Russia’s continuing war against the Chechen people is one of the many conflicts in which Muslims are involved which tend to be forgotten in the wider Ummah. Every few months, some major events elevates it to public consciousness for a while, as the atrocity of Beslan did last year. On that occasion, Chechens are confirmed to have been responsible for what can only be described at an appalling crime, even though the precise details of the episode and how it came to such a tragic end remain unclear. Those responsible argue, in part, that such acts are necessary because they are the only occasions that the rest of the world notices that the Chechens are continuing to be subjected to equally appalling crimes on a ongoing basis. The fact that a community of 1 million Muslims in the Caucasus should feel pushed to such extremes ifor their plight to be noticed is a serious indictment of the weakness of the 1.5 billion-humans Ummah of Islam, and of the global Islamic movement which aspires to lead and represent the Ummah at a time when its political institutions are dominated by kings, presidents and generals committed not to Islam and Muslims,but to the interests of our enemies.
The death of Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov in a shoot-out with Russian troops in the village of Tolstoy-Yourt on March 8 has again drawn international attention to the Chechens, for a while at least. Shaheed Maskhadov, who was 53, had been the head of the Chechen military duringChechnya’s war for independence under Johar Dudayev from 1994-1996. After Dudayev’s martyrdom in April 1996, Maskhadov was elected as his successor in 1997. Two years later Russia launched another war against Chechnya, coming to control much of the north of the small country, as well as its capital, Johar-Gala (Grozny).
Maskhadov remained the country’s elected and popular president, with with graffiti declaring that “Maskhadov is our president” being commonplace in Johar-Gala and other Chechen towns. But as leader of an underground resistance movement, his power and influence were necessarily limited, and power inevitably passed to field commanders such as Shamil Basayev, some of whose tactics, such as the Beslan operation, were condemned as much by most Chechens as by Muslims elsewhere. Although the Russians insist that Maskhadov had been responsible for planning the operation, to discredit him, Maskhadov’s response was immediate and unambiguous: he said that those responsible for the massacre would be tried and punished as soon as the legitimate Chechen government was in a position to do so.
Despite Maskhadov’s popularity, and the amply-demonstrated courage and commitment of the Chechen people, however, the realities of the situation in Chechnya, with a decimated population facing a massive European power with absolutely no outside support themselves, have meant that the Chechens have not been able to liberate themselves. In the last months of his life, Maskhadov attempted to change the pattern of Chechen suffering by reaching some sort of agreement with the Russians. In January, he announced a temporary ceasefire that was respected by most Chechen mujahideen. He also offered to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin directly for peace talks. His hope was that the stalemate and continuing problems in Chechnya would persuade Putin that it was worth doing a deal with the Chechen leadership, as neither side was in a position to win an outright victory. He and other Chechen leaders were also concerned about the effect that years of sacrifice and suffering are having on the Chechens, as shown by the Beslan atrocity.
Maskhadov’s initiative was spurned by Russia, which preferred to continue to portray all of the Chechen resistance as terrorists, and criticised by some Chechens, who said that it was pointless to try to deal rationally and reasonably with the Russians. This also reflected another little-known aspect of the Chechen plight: that there are now many powerful institutions on the Russian side, including the military, the intelligence agencies, the pro-Russian Chechen administration in Johar-Gala, and renegade Chechen factions (led by warlords who offer their loyalty to the highest bidder), who have vested interests in maintaining the conflict and the situation of lawlessness that it creates throughout the country. Maskhadov’s killing is a clear Russian answer to his hopes for peace in his country.
Within two days of Maskhadov’s death, the Chechen resistance had agreed and appointed his successor. Ahmed Zakayev, Maskhadov’s envoy in London, announced on chechenpress.co.uk that Abdul-Khalim Saydullayev, former head of Chechnya’s Shari’ah Supreme Court, has been confirmed as president and military commander until free elections can be held. He had apparently been declared Maskhadov’s deputy and successor at a session of the Chechen State Defense Council, which includes members of the Chechen government and parliament, as well as military commanders, in July and August 2002. The decision was not announced at the time in order to prevent Saydullayev from being targeted by the Russians. Saydullayev, born in 1967, is a well-known and well-respected Chechen leader, having been a soldier during the 1994-96 war, as well as an alim who advised the Chechen government on ruling in accordance with Islam during 1997-1999. Most recently he has been leading a unit of Chechen mujahideen from Argun.
The situation Saydullayev faces, however, is no better than the one confronted by Aslan Maskhadov. The Chechens cannot defeat the Russian bear on their own, and the Russians are in no mood for a reasonable and honourable settlement. Meanwhile, the international community, which some Chechens and their supporters had looked to for justice, has demonstrated that -- for all the Western rhetoric about being the champions of freedom, justice and oppressed peoples -- they are willing to allow the Chechens to be annihilated in order to not jeopardise their good relations with Russia; which should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with Western governments’ own record in the world.
Like the Bosnians before them, and the Kashmiris at the moment, and the Bangsamoro Muslims in Mindanao, and many other oppressed and suffering Muslim communities all over the world, the Chechens have also despaired of any meaningful assistance from the quarter of the world’s population that are Muslim. The fact that Muslims can do little more than sympathise and mourn the Chechen plight, while our governments deal happily with their oppressors, is yet another measure of the weakened and pathetic state of the Ummah today. Those Muslims who are determined to improve this state are concerned primarily with political change in their own countries or countering the global hegemony of the modern US. It is difficult to do anything effective for our brothers and sisters in places like Chechnya.
What we must not do, however, is forget or ignore them or the fact that we should be doing much more for them. We must not abandon our commitment to righting the wrongs being inflicted on them as soon as we are in a position to do so; and the Chechens and all our other oppressed Muslim brothers and sisters can be assured that that time will come, insha’Allah, provided that we are firmly on the path of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala and do our utmost to follow the example and method of his Last Prophet, Muhammad, sall-Allahu alaihi wa sallam.