Saturday, June 2, 2012

What "Going to the Mountains" Really Means in the North Caucasus

In 2009, I met young people from Russia's Caucasus Mountains who told me about their situation. They have been long-term unemployed and desperate since they could hardly provide their families with foods. They had lost hope of political solutions. So they were entertaining the idea of "going to the mountains" - which meant nothing less then going up there and joining the Islamistic militants terrorizing the Russian population, especially Russian authorities and people linked to them. What they expected from "going to the mountains" was to get some money from the jihadists. In return, they would receive some combat training and perform one or the other assassination. The jihadists are said to be sponsored by the long-term U.S. ally Saudi-Arabia. I was also told that the Wahhabi's determined goal is to establish a caliphate (or emirate) across the whole Caucasus region. 

Mosque in Mahatchkala, capital of the Republic of Dagestan, Russia

Wahhabism (a form of extreme fundamentalist Salafism) is relatively new in the Caucasus region and skeptically viewed by old local Sunnis. Whether Wahhabi money also directly flows into the building of mosques and Qur'anic schools is hard to tell. But it can be assumed that even less radical local Sunni Muslims will not look a gift horse in the mouth - thereby indirectly supporting the Wahhabi agenda to strengthen and spread their cultural and political hegemony over the Caucasus region.

Qur'anic school opposite to Mosque in Mahatchkala, Dagestan

But the guys I have met were neither extremists, nor did they support the extreme fundamentalist Muslim agenda. They were strong and stubborn believers, no doubt, but didn't even attend Friday prayers on a regular basis. They were rather muslims by tradition than fundamentalists. They couldn't speak or understand Arabic and were not really interested in translations either (maybe due to the influence of Sufism in the Caucasus; some Sufis say that it is better just to view the Arabic letters of the Qur'an than to read a (bad) translation). Though some people I met told me they attended Arabic lessons in the Qur'anic school, their knowledge of the language appeared to be very restricted.

Mahatchkala at the Caspian Sea: Filthy beach section
where once used to be a city beach during the Soviet Union

During my travel from Mahatchkala to Derbent (further to the south) I was once present during a discussion between young Dagestani and a native Arabic speaker. At times he amusedly corrected their use of the Arabic language when it came to religious topics. At some point he felt obliged to lecture them on a topic concerning the Qur'an. The Dagestani politely listened to him (via translation) until he was finished and then continued by totally ignoring of what he had said. Afterwards he told me those guys had no idea of the Arabic language and dubious knowledge of the Qur'an. When they asked me about my belief, I answered "agnostic", suppressing the fact that I'm an infidel towards the book religions I got acquainted with. Those guys were very quick at hand with some religious verses bashing agnostics and depicting them even less favorable than atheists (something which you can hear also in the Bible Belt). 

Mahatchkala at the Caspian Sea, view from the foot of the Caucasus Mountains I

Stubborn resistance: not even the anti-religious suppression during the Soviet Union could annihilate the multi-ethnic Caucasian population's adherence to Muslim belief which had arrived there in the late 8th century AD. Under the Soviets, religious practice in public was forbidden. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the Dagestani threw out all Russians but later invited them to come back after they had realized that nothing goes without them (long story short!). There was no one left running the infrastructure, hospitals, universities, ...

Mahatchkala at the Caspian Sea, view from the foot of the Caucasus Mountains I I

It would be an oversimplification to think young people in the Caucaus were peaceful in principle and only forced by bad economical and political conditions to join the Wahhabi terrorists. The situation is much more complicated. I assume though that they wouldn't voluntarily "go to the mountains" if they'd see other possibilities. But here's the problem: they don't have much choice, if you try to see it their way. Why?

Down south through the Caucasian foothills, on the road to Derbent

First, there is the strong archaic-patriarchal structure of the tribes. I think it's justified to speak of tribes or clans here, because if you ask the people, they can name the patriarch of their family and his possible successors, and these families are big; marriages are often arranged between cousins in order to strengthen the ties between families; possible genetic disorders are totally ignored; weddings take three days and can be crowded with thousands of people (depending on the size of the involved clans); women have no desirable status there: their value is measured by their fertility; they can be easily divorced and a divorced woman is a pariah - it would be the best for her to flee the Republic; I was always feeling very bored spending hours in the living room with men only, while women and girls had fun in the kitchen from which they would show up at times serving us the meals; nevertheless, these archaic-patriarchal family structures are often softened by several factors, e.g. it appeared to me that the gender separation was less important when no other member of the clan was watching. Coming back to the question of choice: most notably in cities, men are supposed not to have an "unmanly" profession - a doctor, a professor at the university, a lawyer, a technician, not to speak of gardeners, shoemakers or cooks - these are not "manly" professions, these are for slaves, girlies or foreigners; the choices for a "real man" are restricted to either "business men" (including all sorts of businesses) or "fighter" (including "manly sports", the military and the police); Now, since a country cannot be run by business men and fighters only, they need "guest workers" like Russians and folks from other regions of the former Soviet Empire who do the skilled, the "dirty" and the "unmanly" jobs for them. And - by the way - this is no exaggeration. In Chechnya, this Caucasian Machismo is even stronger. (Craftsmanship is acceptable in the countryside though, where you can't do without it.)

View from Naryn-Kala citadel (Цитадель Нарын-кала) over Derbent at the Caspian Sea

Second, the market for business and fighter jobs is naturally constantly saturated, young folks from the North Caucasus either stay unemployed, "go to the mountains" or leave the Republic. Now, "going to the mountains" is the last option, I assume. This leaves emigration the only way out. Now, there is the problem with education, especially with foreign languages. Mostly they don't know any other "foreign" language than Russian. (In fact, Russian is the only common language they have and is obligatory in schools. If they hadn't Russian, the tribes couldn't even communicate with each other.) This is why many young people from the region go to Russia or other neighboring countries where Russian is still spoken. But in Russia the people from the south are uniformly called "the blacks", viewed as possible terrorists and not very welcomed. Since they cannot accept "unmanly" job offers, they are subject to the same restrictions as at home. So this often leaves them with the hard option to study at a Russian university - a challenge for which they are hardly prepared because of the bad education at home. Only a small percentage, I guess, will master this rocky road. Another small percentage will choose the "unmanly" way of staying at home, studying or buying some academic degree and working as a doctor or the like. (I would not recommend consulting a dentist in this region.)

Garden on top of Naryn-Kala citadel, Derbent  

Third, there is an atmosphere of hopelessness regarding the political situation, especially the high level of corruption. In Chechnya there is Dr. Ramzan Akhmadovich Kadyrov, a ruthless vassal by the grace of Moscow. He's Muslim. Nevertheless, he and his henchmen are doing the dirty work to keep the Republic quiet and clean from the Wahhabi terrorists (who allegedly tried to kill him in 2009). Consequently, the Islamists more and more flee from Chechnya to Dagestan or Ingushetia. Whistle blowers have been assassinated by Kadyrov's gang even outside of Russia, so in Dubai, Istanbul and in Vienna. If anyone comes nearer to Sasha Baron Cohen's figure in The Dictator than the Saudi princes, it must be Kadyrov. In Dagestan the situation is different. In contrast to Chechnya, Dagestan is a melting pot of different ethnicities and historically these have been much more loyal to Russia than Chechens. Putin continued the old Soviet style strategy to appoint members of the local elite as vassals: Kadyrov in Chechnya and Magomedsalam Magomedov in Dagestan. The latter is an ethnic Dargin. Now, whatever his merits might be, there we have already a severe problem, since the Dargins are just one out of a wide range of ethnic groups each of which is a closed society, dominated by clan mentality. Under such conditions, problems are bound to occur. Even Dagestani told me that it would have been a much better idea to appoint an ethnic Russian - provided he is capable of forcing back corruption - the hardest problem in the region.

An old Soviet slogan on top of the building: "Long Live the Defenders of Dagestan" (going back to  WW2)

At the same time corruption is a general problem in Russia, not only in the Caucasus region. Take for instance streets and highways: often you see new streets which have been obviously designed to have two or more lanes but in fact there is only the minimum of one prepared to go. Sometimes you drive along a new street and it suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere. Road signs are rare. Here's how it works with Russian public funds: a full-blown project for a public building or street is sent to Moscow, everything's included, no flaw. After being approved in the Russian capital, the money is sent to the local authorities. Now, here's a simplified scheme: the first quarter of the money stays in Moscow, the second gets lost somehow on the way and when half of the money arrives in Dagestan, the third quarter of the estimated sum disappears into some local's pocket. The poor rest is finally spent for the construction of the street or building, provided the raw materials or construction machines are not stolen during the process. This distribution scheme of public wealth goes under the name "sharing". "Sharing" is an important concept in Russia. If you want your business to survive, you've got to "share". If you ask Russians why oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky is imprisoned, they often simply comment "he didn't want to share".
Nevertheless, there are some republics and districts in Russia where you can observe improvements, where new housing space is created, tolerable infrastructure and public buildings like schools, baths and sport centers are built. There you can see that corruption is not a destiny - not even in Russia. But in the Caucasus region it's still a plague and a job-killer. Ask the locals and they will name you the exact prices in $ for all kinds of governmental posts, licenses and academic degrees. It is more than obvious that most young people are not bound to participate in that system. They are marginalized.

Note also that the Wahhabi hunt declared by Moscow much too often affects the wrong people, i.e. the moderate Muslims instead of the extremists. In addition, conditions in Russian prisons are so inhumane that even moderate young Muslims, arbitrarily imprisoned, are put odds with Russian politics which again turns out counter productive and playing into the hands of Islamist.

If you put it all together, what are the root causes for young people in the Caucasus to "go to the mountains"? It's a combination of corruption on all levels, failed policy of the Russian Federation, the archaic-patriarchal mindset of the Caucasian tribes, the hegemonic ambitions of Saudi-Arabia based Islamists and, last but not least, the devastating influence of a religion whose holy scriptures are open to violent interpretations whenever desired.

In particular, the archaic-patriarchal mindset of the closed tribal societies restrict young people to only a narrow set of possible ways to earn their living; this causes per se tight job market conditions (in major cities); political and economic corruption further tighten these conditions which also erode social life in the region; the archaic-patriarchal structures also imply that violent conflict resolution is socially acceptable; unfortunately, this traditional cultural readiness to use violence meets here with  militant adherents of possible violent interpretations of the Qur'an, financially sponsored from certain groups abroad, especially from Saudi-Arabia; Moscow's failed politics of vassals and Wahhabi hunt further creates resistance and causes a spiral of violence: in Chechnya, the Russians are lying in bed with the devil and in Dagestan they just don't stop taking counter productive measures.

Further readings:
Russia’s Dagestan: Conflict Causes (recommended!)
Islam in the North Caucasus (Uwe Halbach)

Some more impressions from Mahatchkala:

Young Dagestani school girls in front of a statue of Lenin

another house of prayer

at the bazar

inside the market hall

governmental building


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