Since 1989, radical Islam has gradually permeated the fabric ofChechnya’s socio-political environment. This process was aided by internal changes in theSoviet Union– the disintegration of the communist ideology and its supporting governmental structure; and the course of Perestroika, which allowed various factions to freely propagate their moral and religious values. The resulting ideological and political vacuum in Chechnya was rapidly filled by radical Islam.
From the onset of its post-Soviet attempts to achieve independence, the new secular government in Chechnyatook steps that indicated an aspiration to restore Islamic traditions. In this regard, during his initiation as Chechen president on November 9, 1991, retired Lieutenant-General of Soviet Air-Forces, Djohar Dudayev was sworn in holding a Koran in front of numerous representatives of Islamic religious institutions. During his inauguration ceremony, Dudayev promised to abide by and to protect the Islamic faith.
The Russian federal government’s efforts to establish martial law in Chechnya and to disarm the military branches of the National Chechen People’s Congress (ОКЧН) resulted in an upsurge of Islamic sentiments among the local population and increasing usage of Islamic rhetoric by radical-nationalist elements in Chechnya. Setting aside their differences, the majority of Chechen factions amalgamated “around D. Dudayev as a symbol of national independence”, thereby considerably augmenting his political influence.
Thus, for the first time in over 100 years, the Chechen government faced the question of establishing autonomous governance. Initially, the Chechen leadership contemplated an independent political entity – according to Dudayev, ”…a secular, constitutional state with equal rights, obligations and opportunities for all citizens.” was being formed in Chechnya. According to most analysts, Dudayev’s foundational plans did not include the formation of a theocracy.
However, the influence of what Dudayev called “religious belief as a foundation”, upon which “people could unite”, and a cultural-historical heritage that pertains to “majestic pages of the past, struggles against subjugators and immortal souls of great ancestors”, gradually began to tilt the scales in favor of declaring Islam as the national religion. Chechen Islamization was further accelerated by Grozny’s frustration that resulted from failure to achieve international recognition of Chechnyaas an independent entity. International refusal to support Chechen separatist aspirations made adherence to internationally accepted norms of governance redundant in the eyes of the Chechen leadership. Furthermore, the lack of recognition once again raised the issue of ideological and political vision of the Chechen system of governance. According to Cornell, “Chechnyawas under both internal and external pressure to increase the Islamic character of the state and of the struggle.” It was at that point in time – before the beginning of the First Chechen War in December 1994 – that the Chechen separatists established their first significant ties with Middle Eastern radical Islamists. Forces emerged from a number of Muslim countries that actively supported Dudayev’s line of separatism and of strengthening Islam’s integration into the Chechen society as an additional factor of political contention against Moscow. Groups of missionaries, who called themselves “preachers of Islam”, arrived in the North Caucasus from Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey, and Libya. Many of these Arab fighters were Afghani veterans, whose incursion in Chechnya was sanctioned by the leadership of Al Qaeda and other Global Jihadi organizations.