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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Chechen 'Extremism' Came From Next Door

When events blew up in Dagestan at the end of the summer, the experts were right to fear that the North Caucasus region would plunge into a religiously based civil war. The unfolding battles, however, have been surrounded in an information fog and it is difficult to get reliable information about the war. Data coming from Russian authorities about casualties and battles cannot possibly be accurate. Journalists working there have to contend not only with combat but the threat of kidnapping. Even experts are left to sift through incomplete information.

Because of this, it makes better sense to think not about the fighting itself but where the fighting began. What's going on has deep roots in Dagestan. That doesn't mean that Chechnya's original invasion of Dagestan is insignificant. To the contrary, Chechnya defines the conflict: But Chechnya has nothing to do with what the media call "Wahabbism." The so-called Northern Caucasus Wahabbis would more properly be called regional extremists - adherents of a return to the ethical norms of early Islam.

The Wahabbi phenomenon was born in Dagestan. Only during the last war did it penetrate Chechnya.

Like any religion, traditional Islam was subject to Soviet persecution. Opportunities for spiritual education, the building of mosques and pilgrimages to Mecca were limited. By the end of the 1980s, Islam had been reduced to just a part of national culture instead of a system of views. In Dagestan - the most Moslem of the Caucasus regions - there were only 16 working mosques. Specialists say there are now over 5,000. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the number of Islamic religious schools has grown. And so have new forms of Islam, including so-called radical and political movements.

The Wahabbis appeared at the end of the 1980s when it became possible to study the religion outside the framework of official Islam. This also produced forms of Islam that are a feature of any Moslem country - radical and political Islam. Adherents of these protest ideologies in the Caucasus are, of course, accused of receiving help from abroad. This is certainly true, but to view this movement as something from the outside isn't accurate - it has deep internal roots. The social conditions are right in Dagestan for the development of radical-egalitarian Islamic idealogies. These conditions depend on impoverished young people.

At the beginning, this restoration movement could not achieve wide popularity, finding its adherents among marginalized Islamic intellectuals. However, as the Caucasus got poorer, the popularity of Wahabbism rose. In Dagestan's mountainous regions, where the birthrate is high and farmable land scarce, the young have virtually no prospects. Unemployment among the young is by some estimates 85 percent. The standard of living is low, even for Russia.

This is cast against a backdrop of corruption in all economic spheres. All of this leads to the popularity of slogans about social equality, unmasking of corrupt officials and criticism of the official mullahs who are sullied by luxury and hypocrisy.

As a response to this, in the mid-1990s, movement members began to form djamaats, or societies of followers of the new Islam, that had little truck with central authorities. In two djamaats - Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi - the residents formally declared independence from all secular authority. Further fortifying their independence is the fact that residents of these villages are often armed. Clashes have occurred between Dagestani Wahabbis and Russian army detachments. The authorities clumsily tried to counteract the radicals with prohibitive measures and police actions, all to no avail because the Wahabbis were often better armed than the police. The persecution of the Wahabbis drove them to Chechnya, which is controlled neither by Dagestan nor by Moscow. There they were also concentrated into djamaats - the most well-known of which is controlled by Khattab and is in the village of Serzhen-Yurt. This village, located in Chechnya's mountainous region, houses a paramilitary training base.

A critical mass of Wahabbis sprouted in Dagestani villages, the Dagestani capital Makhachkala and in Moscow. At the beginning of August, matters came to a head. Large numbers of fighters crossed the practically unguarded Dagestani border and took villages in the Botlikh and Tsumadinsk regions. With an invasion giving a formal excuse to use force, and with Moscow on the threshold of an election, stern rhetoric and a military operation were popular ideas.

Military people who understood this operation as revenge for defeat in Chechnya found like-minded compatriots in the Dagestani leadership, who interpreted a new Islam as a threat to the whole of the Dagestani clan power structure. The authorities were able to consolidate society against "foreign invaders" and the majority of Dagestanis supported a strong military reaction. Khattab and Shamil Basayev, to step up their own internal battles in Chechnya, are presenting themselves as warriors for Islam. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has long since lost any influence.

In Dagestan, the federal troops did what they could - they erased villages from the face of the Earth, but couldn't prevent the fighters from dashing for Chechnya. The information released at the time about thousands of rebel fighters dying is not true. Inexperienced federal troops always die in greater numbers than the local professionals in mountain warfare. Then the Chechen operation against the villages of the Buinaksk region began, which weren't really formally taken by the Chechens. The Chechens - more exactly the Islamic radicals - then invaded the Novolaksk region. And there the current war started.

If we approach events in a judicious fashion, then what the federal troops are doing is technically legal - the residents of the djamaats won't give in and are observing only the terms of Islamic law - which the Russian Constitution doesn't cover. But you can't deal with complex socioeconomic and ethnic problems with police measures. That should only be part of an array of approaches. Talks should have been conducted with leaders of the djamaats to define the limits of self-government, the spheres where Islamic law would apply and a mechanism of cooperation with the local authorities. Direct economic development should have been pursued in the mountain regions.

But these opportunities are lost. A protracted war has begun. If a small group of Dagestanis are Wahabbi now, many more soon will be too. Religious extremists rarely come to power, but they can be a power-destabilizing factor for decades. The biggest threat to stability in the Northern Caucasus aren't the Wahabbis themselves. Rather it is politicians who want to use them as a weapon. Alternatively, it is Russian authorities trying to grapple in an illiterate manner with a religious phenomenon they don't understand. Incompetence, irresponsibility, stupidity and extremism have all come to a head. Russia has slid into a new war. Likely for a long time.

Alexander Iskandaryan is head of the Center for Caucasian Studies. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.