world in the Islamic hemisphere: from Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, and increasingly from Afghanistan.

Around their foreheads they wore the green ribbon of the mujahideen (traditionally green is the “color of the prophet”) adorned with the creed, those “martyrdom” ready to be seen on the streets and squares of Tehran several years before , yes also in the Iran-Iraq war. Few of them were alarmed; Especially the professional observers of the scene, the journalists, evidently overlooked the dangers emanating from these zealots and their network: Their motivation was the "uncompromising jihad" with all means, including terrorist means. The Jordanian field commander Chattab, a protégé of Osama bin Laden, was the best known of these “warriors of God” of pan-Islamic, Islamist coloring. He was soon as notorious as the Chechen commanders Basayev and Raduyev.

The Russian sources always spoke and still speak of "Wahabites" when they mean those terrorist pan-Islamic elements in the Caucasus - a term that was and is, of course, ambiguous. The Russians often enough mean all Muslims in their country who stand up for their religion; so the term is also used pejoratively. Wahabism is actually at home in Saudi Arabia, where it provides the prevailing doctrine. But with the help of the Saudi money, which also flowed to the Chechens, the influence of this strict Islamic interpretation was felt in Chechnya in a way that was previously unknown there.

When it came to shaping the Sharia, which was theoretically introduced in 1993, the influence of Saudi Arabia through the fighters of the internationalist “Islamic Brigade” and through the financial resources could no longer be contained. And religious knowledge in the country was little, especially after decades of foreign rule in which manifestations of religion had been suppressed. According to a famous word by Ernest Gellner, Islam is the blueprint for a social order. Sharia is their form. Large parts of this religious “law”, for example all those that only concern the creed and the rite, are unproblematic. On the other hand, all parts which - in addition to the Islamic criminal justice system based on the principle of retribution - run counter to the conceptions of modern freedoms, such as the principle of religious pluralism, freedom of belief and thought, and equal rights for men, prove to be difficult and completely incompatible with modern legal concepts and woman.

The blood revenge (kanly), which is widespread in the Caucasus, could be curbed a little by Islamic law, since the state carried out “revenge” for a murder requiring retribution, but this does not change the fact that the severe corporal punishments Sharia law and the principle of retaliation in the criminal justice system are to be seen as relapses into premodern times. This is true even in the event that they are not enforced.

However, death sentences were carried out on women who had been accused of "adultery" - judgments of a terrorist judiciary with often more than questionable "methods of evidence" and legal "proceedings", as they are mostly at the same time from those countries with an Islamic form of government, such as Iran and Sudan or Saudi Arabia, including Pakistan, could and could observe. Even this hustle and bustle gave only a few in the West to think about, it had even become fashionable here and there to denounce critics of such developments as "enemies of Islam" or manufacturers of an "enemy image of Islam". Reports that “traitors” or “apostates” are beheaded under pressure from Chechen mujahideen have been labeled as Russian atrocity propaganda. In Soviet times the Chechens may have been religiously and culturally oppressed, but women had given up much of their traditional obedience and obedience to the old veiled customs.

If communism had achieved anything positive among the Caucasians despite their alienation from their own roots, then it was clearly visible signs of the emancipation of women against the old patriarchal practices sanctioned by Sharia law, among other things. It all came back now. Again, although not as a general rule, there was the bashmet, the traditional face veil, and - what most clearly showed the influence of radical Islamic zealots - the attempt to enforce a veiling of the entire body of women, as in Iran among the mullahs (as chador or Hejab) and in Afghanistan under the Taliban (as a burqa) under threat of punishment.

But does this entitle us to speak of a “Talibanization” of Chechnya? The American reporter Peter Arnett, best known for his exclusive reports from the Raschid Hotel in Baghdad during the Gulf War, learned in 1998 in a conversation with the “arch-terrorist” Osama bin Laden from Saudi Arabia that the mujahideen was not the only one several countries, but specifically fighters from the terrorist organization al-Qaida, intervened alongside the Chechens in the war, a message that did not cause a great stir in the Western public at the time, not even in the American one.

Both regimes also recognized each other diplomatically, although the Taliban in particular had a hard time trying to get recognition from their fellow believers. Only Pakistan, which the Taliban created, Saudi Arabia, which funded them, and the United Arab Emirates exchanged messages with them.

In Chechnya itself, the first war ended in 1996 with the agreement between the moderate Aslan Maskhadov and Alexander Lebed. It regulated the withdrawal of Russian troops and granted Chechnya de facto autonomy if it remained in the Russian Federation. The final status under international law, however, remained unclear.

There is some evidence that the outbreak of the second Chechnya war was influenced by the Taliban and the al-Qaida fighters in the Caucasus. While Chechen commandos did not shrink back from terrorist attacks such as hostage-taking in the first war, this tactic intensified radically in the period that followed. In particular, the penetration of Chechen (and other) fighters into Dagestan on August 10, 1999, which can be seen as the trigger for the second war, bears the signature of Islamic internationalism in the style of al-Qaeda. Such armed advances by small guerrilla groups with the aim of unsettling the attacked area or the country in question and bringing it into trouble are part of the tactics of Islamist gangs in Central Asia, such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Their relation to the Taliban was clear.

It is also noticeable to what extent the dispute with explosives was carried out at the end of the 1990s, especially at a time when al-Qaida was demonstrably carrying out serious attacks in other parts of the world. In the summer of 1998, the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were blown up on August 31st

In 1999, after a bomb exploded in central Moscow, a series of attacks began in various Russian cities, killing almost 300 people. The Russian authorities accuse Chechen terrorists of planting the bombs.

To this day there is still a lack of clarity about the background to this horrific wave of terrorism. Sometimes they were also attributed to Russian agents provocateurs. That is not excluded. Meanwhile, the timing and our deepening knowledge of al-Qaeda make it more and more likely that Chechen “hardliners”, for whom the status of their republic achieved after the first war, was inadequate, carried out the attacks in order to induce counter-reactions from the Russians.

These came. On September 23, 1999, the Russians began a series of bombing raids on targets in Chechnya, and a week later Russian ground troops marched in and encountered fierce resistance from Chechen warriors. Today the capital Groznyj is a single field of rubble, 30,000 people have lost their lives and the war continues.

The Chechen disaster produced a fake winner and many losers. The Russians have, on the surface, won militarily, but they can never bring the Chechens to their knees in the southern mountains. The country's cities have been destroyed, and many of its people are on the run.The economy is in ruins, the oil fields in the north, in the Terek region, have been made unusable by the Chechens themselves. A functioning Islamic society was not built, but failed not least because of the fanaticism and terrorism of the “hardliners”. Young Chechens who support the resistance against the Russians lament the despotism of Islamist zealots, which is not inferior to the oppression by the Russians.

Conversely, Russia cannot be very happy about its so-called victory in Groznyj. The threat of terrorism has not been averted, the war has not really ended. President Putin sees the American-led international fight against Islamist terrorists as a kind of carte blanche that entitles him to use all means against the Caucasians.

So not only on the side of Islamist zealots, but also with the Russians, human rights fall by the wayside. If Russia wants to live in peace with its millions of Muslims in the long term, Russia must find a way to guarantee the political and cultural pluralism of its minorities. It's not easy, and to this day nobody knows the way.

The Russian Muslims, including the Chechens, only have a future if they embark on a modernization and democratization that is still ahead of the overpowering Russia. However, Russia must also let them be part of it. So today - despite the end of the Taliban - an end to the Chechen disaster is not yet in sight.

Wolfgang Günter Lerch

The text is an excerpt from the book by Alice Schwarzer (Ed.): "The Divine Warriors and False Tolerance" (KiWi, 2002, out of print - in the FrauenMediaTurm)

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