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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE GREAT GAME: Wahhabites Hinder Play For All Sides

Talk of the Great Game is back in mode. Last week, U.S. Senator Richard Lugar gave a speech in Tbilisi, entitled "The New Great Game." He said that today's game is neither like the Great Game of the 19th century, where the great powers vied for influence at the expense of the regions concerned, nor was it like the communist experiment, when the Soviet Union used ideology as a pretext for invasion.

Today's new Great Game, he said, was to encourage democracy and free market influences so that the Caucasus and Central Asia grow strong and prosperous and constitute their own spheres of influence. This game, he said, everyone can play and everyone can win.

That all sounds very fine. The trouble is, not everyone is playing by the same rules, or even playing the same game. The first obvious thing is that not everyone wants democracy and free markets because it means the region slipping into the Western or American camp.

There are some characters down here who are playing to prevent these nominally Moslem regions leaning westwards. They have started cropping up all over the place and are playing the game with missionary zeal and using all sorts of tricks and even violence.

They are Wahhabites, so-called because they are largely followers of the conservative sect of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. The ones floating around the Caucasus and Central Asia seem to be an extreme bunch since they not only try to teach people to go back to the fundamentals of Islam, but are throwing in a bit of weapons training too.

They have cropped up in Azerbaijan and the authorities even expelled some of them recently. I saw one on the Dagestani-Azeri border the other day and recognized the style immediately from Afghanistan -- shaved head, prayer cap, straggly beard and baggy trousers that are too short and show off the man's socks. It sounds ridiculous, but they have a thing about wearing their trousers short.

The local police chief at the border told us that Wahhabites had cut down the two ancient trees at a nearby holy shrine. For centuries the locals have visited the place and tied ribbons to the branches of the trees when they make a petition. Purist Moslems see that as a superstition and left a note on the stumps saying as much. The Chechens I was with said Wahhabites did exactly the same thing recently in Chechnya.

But the weirdest thing of all is a booklet that has been spread about in Chechnya. It spins an incredible yarn that the British Foreign Office invented Wahhabism in the last century and trained agents to go out and spread the message. Their aim was to make Moslem fight Moslem and so destroy Islam and ensure the supremacy of the Christian West. The booklet is in Russian, written by a Turk and printed in Turkey. It gives no information about the author or whether his tale is fact, fiction or propagandistic disinformation. I suspect it is the latter, and is intended to queer the pitch for the adversary, that is the infidel Westerners. The Chechens are all reading it and seem to believe it.

There is a serious game being played for the hearts and minds of the region's Moslems and neither local governments and nor the Western disseminators of democracy are even close to touching the ball.