Where ISIL was defeated for the first time…

Where ISIL was defeated for the first time…

Zaur Hasanov
Last winter I traveled to a place where almost no one wants to go. Either because it’s dangerous, too remote or because few know about its existence. It’s Chechnya, a once-rebellious republic on Russia’s southern frontier which endured two brutal wars in the 1990s. The Chechen wars are in the past and in our days it’s just casually mentioned in Hollywood movies like “The November Man” or “A Most Wanted Man” with the horrific Philip Seymour Hoffman. 

In Itum Kale, a small district on the Georgian border, known for its chain of gorgeous medieval watchtowers, it started to snow (photo 1). It was a light snow with crystal-clear snowflakes which you can see only on high mountains in virgin air. Soon the small road heading to the top of mountain turned into a dirt track. We stopped at the first shelter we encountered, where a delicious local dish prepared by a local farmer (photo 2, inside the tower in photo 1) and hot tea helped us forget the freezing weather outside. As soon as the snow stopped, we came out of the house and what I saw completely surprised me. Our shoes, dirty and dusty, had been cleaned. At first I assumed they were not even my shoes. But in fact a young boy of five or six years old (photo 3, 4) had polished them to a shine. 

This family had never met me before; I wasn’t their relative or family friend, yet I don’t remember anyone treating me in the way I was received in a small mountain village in Chechnya. 

You are not going to find this type of news in the mainstream media these days. What you hear about Chechnya is presented negatively. Whether it’s Islamist radicals attacking Grozny on Dec. 3, 2014, or the marriage of 17-year-old Kheda Goilabiyeva to a 47-year-old local police chief. 

A few will recall today that just 15 years ago thousands of Chechens and Russians were being killed every month in bloody wars and not 17-year-old, but 13- or 14-year-old girls were being forced to marry old men according to the decisions of sharia law. You can see this same reality in present-day Syria.    

Therefore, I want to tell you more about another side of Chechnya and its people – a side you are not going to find in the media. 

In September 1998, public executions based on sharia law were conducted in one of the central parks of Grozny. If you watch the footage, they are pretty much identical to what you see today in areas occupied by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – the mullah loudly reading the decree of the sharia court, executioners in black clothes shooting “victims.” 

The Chechnya of those days was pretty much under the control of Islamists imposing strict sharia law on all aspects of life, which had been quite religious but also secular and open-minded. Secular court activity was halted; sharia courts, medieval rules and customs, strict dress codes and the separation of pupils based on gender in first and secondary schools were all imposed. 

The story of foreign militias flooding Chechnya started before the two Chechens wars. For many Chechens with a lack of knowledge on radical movements within Islam, those young foreigners’ messages seemed very attractive. They called for the construction of more mosques, sending more students to holy cities to study and building new schools within the republic to empower religion which had been suppressed in Soviet days. 

Yet this public honeymoon didn’t last long. Over time, the Islamists’ political agenda became clear. The behavior of Islamists, such as imposing strict sharia rules on public life and the newly established religious courts, dress codes for women, early marriages, an open fight against pre-Islamic Chechen traditions and their moral leaders, the so-called sheikhs, turned much of society against them. 

The culmination of resistance took place in Qudermes, the second biggest city in Chechnya, at end of 1998, when local warlords revolted against the growing interference of foreign Arab militias in their daily life. It wasn’t just warlords but most of the local people who supported revolt. Along with harsh measures, local elites had proposed an alternative Islamic path in society which is based on traditional Sufi philosophy and secularism. Today, the top Islamic madrasa in the heart of Grozny is called the Secular Islamic school. 

I think regional leaders, experts, political activists and other interested parties should take a look at the case of Chechnya and their success in fight against Islamic radicals. Work needs to be done to gain wider support to fight the ugly ideology of ISIL at any given place in the world, not only among the political elite, but also at grassroots level. If it has been successfully done in Chechnya, it can be repeated in ISIL-controlled Syria as well.         

Zaur Hasanov was the winner of the Open Central Asia and Eurasia Literature Festival in 2013.