Since Muslim separatists captured Chechnya's capital five months ago, they have banned alcohol, established Islamic courts, cracked down on prostitution and begun religious instruction in their schools.
As Monday's presidential election nears, candidates take pains to stress their Islamic credentials during speeches in mountain villages and in posters plastered all over the war-ravaged capital.
"Islam, independence, order," read the banners of Aslan Maskhadov, one of the front-runners. Chechnya has been a predominantly Muslim territory for centuries, but Soviet rule placed strict limits on all religions, and Moscow was particularly wary of the Islamic people to the south, both in the Caucasus Mountains and farther east in Central Asia. Now that the Russians are gone, Chechens are looking to Islam for direction - in life and in politics. And when politicians tout Muslim values, the message is pro-independence for Chechnya, and anti-Russia. "Islam is playing a larger and larger role in Chechnya, and people are happy with this," Mullah Shahid Yunus declared after delivering the midday sermon Friday at a packed mosque on a hillside overlooking Grozny. Islamic practice in Chechnya has traditionally been mainstream and moderate, and it appears unlikely that the independence sought by the Chechens would result in a fundamentalist state. At present, religious figures do not hold any senior political or military positions in Chechnya, and the presidential and parliamentary elections are expected to be dominated by men who made their names in the guerrilla war with Russia. "If Russia and other countries want stability in the Caucasus, they must understand that it's only possible through Islamic order," said Chechen Vice Premier Movladi Udugov, a presidential candidate. "We now have thousands of people with weapons, and only Islam will be able to keep this problem under control." Unlike the rest of Russia, Chechnya has for some time kept to the Muslim practice of setting aside Fridays for rest and religious services, while Saturdays and Sundays are working days. …