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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen Islam Benign

In Khasavyurt, a town now famous for the peace agreement signed there in August by Alexander Lebed and Aslan Maskhadov, the poet and musician Imam Alimsultanov was buried. He had sung of dying for freedom, of soldierly valor, and of the correctness of the holy war against the giaour, or infidel -- jihad.

His songs were almost as popular with the descendants of giaours who fought in the Caucasus in the last century as with the rebel fighters.

Even these descendants of giaours were not foreign to the romance of war. To Alimsultanov's call, "Follow me, wolves, against the enemy!" they responded with Vladimir Vysotsky's song, "We are going wolf hunting," not at all bothered that Vysotsky's sympathies lay with the "gray beasts, adults and pups."

Alimsultanov was killed in Odessa. Meanwhile, those to whom he addressed his work, "Who prize their honor / But for whom life is not dear," and who survived the war, faced the problem of how to manage their hard-won freedom.

Drunk with victory, the soldiers of Allah, who knew and wanted nothing but battle, might have been expected, after the departure of the foreign enemy, to begin fighting one another, to break into criminal groups, and certainly not to part willingly with their armed liberty.

They looked on distrustfully at the congress of Chechen political forces in September, when "all sorts of politicians who sat out the war in a safe haven gathered to carve up power they had not earned," snatching posts in the coalition government. The influence of criminals was on the rise.

At that time people began talking about forming an Islamic state, to the horror of those in Russia who have nightmares about the threat of Islam. In September, Maskhadov, then head of the insurgents' general staff, explained this idea to me.

The pre-Islamic traditions which still dominate Chechen society -- common law, or adat -- did not provide an effective framework for stemming the criminalization of society. And modern law was rejected because it issued from Russia.

There remained only the code of Islamic law called the shariah, alien to Chechen customs but sanctified by Islam. In a dark hallway of the Grozny medical school, which in November became home to parliament, the terrorist Shamil Basayev outlined for me the details of shariah.

If a victim takes an oath on the Koran, presumption of innocence does not guarantee the rights of the accused, who must prove his case by appealing to the testimony of witnesses. If the victim is not a Moslem, his oath is legally worthless, and he, too, must rely on witnesses.

Contrast this to one of the rules of adat, which states that a double death sentence be handed down for rape, one for the perpetrator, another for his brother. The transition from paganism to one of the world's great religions undoubtedly represents progress.

During the first days after the insurgents took Grozny last August, it is well known what procedural norms were in force. They nearly executed one man for looting; the poor devil did not know what was in his suitcase because his wife had packed it. Thankfully, his neighbors intervened.

No one knows how many were shot to death or hung on the spot. Today, fighters patrol the city, the sound of gunfire in the streets have become a rarity, and those they arrest are delivered to the Department of State Security, though what rules are followed after that point is unclear.

Islam took root in the Northern Caucasus some 200 years ago. Later Imam Shamil, a religious leader and commander in the war with Russia, held a utilitarian view of his faith, as Maskhadov now does.

Another Caucasian Moslem of the past, Dzhemal-Edin, held that the main significance of Islam lay in its dogma: Legal statutes are powerless without morality.

Disputes surrounding these questions came to a boil in the last century, and they could today. Many people say that building an Islamic state is a desirable but as yet unattainable ideal. A long road of moral self-perfection lies ahead, they say.

But no one contends that in an Islamic state their spiritual leaders should be granted secular power. The common belief in Chechnya is that the government must be elected. Apart from the patrols, the armed men have quit the streets. They declare their readiness to hand over responsibility to civilian authorities.

But they will not remain peaceful if supporters of independence lose the coming presidential elections. As it happens, victory by an anti-independence candidate will be almost impossible.

The question is whether the veterans of the war for independence can agree to back a single candidate, as the Defense Council recommends. A leadership fight could undermine support for their common task, thoughMaskhadov, now prime minister, no longer believes this to be true.

Some of the field commanders have pressured Maskhadov to run. Others support the current president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, reckoning that the commanders' synod, the Defense Council, would retain its influence under his rule.

Now Shamil Basayev has thrown his hat in the ring, after parliament removed the age limit, formerly 35 years of age. The other camp can put up only one serious candidate -- Ruslan Khasbulatov.

The election now plays a key role in Chechen-Russian relations. Maskhadov, whom Yandarbiyev supporters accuse of being the Kremlin's choice, boosted his reputation when he convinced Moscow to withdraw the last of its troops from Chechnya. No one doubts that if the people's will is not distorted on Jan. 27, Maskhadov will be president. He has already donned civilian clothes.

Chechnya has always chosen military leaders only for the duration of its military campaigns.

Anatoly Shabad is a member of the Russia's Democratic Choice leadership. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.