By the i98os, there were estimated to be 50m Soviet citizens of Muslim ancestry. For most of them, Soviet rule had had a powerful secularising effect. Out of cultural habit, many still circumcised their baby boys and buried their dead according to Muslim custom. But the closure of all but a handful of mosques, and the virtual end of religious education, meant that knowledge of Islam had nearly evaporated.
Among the few places in the Soviet Union where Islam remained fairly strong was the northern Caucasus. The Sufi tradition was well able to survive in semi-clan-destine conditions. Even without mosques, the Chechens were able to go on venerating the memory of their local sheikhs and performing traditional dances and chants.
Chapter 3. Enter the Wahhabis
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Sufi tradition has faced a challenge of a very different type. Emissaries from the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, have flooded into the Caucasus and Central Asia, seeing an opportunity in the spiritual and economic wasteland left by Marxist ideology.
Financed by Saudi petrodollars, these preachers have begun propagating a new form of Islam, which has become known (through a slight over-simplification) as Wahhabism: in other words, the austere form of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. The new version of Islam strives to be as close as possible to the faith's 1,400-year-old roots. It opposes the secularism of Russian life. Its universalising message aims to transcend ethnic and linguistic barriers, and it has no place for the local cults of Sufism.
Many Chechens and Dagestanis find the new form of Islam alien and uncomfortable, and some actively oppose it. It has caused division, and even violence, within families. But by building mosques and establishing scholarships, the Wahhabis have won a following, especially among the young — often impatient with what they see as a corrupt official religious establishment left over from Soviet times. Moreover, in the confusion of post-Soviet Russia, the new creed offers disillusioned and money and weapons and a sense of purpose which they cannot find anywhere else.
A daredevil hijacker and hostage-taker, Mr Basaev took part in the Russian-backed war against Georgia in 1992-93, and then fought ruthlessly against Russia in the Chechen war of 1994-96. Trained in the Soviet army, he now says his life's mission is to wage holy war against Russia and avenge its crimes against his people. He is not himself a Wahhabi, but he seems to have decided that the new Muslims would make useful recruits for his jihad, even though he does not share their extreme puritanism.
Mr Basaev was both a Muslim and a Chechen patriot; the two qualities are inseparable. But despite his bushy beard and talk of holy wars, he does not quite correspond to the image of a single-minded fundamentalist. His heroes, after all, included Garibaldi and Abraham Lincoln.
Educated in Saudi Arabia, Khattab fought the Russians in Afghanistan before settling in Chechnya. In other words, he is one of the "Afghanis"—the 15,000 or so unteers from all over the Middle East (particularly Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Algeria) who did battle, with strong American support, against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan. Since the war ended, these fighters have returned to their homelands, or . moved to other countries, in search of new Islamist causes to fight.
It is the existence of the Afghanis (of whom the most notorious is Mr bin Laden himself) which helps to explain why Russia regards its own Islamic adversaries as Frankensteinian monsters created by western governments and their friends in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The Afghani connection also helps to explain why Russia and Iran see eye-to-eye on the question of Islamist violence. As well as loathing the West and all its works, some of the Afghanis — as zealous practitioners of Sunni Islam — are sworn enemies of the Shia Muslim faith, of which Iran is the main bastion.
Iran has always been resentful of America's connections with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, even though its own relations with those two countries have been improving. Russia sympathises, to put it mildly, with that resentment. America, for its part, is highly suspicious of Russia's friendship with Iran.
Chapter 4. Geopolicy.
If there is a geopolitical stand-off involving Russia, America and the Islamic world, it is not a simple triangle. If anything, Russia and America have each identified different bits of the Islamic world as friends, and each is suspicious of the other's partnerships.
Although Russian diplomacy has been quite adept at manipulating the geopolitical divisions within the Muslim world, there is a real possibility that its own clumsiness and brutality could create a Muslim enemy within its borders, as well as alienating Muslims farther afield. Already, the Kremlin's heavy-handedness has galvanised the Chechens to mobilise for a new war against Russia. The neighbouring Ingush people, related to the Chechens but hitherto willing to accept Russian authority, may now be drawn into the conflict—along with at least four or five other north Caucasian peoples who have until now been content to let Russia run their affairs.
If Russia found itself at war with half a dozen Muslim peoples in the Caucasus, the effects would certainly be felt in places farther north, such as Tatarstan.
But if some sort of common Muslim front ever emerges in Russia, resentment of Moscow will be the only factor that holds it together. In the Caucasus and elsewhere, Muslims are fragmented; there is not even a united or coherent Wahhabi movement.
Nor is there any natural unity between Chechnya and Dagestan. The two also differ over their relations with Russia. The Chechens still feel the scars of their last war with the Russians, and so the secessionist impulse is much stronger than in Dagestan, which has little sense of a common national identity and is economically heavily dependent on Russia.
Nor is it inevitable that Islamic militancy in the northern Caucasus and in other parts of the Muslim world will reinforce one another. Rather than being proof that political Islam is spreading, the fighting in the Caucasus is a reminder that Islam exists in many different forms. In the heartland of the Muslim world, the Middle East, the wave of Islamic militancy appears to be receding. In the early i98os, the years immediately after the Iranian revolution, the Arab countries and Turkey felt themselves most vulnerable to political Islam.
Those expectations are now subsiding. Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia — all countries that experienced serious Islamic opposition — have survived, bruised but intact. Even Algeria, where Islamism took the most violent form and was suppressed with particular harshness, seems to have entered a more hopeful phase.
In the Caucasus and Central Asia, as in former Yugoslavia, the moment of opportunity for political Islam came a decade or so later, with the collapse of communism, and so the new Islamic movements are younger and still developing. They are a powerful and potentially destabilising force, but they are no more destined to win power than their equivalents elsewhere.
There is, however, a form of "peripheral" Islam which ought to be giving Russian policymakers food for thought: the impressive strength of the Muslim faith, sometimes accompanied by political radicalism, in western cities that lie thousands of miles from the heartlands of Islam. From Detroit to Lyons, young Muslims have been rediscovering their beliefs and identity—often as a reaction against the poverty, racism and (as they would see it) sterile secularism of the societies around them. This phenomenon owes nothing to geopolitical calculation, or to the policies of any government, either western or Middle Eastern; nor can it be restrained by government action. If radical forms of Islam can flourish in places like Glasgow and Frankfurt, there is no reason why they canot do so in Moscow and Murmansk—particularly if the Russian government seems to be fighting a brutal, pointless war at the other end of the country.
Chapter 5. Economy.
There is a way to resolve the conflict, to which international involvement is key. Such international involvement, however, can only happen with Russia`s consent, though both the E.U. and the U.S. have the means to change the numbers in the Kremlin`s calculations using political, diplomatic and economic leverage. Such involvement must help Chechnya to become a truly democratic and peaceful state, thereby eliminating whatever threats to Russian security it might pose. Incentives are necessary, and the prospect of a de jure recognition of Chechnya will be a strong incentive for Chechnya to undergo decisive democratization and demilitarization. The idea is simple: statehood in return for democracy.