The Islamization of Chechnya

Cross-posted from Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi at The Propagandist

A recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), entitled ‘You Dress According To Their Rules’, should highlight the growing need for policymakers in Moscow to counter the increasing entrenchment of Shari’a in Chechen society.

HRW’s analysis documents extensively the enforcement of Islamic law vis-à-vis women’s rights in Chechnya, as part of Chechen President Ramzan Akhmadovich Kadyrov’s ‘Campaign for Female Virtue’. In fact, Kadyrov, who was first appointed president of the Chechen Republic by the Kremlin in February 2007, has never disguised his advocacy for Shari’a. Soon after becoming president, he defended polygamy as part of Chechen tradition, and in 2009, he praised the male relatives of seven young women, whom they shot in the head and dumped by a roadside as part of a series of honor killings. Speaking to journalists on a Friday afternoon outside a mosque in Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic, Kadyrov said that the women had ‘loose morals’, thereby deserving death, and that ‘no one can tell us not to be Muslims’.  Even so, polygamy and honor killings are unambiguously prohibited according to Article 14 of the third chapter of the Family Code of the Russian Federation.

A key aspect of Kadyrov’s drive towards Shari’a has been forcing women to wear the hijab. By the autumn of 2007, the Chechen president had publicly stated on television that all women working for state institutions had to wear headscarves, and that such an unwritten law should be implemented immediately. The results were soon evident as female television anchors, government officials, teachers and staff-members of the ombudsman’s office began wearing headscarves to work by the end of that year. In schools and universities, where the hijab was introduced under Kadyrov as part of mandated uniforms in 2007, students who refused to wear the hijab were simply denied entry to their respective offices and academic institutions, even though no legal basis existed for this new requirement.

Throughout 2009 and 2010, the unwritten mandate for the hijab spread to public places in general, including entertainment venues, cinemas and most types of outdoor areas. However, as of 2011 a written instruction from the Chechen government in the form of a letter to republican and local government agencies exists. The letter, dated January 25, 2011 and written by the Administration for the Head and Government of the Chechen Republic, emphasizes the need to ‘strictly enforce’ a dress code for female civil servants that consists of ‘the appropriate headdress, dress and skirt- below the knees, and three-quarter sleeves’. In 2010, reports emergedof security forces opening fire with paintball guns on women who did not wear the headscarf in the center of Grozny. These incidents were accompanied by general harassment of women without the hijab at the hands of law enforcement personnel in the month of Ramadan.

Meanwhile, Kadyrov, in keeping with his dictatorial tendencies, has proven himself remarkably intolerant of public criticism of his policy regarding the hijab. For example, in July 2009, Natalia Estemirova, a researcher at the Memorial Human Rights Center in Chechnya, was abducted near her home in Grozny and murdered. Estemirova had been a vocal critic of Kadyrov’s enforcement of the headscarf since 2007. Indeed, after she gave a scathing interview in 2008 that described the headscarf policy as a blatant violation of the right to privacy and was broadcast on REN-TV as part of a program on the revival of Shari’a in Chechnya, Kadyrov threatened retaliation for her unyielding criticism. It is widely suspected that the Chechen government was behind her murder, and it is unclear whether any official investigation has been launched into her death.

It may well be that Kadyrov is implementing a policy of Islamization merely to appease Islamist militants in Chechnya and win popular legitimacy by portraying his values as purely Islamic, opposed to the morals of the non-Muslim Russian government that installed him in power. However, the enforcement of Shari’a in Chechnya is in gross violation of Article 11 of the Chechen Republic’s Constitution, which is in full compliance with Russia’s Basic Law and upholds that ‘the Chechen Republic is a secular state. No religion can be made a state religion or a mandatory one’.

In addition, gradual Islamization poses a severe threat to Russia’s security interests, even as the Kremlin has been largely indifferent to Kadyrov’s enforcement of Islamic law. Experience with countries in the 1990s such as Sudan under Hassan Al-Turabi and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (both of which hosted Al-Qa’ida militants) shows that full-blown Islamist states generally become hosts for international and domestic jihadists. Given the role of Islamist militants in the January attack on Domodedovo international airport that left 36 people dead and 180 injured, Russia has every right to fear such a possibility, and yet ignores the development of an Islamist client state right in its own territory. Worse still would be a re-ignition of the separatist movement, only this time with popular calls for an independent Islamic emirate. In such a scenario, Moscow would be faced with the choice of either suppressing the uprising through significant use of force, or allowing Chechnya to become an independent Islamic republic.

When one considers the natural expansionist tendencies of jihad ideology, the latter option would without doubt lead to the de-stabilization of the surrounding region. The last time Chechnya was independent and an Islamic republic (in 1998 following the First Chechen War), it became a base for the trans-national jihadist group known as the ‘Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade’ (IIPB), which then invaded the neighboring state of Dagestan in an attempt to create an Islamic emirate across the North Caucasus. No one should deny that historically the Chechen people have suffered discrimination since the Russian Empire conquered the Caucasus in the 19th century. This culminated in events such as the brutal suppression of a secular Chechen nationalist insurgency in the period 1940-44, the subsequent deportation en masse to Siberia of much of the Chechen civilian population, and the deliberate bombing of Chechen civilians in Grozny during the First Chechen War after the fall of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, despite the legitimate grievances of the Chechen national cause, the Second Chechen War that led to the re-annexation of Chechnya by Russia was in response to the jihadist invasion and assault on Dagestan from the militants’ base in the Chechen state.

It is therefore incumbent on the Russian government, as the chief backer of Kadyrov and his government, to start by publicly denouncing the Chechen government’s present policy of Islamization. Russia should then make it clear to the Chechen officials that they must uphold the right to freedom of religion, in accordance with Article 28 of Russia’s Constitution that Chechnya is required to adhere to, and respect the secular constitution of the Chechen Republic. Above all, enforcement of the Islamic dress codes and Shari’a law in the Chechen courts must be rescinded. At the same time, it is necessary that Moscow ensure that UN Special Rapporteurs and other international monitors have free access to the region to report on honor killings against women, violations of the right to freedom of religion and the implementation of Shari’a in Chechnya. Kadyrov and other Chechen officials cannot resist pressure from the Kremlin, because it was Moscow that installed them in power in the first place and has been responsible for allowing them to hold on to their positions in the Chechen government.

Furthermore, the Russian government needs to guarantee implementation of the rulings on Chechnya cases by the European Court of Human Rights, which will include protection for victims of violence against women, bringing perpetrators of such attacks to justice, and ensuring accountability for violations of women’s rights and enforcement of Islamic law in the Chechen Republic. This will go a long way towards ridding Chechnya of the climate of impunity as regards human rights abuses and the implantation of Islamic law. The need to take action on this issue is becoming ever more urgent. Over the next few years, Russia should consider addressing Chechen separatist desires for independence, but only after the Islamization trend has been thoroughly reversed and any signs of Shari’a have been rooted out of Chechen society.

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