Talisman Gate

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Foreign Policy Judo

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All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

January 27, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1524 words

HEADLINE: Foreign Policy Judo

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


We all know that Osama bin Laden is a bad guy. And most of us are coming around to the notion that Vladimir Putin of Russia is turning out to be quite the rotten apple. With so many global challenges stretching out America's efforts in the war on terror and tyranny (the latter has been added since January 20, 2005), can two vultures be knocked off with one stone?

Here's a thought: support passive Sufi resistance to Russian chauvinism in the Free Republic of Nokhchi-Chu.

Okay, there's a lot to explain. Nokhchi-Chu is actually Chechnya. That nation's people, inhabiting a small piece of turf that is evenly divided between a thin stretch of the Caucasus Mountains, the foothills south of the Sunzha River, and the plains north of the Terek River, call themselves the Nokhchi, but the Russian chauvinist tag of Chechens has stuck. The Russians, as they were expanding their empire, first encountered the Nokhchi during a skirmish at a village the invaders later called Bolshoi Chechen, situated south of modern-day Grozny, in the early 17th century. Since then, both Russians and the newly named Muslim "Chechens" have been mauling each other much as one would expect their respective national mascots, the bear and the wolf, to go about such an encounter.

For three centuries the Chechen wolf has been howling its laments and the Russians have been dismissing that anguished cry as the Chechens crying wolf. Against all odds, the Chechens have survived these last three centuries, including an attempt by Stalin at eradicating them through 13 years of cruel mass exile in the wastelands of faraway Kazakhstan. Here's the long and short of it: the Russians behaved very badly and the Chechens are the victims in all of this. By 1990, there were 1 million of them that had survived, and they decided enough is enough. They opted out of the Russian bear's embrace to declare independence, which at times was de facto and at other times won through protracted struggle. Since that date, Russia has fought two major wars in the region to hold onto Chechnya and succeeded, through the terrorist actions of a few Chechen bad apples, in turning the Chechens' legitimate pursuit of independence into an internationally taboo topic amid Russia's internal war on so-called terrorism.

Nice Russians, running the gamut from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, understood the moral rot within the Russian soul engendered by bullying small nations like Chechnya and how Russian imperialism was wedded to Russian autocracy. Not-so-nice Russians, ranging from the notorious 18th-century tsarist General Yermolov to the current leadership of the Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or FSB - the latter-day incarnation of the KGB in all its banal evil and dark purpose - found that oppressing non-Russians through imperialist expansion and subjugation served as a useful mechanism for desensitizing politically-motivated violence as the accepted reality of an autocratic state.

Enter Messrs. bin Laden and Putin into this picture. Al Qaeda likes places like Chechnya, Bosnia, and Kashmir. These are all places at the frontiers of what was once a grand Islamic empire. These are picturesque locales with lush forests and handsome nations. It makes for good photo-ops; long-suffering Muslims reclaiming their ancient glory and repelling the once-subdued powers of heathen Christians and Hindus. These are places where legends are born: a Saudi national, Salim bin Salih Al-Suweilim, known by his nom de guerre Khattab, was a terrorist with clear Al Qaeda links who was marketed as a romantic, long-haired hero fighting for the downtrodden. His daring raids, like the 1995 attack on a Russian military convoy near Yaryshmardy, were captured on film and distributed around the Middle East as evidence that the Salafist-Wahhabis are the vanguard of Islamic revival and power. His death by "treacherous" poisoning almost three years ago, was a noble act of martyrdom that should be emulated by Muslim youths, according to the jihadist hype.

Mr. Putin, the Frankenstein-like monster cobbled together by the FSB with marketable charm (for the West) and strong-armed, power-grabbing tactics (for Russia), also likes a place like Chechnya. It is a place where the specter of Chechen bandits, Mafiosi, and terrorists can be conjured up as a threat to Mother Russia. It is the first domino in the disintegration of Russia proper, following the painful loss of Russian prestige as the cornerstone of the once-mighty USSR. Mr. Putin and his United Russia Party were swept to power on the issue of Chechnya in 2000. Oddly enough, every attempt during the last decade at a peaceful reconciliation of the Chechen conflict was pre-empted by an opportunity-closing bloodbath, and the bloodied boot prints almost invariably led back into the labyrinths of the Kremlin. Moreover, the human rights abuses they have been up to in Chechnya are just absolutely horrendous; the Russian word zachistka, or 'mop-up operations' with ethnic-cleansing undertones, should be added to the lexicon of tyranny like those other Russian words, gulag and pogrom.

Thus, terror and tyranny feed off each other in Chechnya. Al Qaeda terrorism and Russian autocracy can both point to what is happening there as their own justifications. Chechnya is a rallying cry and a strong point for these two evident global challenges. So how does supporting Sufi resistance in Chechnya strike a blow to both bin Laden and Mr. Putin?

The Chechens, according to available evidence, only converted from their animist beliefs to Islam in large numbers some four centuries ago. The process was facilitated by Sufism, the Sunni Muslim form of mysticism. The Salafi-Wahhabi Al Qaeda types loathe, and I mean really loathe, the Sufis. Whereas Wahhabism is hateful, xenophobic, and austere, Sufism is structured around love of God that devolves into an affection for all his creatures. Sufis are inclusive and colorful, and they had hit it off with the colorful and life-loving Chechen mountaineers and peasants who had their own millennia old codes of native conduct. Throughout the three centuries of conflict with Russia, the two forms of Sufism that were dominant in Chechnya led the resistance and supplied it with its imagery and heroes, like the fabled Imam Shamil of the 19th century.

In the last 100 years of materialistic modernity and urbanization that enveloped most of the Islamic world, Sufism has been on the decline. But this moderate Sunni form of spirituality can be resurrected as a counterforce to Wahhabism, and one way of doing that is by giving it a pan-Islamic rallying cry: passive resistance in Chechnya.

Once upon a time, America and its intelligence services were creative in fighting freedom's enemies. There was even an attempt to bolster Sufi consciousness in Islamic Central Asia as one of many ways to undermine the Soviet Union. Nowadays, opportunities for such creative mischief are being sheepishly overlooked. The Jordanian intelligence service, essentially a subdivision of the CIA, is disproportionately officered by Jordanian citizens of Chechen or Circassian origin. Their ancestors were driven off from the Caucasus Mountains by Russian invaders some 150 years ago, and they are still bitter about it. Furthermore, there are whole Sufi orders in Iraq that are in the pay of the agency. Shouldn't someone, somewhere, start putting two and two together?

Imagine Sufi mystics flocking to Chechnya, holding up bouquets of flowers and trying to impede the movement of Russian tanks Tiananmen-style. It can all be captured on tape and the label of "suicide pacifist" can be coined. Doesn't this also send a powerful and romantic image to the youth of the Middle East? And how would half-starved and war-wary Russian conscripts react? It is said that, according to certain stereotypes, Russian character is prone to sentimentalism. Such tactics would steal a march on both Al Qaeda and the United Russia Party.

A closer look needs to be taken at the Chechens themselves: Shamil Basayev and his Riyadus-Salikhin movement have gone over to the Wahhabi dark side, but moderates like Aslan Maskhadov, the current president of Free Chechnya, have been consistent in denouncing both terrorism and imperialism. The Kremlin had convinced the White House that all Chechen-Nokhchis are equally noxious. One such Chechen, described by the Russian propaganda machine and its acolytes as the head of the "Chechen Mafia," is Khokh-Ahmed Noukhayev. Someone in Washington should call him up in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku and ask him to make the necessary introductions to the Chechen Sufi underground.

Judo is a martial-art form that Mr. Putin is quite familiar with. It involves seizing upon the adversary's strengths and turning them into weaknesses. Chechnya is at once both a strength and a weakness for Al Qaeda and the emerging threat of Russian autocracy. Turning the Chechen cause into a victory for moderate Sunni Islam and Russian democracy is both cost-effective and morally effective. It may be useful for President Bush's new foreign policy and intelligence team to sign up for judo classes. The sooner, the better.