Sufi-Salafi Institutional Competition and Conflict in the Chechen Republic

The Russian North Caucasus is one of the most politically complex and turbulent areas in the world due to its plethora of ethnic, national, and religious groups, as well as its history of violent conflict and repression. Since the Russian Empire annexed the Caucasus in the 19th century, the central government in Moscow has dealt with the region using a heavy-handed approach, often fanning the flames of identity-based resistance movements. This has particularly been the case in the modern-day Chechen Republic. Despite long-lasting political disputes extant in the Chechen Republic, Islam remains the “common denominator” of identity formation. However, throughout history, disagreements have emerged over which types of Islamic political institutions and resistance movements are appropriate or necessary in a given context.

The reciprocal reaction from the Russian state, in its many forms, has been to subsidize and support the specific Islamic institutions that they consider congruous with their political goals in the North Caucasus and to crack down on opposing movements. Even under the supposedly atheistic Soviet Union, Islamic identity persisted in the Chechen Republic despite the state moratorium on the establishment of official, public Muslim institutions. Islamic traditions were still privately practiced by Muslim subjects of the Soviet state, but access to religious leaders and educational resources, as well as the ability to publicly organize, were heavily limited. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the resulting power vacuum, coupled with an underlying desire to create new identities through religion and nationality, resulted in the development of competing religious institutions. The opening of the area to global influence brought in new ideas about Muslim identity and politics from abroad. Dormant local institutions began to reawaken, resulting in a multitude of competing religious-political actors with opposing goals and methodologies. This resulted in the critical defining phenomenon in the politics of the North Caucasus: competition by religious institutions and movements for political resources, often leading to intra-Muslim conflict.

For the past 25 years, the ideological conflict between Muslim institutions in the Chechen Republic has pitted “traditionalists” versus “conservatives.” These terms are not easily defined, but they can be a useful heuristic for examining the field of competition between institutions. “Traditionalists” seek to restore Islam in Chechnya to what it resembled before the Russian conquest, usually through the practice of tasawwuf  (Sufism), which combines Islamic practices and beliefs with systems of Chechen national laws, traditions, and superstitions. They draw political influence from the Sufi tariqa (brotherhood), once the major Islamic authorities in the North Caucasus, and the history of Chechen Sufi leaders such as Kunta-Haji Kishiev (1830-1867).[1]

While traditionalists were heavily aligned with nationalist revolutions during the early 1990s, in recent years they have faced stiff competition from “conservatives.” Conservatives (also referred to as Islamists) favor strict adherence to Islamic law, eschewing any practice, belief, or legal code that developed independently from the Q’uran and hadith.[2] One conservative iteration of Islam popular in the Caucasus is Salafi Islam, which draws its name from al-salaf al-Salih, the “righteous ancestors” who were the earliest followers of the Prophet Muhammad.[3] Salafi Islam stands in direct contrast to the syncretic approach of tasawwuf, which it derides for retaining legal principles and folk traditions outside of the scope of the sunnah, the standard canon of Islamic law derived from the Q’uran and hadith. In the North Caucasus and elsewhere in the Muslim world, Sufi and Salafi institutions have been in a constant, zero-sum competition for resources, religious legitimacy, and political capital.

This paper examines the motivations and methods of the competition between traditionalists and conservatives in the Chechen Republic after the fall of the Soviet Union. It addresses three interrelated questions: which religious institutions are competing, how they compete with one another, and why they compete. Using a political-institutionalist approach to religious competition and conflict, I argue that the position of these religious groups and movements in disputes is dictated by their level of access to the political and ideological resources of the state. In the Chechen Republic, the ruling regime draws a large portion of its legitimacy by subsidizing and supporting Sufi traditionalists in an effort to prevent conservative movements from seizing power. The underlying cause of competition is the lack of separation between mosque and state. When the secular Chechen state intervenes on behalf of a particular religious tradition, it exacerbates the ideological divide between different groups and forces institutions to clamor for political resources, which fosters competition and conflict.

I. Methodology

 “New institutionalism”, a strong preference for social science modeling wherein “[institutional] phenomena are best understood as the aggregate consequences of behavior comprehensible at the individual or group level,” has been the de rigueur approach for comparative political science during the past few decades, but only recently has it been applied to the study of religions.[4]  Part of this gap is due to the longstanding belief within the political science literature that religion is a secondary or irrelevant consideration to how politics operates. Part is due to the academic field of religion’s rejection of the study of institutions for being monolithic and not taking into account various divergent individual beliefs in a society.[5] Obviously, institutional study cannot account for every variant of religious thought in a particular community, but it can still be a useful referent for understanding the important competing views within a group on a macro-scale and is thus necessary to analyze instances of widespread religious conflict. Religious institutions – in this case, places of worship, educational centers, state-supported religious administrations, and public political mobilization of religious in-groups – function as a “prism” to explain popular religious trends in a society and how they affect politics as a whole.[6] In Muslim societies, religious institutions often differ on the question of separation of mosque and state. Inevitably, some institutions develop connections with secular ruling entities, which affects not only the kind of doctrine they practice but also which people adhere to those institutions. At the same time, competing movements reject secular entities and oppose institutions with deep connections to the ruling regime. The competition between these groups has been a defining feature of politics in the Muslim world.[7]

Many studies of political Islam focus on the primordial split in Islamic legal thought and practice stemming from the divide between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. On a larger scale, this divide is important for assessing the trajectory of conflict between different Muslim societies. However, the dichotomy between “traditionalists” and “conservatives” has generated more tension and fundamental debates within individual Muslim societies. Studying this dynamic is especially important for theoretical analyses of competition between different Muslim political entities in a particular society.[8] Elsewhere in the Muslim world, classifying institutions as conservative or traditionalist can often be methodologically impossible. Unlike the Sunni-Shi’a divide, which can accurately be described as a binary, conservativism and traditionalism often exist within specific Islamic societies as a spectrum.[9] In areas within the Muslim world where Islamic legal thought and philosophy has developed independently from the influence and intervention of a non-Muslim ruling entity, ascertaining the difference between a “conservative” institution and a “traditionalist” one can be difficult; sometimes, single institutions fit both definitions or exist somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.[10]

The North Caucasus is unique because the population was not fully converted to Islam until the late 18th century, when local beliefs based on pagan traditions were still dominant, and Muslim institutions were not well established due to isolation and separation by mountain ranges.[11] Only about a century after the peoples of the North Caucasus had fully converted to Islam, the intervention of the Russian Empire put an immediate halt to the development of independent Muslim institutions. As a result of a lack of education and decades of limited public expression of Islam under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the local population lacked a coherent understanding of Islamic politics as they existed elsewhere, as well as the necessary educational background to understand nuances between the different interpretations of Islam. Thus, unlike in other areas of the Muslim world, the relationship between contemporary traditionalists and conservatives in the North Caucasus can be understood as a binary.[12]

The current academic literature on the conflict between Sufi and Salafi Muslims in the Chechen Republic focuses heavily on public perceptions of Islam, society, and politics, but does not explain how those perceptions “trickle-up” to form large-scale political trends centered on religion. Two approaches are popular: ideological approaches, which argue that the rise of Salafism in Chechnya is tied to the influx of ideas from abroad due to the fall of the Soviet Union, and sociological approaches, which argue that the same trend is dictated largely by the public’s dissatisfaction with the Russian ruling regime.[13]

These approaches are excellent on a theoretical level, but fail when applied to individual test cases like the Chechen Republic. One major problem is that they only seem to explain the development of Salafi or other conservative institutions, and do not describe the reciprocal evolution of Sufi institutions to compete with Salafism for religious legitimacy and political capital. They treat Sufism in the North Caucasus as frozen in amber, invalidated by the failure of the nationalist revolutions and outcompeted entirely by Salafism. In reality, the nature of competition between the two groups forces them to constantly evolve to meet the demands, beliefs, and ideas of the public they serve, as well as the external political situation.

Ideological approaches are particularly suspect, as they legitimate the common perception within the Russian policymaking apparatus that conservative iterations of Islam are “alien” to the North Caucasus and are simply the product of foreign powers meddling in the region.[14] This narrative conveniently ignores many of the developments that have occurred within the North Caucasus to make Salafism popular today; it emerged due to contingent local circumstances and cannot be explained by foreign influence alone. While it is true that foreign investment in Salafi organizations, movements, and institutions has dramatically increased since the Chechen Wars in the 1990s, Sufi organizations have also received a large share of foreign investment (often from the same countries that Russia accuses of sponsoring Salafi extremism, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia).[15] The situation in the Chechen Republic today, where foreign investment is the highest in the North Caucasus and the most powerful institutions are Sufi orders, not Salafi mosques and extremist groups, helps to dispel the idea that foreign influence is necessarily correlated with the rise of Salafi Islam. Thus, it may be true that foreign support is an objective of the Sufi-Salafi competition for resources; however, it is not the cause of it.

The sociological approach simplifies the multiplicity of disputes in the North Caucasus to the single narrative that conservative forms of Islam develop out of revolt against the domination of Russian rule. Salafi Islam is seen as primarily a form of resistance on behalf of Muslims in the North Caucasus – an attempt to reclaim their identity and wrest power back from the central government in Moscow. The sociological approach “cuts out the middleman”: over the past ten years, the Russian federal government has increasingly delegated responsibility for policy regarding religious authority and countering extremism to the republics of the North Caucasus.[16]  In response to these changes, the modern Salafi movement in the North Caucasus has adapted to not only criticize the Russian federal government but also local political structures, non-governmental actors, and international actors. The problems that have created the foundations for Salafi Islam’s popularity in the North Caucasus are not merely related to Russian “domination”, but also to intra-community disputes over how to create a space for Muslim identity within the framework of a largely non-Muslim state.[17]  It is important to recognize that since 1991, both Sufi and Salafi organizations at various times have been involved in resistance against the Russian state; the idea that Salafis hold the monopoly on anti-Moscow sentiment or violent resistance in the North Caucasus is incorrect.[18] Additionally, this approach fails to account for resistance within the Muslim communities. The targeting of Salafis by Sufis and vice versa are both phenomena that exist widely within the North Caucasus.

Certainly, the ideological and sociological approaches capture some of the underlying issues behind Sufi-Salafi competition in the North Caucasus. The roles of external influence and dissatisfaction with the Russian regime should not be understated, but they only show a small portion of the larger picture. To understand how both of these factors come into play, scholars of religion and politics must analyze how institutions adapt and reform to respond to factors such as external influence and anti-Russian sentiment among the population. At its core, conflict between Muslims of the North Caucasus is a political matter, not a sociological or ideological one.

II. Islamic Institutional Competition and Conflict in the Chechen Republic

In assessing how institutional differences between Muslim organizations have resulted in competition in the Chechen Republic, a thorough understanding of the institutions in question, the methods of cooperation, and the role of the state vis-à-vis specific institutions is necessary.  While the local political and cultural environments in the Chechen Republic both have an effect on intra-Muslim competition, the following section attempts to ascertain each aspect of the environment and analyze their effects separately.  However, in both political and cultural realms, underlying characteristics and effects of institutional competition are still evident due to the imposition of the state in the religious sector.

  • Religious Institutions

The Chechen Republic is the most ethnically and religiously homogenous republic in the North Caucasus: a 2010 census found that over 95% of the population identifies as “Chechen” and 98% as “Muslim.”[19] However, it is impossible to understand Islamic institutions in the modern Chechen Republic without first understanding the system of ethnic hierarchies that organize the Chechen people. The Chechens, like other North Caucasus mountain peoples, divide themselves into sub-units based on geographic location, land, and heritage; there are nine “grand alliances of clans” (tukkhum), in sum containing around a hundred individual clans (teip).[20] Prior to the development of a concrete Chechen national identity during the colonization period, the teip system was the primary form of social relationship and belonging. The teip leadership made individual decisions about how its members practiced Islam, and a majority of teip in the pre-Soviet period were ascribed to one of two Sufi tariqa: the Naqshbandiyya or the Qadiriyya.[21] Due to the erosion of religious institutions during the Soviet period, “the lines between teip and [Sufi] brotherhood have been blurred…especially as today the religious groups now maintain their structure mainly by means of kinship and heredity”.[22]

In the modern Chechen Republic, the teip system still leaves its mark on how Sufi religious institutions are organized and on the internal political dynamics of the Republic. However, its role as the central organizing feature of Chechen society was essentially erased by another critically important event in Chechen history: the deportation of the Chechen people to Central Asia during Stalin’s rule, under the pretense that they had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. This event, referred to in the Chechen language as the Aardakh, resulted in the deaths of thousands and permanently disrupted the traditional, geographic clan-based network of affiliations by displacing the Chechens and severing the ties to their homeland.[23] Although the Chechen people were eventually allowed to return to the North Caucasus in 1957 under Khrushchev, the clan system never made a full revival. In its place, the concept of being “Chechen” as a unifying national identity began to coalesce. Central to this national identity were the last vestiges of the clan system, which survived in the Chechen cultural milieu through its integration with the Sufi tariqa hierarchy.

Under Soviet rule, Muslim subjects were expected to live out an unrealizable ideal: being a “Soviet in public” but a “Muslim in private”.[24] Unexpectedly, this policy ended up privileging certain Sufi orders in the North Caucasus (most notably, the Qadiri and Naqshbandi brotherhoods) whose belief systems were based mainly on ritual, private practice such as the performance of dhikr (ritual recitation and repetition of religious phrases) and not on large-scale political practice, legal thought, or identity-based movements. These ritual-centric tariqa were not yet political institutions during the Soviet period, but through their ability to cling to private elements of Islamic identity, they survived the leadership purges and became critical to post-Soviet conceptions of Islamic institutions in the North Caucasus.[25] In many ways, the tariqa represents the “prototypical political party, meaning political movements supporting different interests for the Chechens”.[26] The subdivisions within the tariqa nowadays heavily resemble the former layout of the teip system, and individual Sufi shaykhs and murids (religious authorities) command a large amount of political resources, including followers, economic capital, religious authority and legitimacy, and, at times, their own military sub-units.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, collective demands for Chechen independence resulted in the attempted establishment of an independent state known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (CRI) under the leadership of President Dzhokhar Dudayev.[27] The early political aims of the CRI leadership appeared mainly to be secular-nationalist, despite much of its army being made up of local warlords and religious leaders connected to Sufi brotherhoods.[28] To maintain control of the breakaway region, the newly-formed Russian Federation initiated a large-scale military intervention into the Chechen Republic. The First Chechen War (1994-1996) resulted in the utter devastation of Chechnya, a shocking number of civilian casualties, and mobilization throughout the Muslim world to provide support for the Chechens in their campaign against Russian imperialism.[29]

After the 1996 Khasav-Yurt Accords, which ended the First Chechen War, the CRI remained intact under the leadership of General Aslan Maskhadov. The resulting “interwar” period “saw a critical mass of groups – from criminals, anti-Russian ideologists and religious nationalists to Salafi-jihadist volunteers – combine with regional groups, creating cleavages within the…separatist movement”.[30] The weak secular leadership was dependent on support from Sufi orders in Chechnya, which provided the guerilla army recruits and ideological legitimacy for the revolution; at the same time, foreign fighters from the Gulf States and elsewhere in the Muslim world began to spill into the North Caucasus to assist local revolutionaries and conduct what they saw as a mandatory jihad in defense of Muslims.[31] Foreign fighters such as the Saudi commander Ibn al-Khattab (Tamir Saleh Abdullah) were credited with bringing new conservative ideas such as Salafi Islam to the North Caucasus, but initially they were seen as interlopers and troublemakers by locals, and the aim of introducing Chechens to Salafi Islam did not succeed.[32]

Over time, however, Salafi Islam gained traction as Maskhadov’s government collapsed. Maskhadov and the revolutionary leadership attempted to paper over divides in the movement and tried to maintain the cease-fire with the Russian Army, despite pressure from local warlords and Islamists. The growing influence of foreign fighters forced Maskhadov to make significant concessions, such as ending the Chechen Parliament and instituting shari’ah courts in 1996.[33] This change was sweeping: it made any Russian law or legal court invalid in the CRI and replaced it with a Supreme Shari’ah Court modeled after the criminal code of Sudan.[34] A major issue with the court was that it required individuals with experience in Islamic jurisprudence to serve as qadi (judges); the only people in the CRI with this sort of expertise were Salafi Muslims, giving them complete control over the legal system.[35] With this new source of power, Salafi jurists began issuing rulings that directly antagonized Sufi tariqa, including authorizing the destruction of several Sufi shrines and a ban on dhikr.[36] This created a large fissure between the Salafi and Sufi supporters of the Chechen revolution, and the concession backfired as Maskhadov lost both sources of his legitimacy to rule. Overall, Salafi-jihadist groups became emboldened, and several former Chechen nationalist warlords shifted their support from the state to the foreign fighters. The most notable of these warlords was Shamil Basayev, a seasoned Chechen military commander who became the emir of Ibn al-Khattab’s Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade (IIPB) in 1999.

When the Chechen Republic was a quasi-independent state during the 1990s, candidates in elections would not declare allegiance to a political party, but rather would openly declare which tariqa had backed them.[37] During the later stages of Maskhadov’s government, the previously secular Chechen government began increasingly turning toward particular Sufi orders to infuse their ideology with Islamic content and provide a “middle ground” between the government and the increasing influence of more conservative interpretations of Islam. After the fall of the Maskhadov government,  Moscow’s intervention into the political affairs of the Chechen Republic and its hand-selecting of candidates for leadership positions did not erase this dynamic; it merely created the perception that certain tariqa were aligned with or indebted to the Russian central government.

In reconstructing the Chechen Republic, Putin and the Russian government placed a great deal of faith and political resources into the former Grand Mufti of Chechnya, Akhmad-Haji Kadyrov, his son Ramzan, and their Qadiri tariqa.[38] Many of the shari’ah courts established under Maskhadov were prohibited by the Kadyrovs, and disbanded. In 2004, the elder Kadyrov was assassinated by Salafists in the Chechen capital of Groznyy during a World War II memorial parade. The same promotion of Sufi ideology and the Qadiri tariqa continues under the leadership of his son, Ramzan, who was appointed Head of Chechnya in 2007 and remains in power today. The younger Kadyrov has created a cult of personality around himself and his martyred father, and uses the substantial resources he receives from the Russian central state and the ideological legitimacy from the Qadiri brotherhood to wage an all-out war on Salafi movements in Chechnya.

Qadiriyya supremacy in official religious institutions drained resources and support from other Sufi tariqa in the Chechen Republic, particularly the Naqshbandi order. The Kadyrov family’s political preference towards the Qadiri tariqa exacerbated the differences between the previously co-existent Naqshbandi and Qadiri orders: although both are highly connected to Chechen nationalism, organized similarly, and have taken revolutionary stances in the past against the Russian government, the form of dhikr practiced by the Qadiriyya is loud, public, and demonstrative, while the Naqshbandi dhikr is silent, private, and contemplative. In terms of leadership, “Qadiri adherents favored a more centralized form of organization than Naqshbandis and placed more stress on the role of individual sheikhs”.[39] The preferences of the Kadyrov family placed the Naqshbandi order outside the scope of public institution-building, which made it a “second-class” order to the Qadiriyya.

How can one describe the “official version” of Chechen Islam as advocated by the Kadyrov family? It resembles no other system of Islam in the world – a conglomerate of Qadiri thought, the political realities of the Chechen Republic, and personal idiosyncrasies. As described by one observer:

[Islam] in Kadyrov’s Chechnya is an outlandish mish-mash created from the preferences of Kadyrov himself (amongst other things, his passion for noisy, glittering contests and sumptuous festivals), national customs, Chechen messianism, twisted fragments of shari’a, secular social practices, abstract slogans of unity with Russia, and many other things. With the best will in the world, it is hard to call this a coherent social doctrine.[40]

The lack of similarity with any other Sufi doctrines around the world reveals the unique political considerations at play behind why “Kadyrovism” has developed as it has. In this case, there may be very little that is “traditional” about the “traditionalist” variant of Islam. The Chechen state plays an official role in disseminating this form of Islam through the appointed network of Sufi leaders and shaykhs concentrated in the Muftiate (the official state board of clerics tasked with interpreting Islamic law). The public funds used for Islamic projects such as the building of mosques and financial aid for Chechens going on hajj, government-run Islamic education programs and schools, and Kadyrov-backed social campaigns and public demonstrations.[41] There is no part of political, civic, or social life in the Chechen Republic that has been left untouched by state religious institutions.

However, the growing connection between the Qadiri hierarchy and the Chechen government “discourages support from a certain section of the population…young people who are still studying or just finished their education…precisely this notion of collaboration drives young people into the ranks of the [Salafis]”.[42] Like conservative Muslim political movements in other areas of the world, Salafi Muslims in the Chechen Republic have developed their own set of “parallel institutions”: schools, mosques, and political mobilization. For the majority of post-Soviet history, Chechen Salafis have used militant and insurgent movements as their primary political institutions, as many traditional methods of contestation have been shut off to Salafi adherents.  The Salafi regional militant groups are referred to as jamaat.

Due to the threat of persecution, it is hard to gauge how prevalent Salafism is in the Chechen Republic or how many followers it has. Nevertheless, evidence of Salafi demonstrations and organizations in the Chechen Republic is abundant, and at a bare minimum it exists as a “boogeyman” in political discourse due to Kadyrov’s constant comments that “Wahhabists” and “foreign terrorists” are a threat to the Republic and the “traditional form of Islam”.[43] Many of the trends driving the development of Sufi Islam in the Chechen Republic are predicated on the global growth of Salafism, even if its influence in the Chechen Republic is limited.

Salafi institutions in the Chechen Republic have undergone three distinct transformations during the post-Soviet era: first, from small battalions of foreign fighters during the interwar period to large militant insurgency groups (1996–1999); second, from regional organizations to pan-Caucasian Salafi organizations under the global framework of Al Qaeda (1999–2012); and finally and most recently, as a result of cross-border movement of militants to join the conflicts in Syria and Iraq (2012–present).[44] A result of the third transformation is the growing popularity of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a transnational Salafi-jihadist militant group, amongst Salafis in the Chechen Republic. This has been demonstrated by online declarations of support posted by Chechen Salafi leaders, and an incident in 2015 where graffiti was found in Kadyrov’s hometown of Tsentaroi (Khosi-Yurt), including the ISIL flag and an English declaration that “Khosi-Yurt is Support ISIS (sic)”.[45] Until 2015, most Salafi militant groups in the Chechen Republic were allied with Imarat Kavkaz, an Al Qaeda regional affiliate, but most have now switched to ISIL since Imarat Kavkaz regional emir Aslan Byutukayev declared allegiance to ISIL in June 2015.[46] While the dynamic of competition between Al Qaeda and ISIL plays out in a number of areas around the world, the particular transformation in the North Caucasus is partially a result of changes in the local political environment; groups adapt to become more successful in dynamic and rapidly changing political atmospheres.

  • Methods of Competition

The Chechen Republic’s Sufi and Salafi Muslim institutions compete with one another politically in three separate ways: through violent attacks and campaigns; through establishment of mosques, schools, and public infrastructure; and through ideological competition. Of these three methods, violent interactions are the most visible and therefore measurable. In the Chechen Republic, there have been numerous attacks by the official Sufi institutions against Salafi adherents and vice versa. Kadyrov’s personal militia (referred to as the Kadyrovtsy) is mainly made up of Qadiri adherents, many of whom were former warlords and insurgents during the Chechen Wars. The Kadyrovtsy, with help from the Russian FSB (the Federal’naja Sluzhba Bezopasnosti – the main security agency in the Russian Federation, and the primary successor to the USSR’s KGB), were largely successful in eliminating organized insurgent activity in the mountainous wooded areas of the Chechen Republic, and the overall rate of terrorist attacks in the Republic has dropped off considerably since Kadyrov’s installation in 2007.[47]

In urban areas, the Chechen police and the Interior Ministry also enforce the religious norms and rulings of the Muftiate. For example, they ensure that dress codes are followed and citizens attend mosque during prayer times, and are also tasked with cracking down on adherents of alternative or non-normative faiths, especially Salafi Islam.[48] Dress code rules are indicative of the amalgamation of Islam that Kadyrov has created: the police enforce conservative rules such as female modest dress and the wearing of hijab, but also profile, harass, and sometimes arrest men for wearing their beards “Salafi-style” (long and unshaven, without a mustache).[49]  The Chechen police and Interior Ministry are highly successful in countering terrorism when looking at the numbers alone; yet they often use extreme methods, including torture, scapegoating, forced “disappearances”, and the targeting of family members to accomplish their aims.[50] Their violent tactics are, without a doubt, a major push factor for Chechen adherents of Salafi Islam.

Salafi institutions also legitimate violence to compete with the state-run Sufi institutions for influence. During the 2000s, the organization Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) was responsible for a slew of terrorist attacks throughout the Chechen Republic, the North Caucasus, and Russia as a whole. Although Salafi militant movements are far less organized today than they were in the past, individual adherents still manage to conduct pointed attacks against Sufi religious infrastructure. In late 2015, a group of (presumably Salafi) arsonists burned down the mausoleum of a 19th century Sufi saint from the Qadiri tariqa in the town of Shali; Salafis view elaborate gravesites for saints as contrary to the Islamic principle of tawhid (monotheism).[51]

After a brief period of inactivity, it appears that the rise of ISIL has motivated local Chechen Salafis to challenge the official institutions through violence. Between 500 and 5,000 Chechens have left the Republic for Syria and Iraq, and the 2014 establishment of Vilayat Kavkaz – an official branch of ISIL in the Caucasus – threatens to bring insurgency violence back to the Chechen Republic. In 2014, clashes between the Kadyrovtsy and militants associated with Vilayat Kavkaz in the Chechen capital city of Groznyy resulted in several deaths and a symbolic strike into the heart of Kadyrov’s area of control.[52] Since that time, anti-Sufi and anti-Kadyrov activity on behalf of Salafi groups and individuals has increased in regularity.

In many ways, the outward displays of Sufi-Salafi violent conflict are merely a veneer for most of the political competition, which occurs through institutional forums: the official state mosques, schools, and public movements and the “parallel” underground institutions of the Salafis. Interestingly, while the Qadiri tariqa has a near-monopoly on state resources and political capital, competition between political institutions still occurs in the Chechen Republic. Where the Sufis have the advantage in terms of traditional resources, the Salafis benefit from strongly criticizing the connection between the Sufi tariqa and the corrupt, authoritarian Chechen central state, which gives them ideological leverage and a “moral high ground”.[53] Each group attempts to leverage its advantages to gain an edge in the competition for adherents and political power.

Sufi organizations in the Chechen Republic are involved in a number of goodwill activities, whereby they attempt to curry favor with the Republic’s citizens and provide an alternative to conservative Salafism. Using state budgets, the Muftiate has made “[significant contributions] to the reconstruction of ziarats (Sufi holy sites) and the creation of magnificent mosques and Islamic educational establishments in the style of Turkish architecture, as well as to the construction of houses, stadiums, and parks of rest for children and adults”.[54] These projects attempt to demonstrate a moral-humanistic dimension to Islam and the administration’s extensive finances and connections. Official Sufi educational training centers, funded by a state-supported organization named after Akhmed-Haji Kadyrov, have grown in popularity and size. Official competitions in Quran recitation and Chechen folk arts (dancing, horseback riding, wrestling, and martial arts) are held frequently by the government, and public dhikr ceremonies occur regularly. In addition, social movements and protests that align with the government’s interpretation of Islam are usually financially assisted with state funds. Kadyrov’s regime held public (some reportedly mandatory) protests against the Jyllands-Posten cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and has funded anti-alcohol, pro-hijab, and pro-Putin demonstrations under the auspices of the NGO Islamskii Put’ (The Islamic Way).[55]

Kadyrov’s efforts mark a major change in the organization of Muslim infrastructure building in the Chechen Republic. During the Chechen Wars, most of the social aid and reconstruction efforts were financed by Salafis with donations pouring in from around the Muslim world.[56] Partially due to the disruption of global Salafi financial networks during the War on Terror, and partially due to Kadyrov’s crackdown on Salafi institutions, the Salafi groups active today in the Chechen Republic are at a large disadvantage when it comes to economic resources.

To garner support for their activities, the preferred arena of competition is not capital, but ideology. Contemporary Salafis use a wide array of networking tools – including social media sites like vKontakte and the websites KavkazCenter and IslamDin – to recruit followers and issue biting critiques of Kadyrov (often referred to by Salafis as “Kafirov” from the Arabic kafir, unbeliever) and his conceptualization of Sufi Islam.[57] They report on the brutal counter-measures used by the Chechen police and Interior Ministry, collaboration between Kadyrov and the central Russian government, and Salafi-jihadist movements throughout the North Caucasus and the world.

Salafi ideological critiques of Kadyrov rest on a handful of premises, based on the work of scholars influential to the global Salafi movement, including Ibn Taymiyyah, Mohammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, Said Qutb, Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anwar al-Awlaki, Abu Mohammad Asim al-Maqdisi, and Chechnya’s own contribution, Shamil Basayev.[58] Salafis argue for strict application of shari’ah law, with no regard to pre-Islamic folk practices. They view the Qadiri Sufi legal system, which combines shari’ah principles with Chechen adat (folk laws) as a conflation between the role of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) and the role of humans. In addition, they find many of the personalistic interpretations of the Quran and hadith used in Sufi Islam (e.g. the emphasis on dhikr, sometimes with the use of musical instruments, and Sufi mystical practices) to be bid’aor unnecessary deviation from the original law. Another critique concerns Sufi celebration of various saints and holy figures, including the common practice of praying at gravesites. Drawing on the work of al Wahhab, Salafis argue that this is to ascribe to human entities the status of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala), a major sin that is referred to as shirk (polytheism). Finally, and most importantly, modern Salafi writings center around a concept referred to as ‘al wala, wa’l bara (loyalty and disavowal). According to the Salafi interpretation, it is forbidden for Muslims to collaborate with non-Muslims when it comes to juridical matters. Kadyrov’s active subordination of Chechen Muslims to the Russian legal system is therefore considered treasonous, insofar as the general perception amongst Salafists is that Orthodox Christians dominate the Russian government.

Compared to Kadyrov’s seemingly disjointed approach to Islam and shari’ah, the Salafi approach appears to be far more meticulous and parsimonious. Some official Sufi rulings in the Chechen Republic are clearly similar to Salafi fiqh (jurisprudence), in particular rulings governing private life (e.g. the enforcement of hijab, mandatory prayer and mosque attendance, strict regulation of Ramadan fasting), but their rulings on public affairs directly dispute Salafi fiqh altogether (e.g. deference to Putin, public practice of dhikr, and using state money to rebuild the gravesites of Sufi saints). As opposed to the “pick-and-choose” strategy employed by Kadyrov in regard to Islam, Salafism represents an all-encompassing world system for its followers, one that does not distinguish between public and private life to make itself politically appealing to secular state authorities. This gives Salafi preachers and mosques the upper hand in terms of recruiting followers who are concerned about their Islamic identity. The strategy of using this ideological angle despite the clear deficiency in traditional resources is referred to as “outbidding”, and forms a critical part of the competition between Sufi and Salafi institutions.[59] Salafis in Chechnya have been most successful in recruiting younger Chechens, especially those with significant socioeconomic disadvantages, a criminal background, or conflicts with the security services.[60] While violence, attacks, and public suppression are the most commonly assessed tactics of competition between Sufi and Salafi institutions in the Chechen Republic, the political nature of the conflict also has effects on the “hidden transcript” of competition, most of which occurs in the realm of institution formation and ideology.

  • Factors in Competition

The competition between Sufis and Salafis in the Chechen Republic tells us a great deal about the factors involved in generating intra-religious competition. Returning to the section on methodology, the Chechen situation represents an important counter-example to theories that place ideology or social dissatisfaction as the sole driving force behind institutional conflict. In this case, there is a clear example of a changing political dynamic – the end of the Chechen War and the installation of Kadyrov as a local proxy of the Russian central government – that shaped which Muslim institutions had access to political and economic resources, adherents, and ideological legitimacy.

The ideological perspective is invalidated because in this case, religious ideology is the dependentnot the independent variable. Two decades ago, both the Sufi tariqa and Salafi jamaat in the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria were involved in violent resistance against the Russian central government, as well as a multitude of social aid and reconstruction programs. Contrary to ideological theories of change, the ideology of Sufi and Salafi groups remained intact over the past 20 years; what occurred instead was a centralization of political control in the hands of specific Sufi orders that changed the relationship of the two groups to particular political methods. Salafi adherents became associated with resistance, terrorism, and underground institutions, while the Qadiriyya heavily leveraged repressive state violence, infrastructure-building, and public demonstrations to promote their interpretation of Islam. In short, the political atmosphere of the Chechen Republic in the post-war period created a disparity between the levels of connectedness of Muslim institutions to state resources, which aligned the pro-Putin interests of the Kadyrov family with the state-controlled Sufi orders and created an antagonistic ideological relationship between Sufis and Salafis. The inverse situation, where ideological differences create a particular political atmosphere that breeds competition, did not occur in the Chechen Republic during this time period.

Sociological explanations also fail to explain this situation in its entirety. The impact of the Kadyrov family’s political impositions cannot be underestimated; in this light we can understand the competition between Muslim groups as a reaction to dynamics of Islam in the region, not due to Russian imperialism alone. During the Chechen Wars, Russian impositions in the Chechen Republic’s politics were at their highest; yet the Sufi-led resistance movement and Salafi foreign fighters were not at odds with one another. At times they even collaborated, and they shared many of the same goals and methods – including social projects, militancy, and the establishment of an independent Chechen state free from Russian oppression. Interestingly, the periods with the highest incidence of Sufi-Salafi conflict have occurred during times when the Russian central government was the least involved in Chechen politics, during the interwar period and during the Kadyrov period. Incidence of political and ideological competition peaked during these periods, because the local government was highly dependent on connections with religious institutions for ruling legitimacy. This is an unexpected result: while Russian colonialism and the Soviet period undoubtedly set the stage for some of the events in Chechen history during the post-Soviet period, religious competition between Muslim institutions does not seem to have been affected by the historical situation.

The political-institutional approach is validated by the rise of institutional conflict between Sufis and Salafis in the Chechen Republic as a result of the Kadyrov family’s extensive use and support of the Qadiri tariqa to achieve its political ends. This politicized the dynamics of religion and polarized Muslim institutions to either clamor for state support or reject the collaboration between mosque and state altogether. Sufi and Salafi institutions utilized different tools to gain followers, resources, and ideological legitimacy, sometimes completely switching their positions on or abandoning a particular method that made them successful in the past. For example, the position of the Sufi tariqa leadership to try to accommodate Salafi foreign fighters during the interwar period changed to outright hostility when the Russian central government began supporting and subsidizing the Sufi leadership to combat Salafism. These sea changes were generated by the large political shift that came with the devolution of political and religious authority to the republican level: without a mutual enemy (the Russian central government), Sufi and Salafi groups began taking different stances on whether collaborating with a local Chechen Muslim regime with a particular ideology was legitimate or necessary. As a result, the over-imposition of the regime into the religious life of the Republic sparked tensions between the different Muslim institutions and caused them to turn on each other.

III. Conclusion

Political alliances between the Sufi tariqa leadership and the government of the Chechen Republic have caused a power imbalance between the specific tariqa and alternative forms of Islam in the Republic, wherein Sufi orders have an abundance of economic resources and finances and unparalleled access to the security services. They use capital, economic connections, and control over the policing apparatus to out-muscle Salafi groups and silence dissent. In turn, the Salafi organizations are pushed away from political and economic engagement and toward violence, terrorism, and ideological “out-bidding”. The situation in the Chechen Republic clearly illustrates why and how Sufi and Salafi institutions view their relationship as inherently zero-sum and competitive. The result has been ideological conflict and mass violence.

Given this background, is Sufi-Salafi coexistence possible in the Chechen Republic, or has the investment in establishing an “official” form of Islam in the Chechen Republic permanently erased any chance of reconciliation? The answer is not simple and will require large-scale shifts in institution-building. First and foremost, to level the playing field, the republican government must substantially divest economic support and ideological investment from the Sufi tariqas and introduce measures leading toward separation of mosque and state. This would include dismantling and revising state religious authorities that only represent a single branch of Islam, such as the Muftiate in the Chechen Republic. Salafi groups cannot, in good faith, enter into negotiations and de-radicalization programs as long as they perceive the republican government, security services, and official Islamic institutions as one and the same. Only after this step is achieved can the republican governments attempt programs aimed at Sufi-Salafi dialogue. Otherwise, the most radical viewpoints on either side have zero incentive to cooperate and may even lash out against the groups that did accede to negotiations. To erase the toxic legacy of previous decades, long-term reconciliation programs need to be given a substantial amount of time to achieve results.

However, there is almost no chance that any reconciliation effort will be implemented in the near future, given the nature of the current regime. The republican government has strong political disincentives to pursue these programs: they would completely alienate their traditional base, reduce their control over the societies and states that they currently govern with an iron fist, and potentially incite backlash and violence directed against them. In the Chechen Republic, there are no signs that Ramzan Kadyrov is willing to open up dialogue on the topic of Islam or take a softer approach to Salafis. Thus, the problem of Sufi-Salafi competition and intra-faith conflict is likely to continue indefinitely in the North Caucasus. The result is likely to be a continuation of violence, persecution, and societal schisms that will plague the Chechen Republic for decades to come.



[1] Kunta-Haji Kishiev was a Chechen Sufi mystic and the ideological founder of the Qadiri tariqa in Chechnya.

[2] In most Muslim societies, “traditionalists” and “conservatives” often refer to the same group. In the North Caucasus, this begs the question of tradition; “traditionalists” in this sense attempt to retain ethno-nationalist traditions, but not necessarily religious ones.

[3] Many authors and regional sources use the term “Wahhabi” or “Wahhabist” to refer to conservative iterations of Islam in the North Caucasus. This article favors “Salafi”, as there are deep methodological and political issues with using the former term. There are critical distinctions between the Salafi tradition as practiced in the North Caucasus and the school of thought derived from the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd ‘al Wahhab (1703-1792). For more, see Wiktor-Mach, 63-65.

[4] March and Olsen, 735

[5] Gill, 133-135

[6] Hefner, 5-20

[7] Lapidus, 8-12

[8] Sadowski, 220-222

[9] Weismann, 144-150

[10] Ridgeon, 3-20

[11] Wiktor-Mach, 68-69

[12] Knysh, 513-514

[13] For examples of ideological approaches, see Lanksoy (2002), Sagramoso (2012), and Hahn (2014). For examples of sociological approaches, see Schaefer (2010), Akaev (2014a, 2014b), and Campana and Ratelle (2014)

[14] Wiktor-Mach, 63

[15] Yemelianova, “Islam, Nationalism and State in the Muslim Caucasus”, 8-10

[16] Ibid., 7

[17] Yemelianova, “Islam and Power in Post-Communist Islamic Russia”, 1

[18] Knysh, 514

[19] This homogeneity has not always been the case; prior to 1991, many ethnic Russians and other minorities lived in the Chechen Republic. Всеросисская Перепись Населения [All-Russia Population Census] has the most updated data.

[20] Swirszcz, 60-61

[21] Ibid., 79

[22] Ibid., 79

[23] Ro’i, 408

[24] Ibid., 428-440

[25] Ibid., 411-413

[26] Vatchagaev, “Sufism in Chechnya”, 222

[27] Akaev, “The History and Specifics of Contemporary Islamic Revival in the Chechen Republic”, 90

[28] Vatchagaev, “Sufism in Chechnya”, 222-223

[29] Knysh, 517

[30] Moore and Tumelty, 74

[31] Knysh, 516

[32] Reynolds, 47

[33] Ibid., 47-48

[34] Akaev, “Religious and Political Elites in the Northern Caucasus: Formation, Ideological Contradictions, and Practical Opposition”

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Vatchagaev“Sufism in Chechnya”, 227

[38] The name “Kadyrov” (sometimes spelled as “Qadyrov”/”Qadirov”) itself indicates that the family is a follower of the Qadiri tariqa.

[39] Henze, 7

[40] Russell, 184

[41] Akaev, “The History and Specifics of Contemporary Islamic Revival in the Chechen Republic”, 95-100

[42] Vatchagaev, “Sufism in Chechnya”, 231

[43] Avedissian, 10-15

[44] Moore, 7-17

[45] Vatchagaev, “Increased Insurgent Activity Reported in Chechnya”, 1-2

[46] Flood, “The Islamic State Raises its Black Flag over the Caucasus”, 2

[47] O’Loughlin et al., 596-600

[48] Souleimanov, “An ethnography of counterinsurgency: kadyrovtsy and Russia’s policy of Chechenization” 91-100

[49] Yaffa, “Chechyna’s ISIS Problem”

[50] Ibid.

[51] Кавказский узел [Caucasian Knot], “Жители Чечни подвергли подозреваемых в поджоге зиярта порицанию” [Residents of Chechnya censure suspects in arson of a ziyarat]
[52] Flood, “The Caucasus Emirate: From Anti-Colonialist Roots to Salafi-Jihad.”  8.

[53] Campana and Ratelle, 124

[54] Akaev, “The History and Specifics of Contemporary Islamic Revival in the Chechen Republic”, 99

[55] Ibid., 99

[56] Swirszcz, 76

[57] Sagaramoso 563

[58] Ibid., 565

[59] Whitmeyer, 25-40

[60] Ibid., 38-40

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About the Author

Bennett Clifford

Bennett Clifford graduated summa cum laude from Wake Forest University with a B.A. in Politics and International Affairs and the Study of Religions. Beginning in 2018, he will be a candidate for a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy at the Fletcher School (Tufts University). He is currently an International Fellow at the Caucasus Research Resource Centers in Tbilisi, the Republic of Georgia

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