The Warlord Imam

By Nemtsova, Anna; Matthews, Owen | Newsweek, October 18, 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Warlord Imam


Nemtsova, Anna, Matthews, Owen, Newsweek


Byline: Anna Nemtsova and Owen Matthews

The Kremlin's poster boy for moderate Islam may be radicalizing the region.

The video shows a gun barrel jutting from the rear window of a shiny black Lada sedan as it cruises slowly down Putin Prospect, a new boulevard of designer shops in the Chechen capital, Grozny. Spotting a pair of young women in long skirts but without head-scarves, the vehicle's occupants open fire. The two pedestrians scream, but they don't fall. A blot of red paintball ink is spreading across one young woman's blouse. As the vehicle pulls away, the camera shows the two women dashing for safety into the nearest shop.

Chechnya's enforcers of supposed Islamic propriety have struck again. In the name of combating terrorism, President Ramzan Kadyrov has declared war on what he regards as public indecency. "My dream is for all our women to wear scarves, in accordance with Islamic law," he told NEWSWEEK recently. To assist in that fight and correct supposedly un-Islamic conduct, he established his own Taliban-style morality police, the Center for Spiritual and Moral Development and Education, last year. For backup, Chechen militias prowl the streets in black cars and black uniforms, on the alert not only for uncovered hair but for short-sleeve T shirts, short skirts, and public displays of affection. Although many Chechen women have accused them of paintball attacks in the past few months, Kadyrov brushes off the charges, blaming "somebody who wants to blacken my politics."

Kadyrov, 34, has become the standard--bearer for the Kremlin's efforts to pacify the rebellious North Caucasus once and for all. His bare-knuckle style has brought at least some degree of law and order to Chechnya, and that crude success is why the Kremlin trusts him. The region has resisted Moscow's control for centuries, but in the past decade or so, the violence has spread and intensified as Islamist extremism has flourished elsewhere in the world. "Our Afghanistan is inside Russia," says Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center. Hundreds of civilians died after Chechen rebels seized a Moscow theater in 2002 and a school in Beslan in 2004. This year, suicide bombers killed more than 40 people in the Moscow subway and more than 150 in a series of attacks in the North Caucasus. The brutal tactics of the Russian military and its local proxies have only boosted support for the rebels.

Now the country's leaders are trying a new approach. The idea is to cultivate a different, more docile strain of Islam among Russia's estimated 20 million professed Muslims. To that end, the Kremlin is spending $300 million to open seven new Islamic universities in Russia and sponsoring hundreds of students to pursue advanced degrees in approved universities in Syria and Saudi Arabia. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has moved to boost the authority of accredited imams, affirming that they have "a special place" in Caucasian society and calling on them to help the Kremlin "confront terror through spirituality and high ethical standards." At the same time, the military is continuing its efforts to hunt down and kill rebels and radicals in the Caucasus.

At first glance, Kadyrov might seem to be the perfect tool for the Kremlin's needs. Russian leader Vladimir Putin (Kadyrov calls him "my idol") appointed him president of Chechnya in 2007, as soon as he became old enough to take the post legally. His brand of Islam is far from the Saudi-derived Wahhabism espoused by many of the Chechen rebels--and by Osama bin Laden. Instead it's an eclectic blend of Sufism (a traditionally pacifist, mystical branch of the Sunni sect) and ancient Chechen traditions like the zikr, an all-male hybrid of circle dance and prayer. His father, Ahmed Kadyrov, had been Chechnya's chief mufti (spiritual leader) when the tiny mountain republic tried to break Russia's grip in the 1990s, but he eventually reconciled with Moscow--and was assassinated in 2004.

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