Thursday, February 6, 2014

Window on Eurasia: ‘Eastern’ Globalization a Response to ‘Western’ Counterpart in North Caucasus, Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 6 – Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the peoples in that region have faced many challenges, globalization in particular, but while much attention has been devoted to that phenomenon’s “western” face, much less has been given to its “eastern” variant, a variant that in the North Caucasus is playing an increasingly predominant important role.

            In the North Caucasus, Aslan Beshto, a Circassian who heads a research center in Kabardino-Balkaria, indeed suggests this is the form the clash of civilizations has assumed there (
                Eastern or Arabic globalization, he writes, “in the first instance is the expansion of Arabic culture and the Arabic way of life” into areas where it had not been dominant before, the result of both the ideological vacuum that emerged with the collapse of the Soviet system and the anger of many in traditional societies about the nature and impact of western globalization.

Following the collapse of the Soviet system, the various peoples in the region sought to restore their national self-consciousness, something that some officials exploited but many opposed because they saw it as a challenge to stability and their power.  As a result, supporters of Salafi Islam gained an opening, even among those who did not accept all their precepts.

 In the North Caucasus, Beshto says, that led to conflicts between the societies and the force structures and drove many of the former to take up arms against the latter. More important, it meant that “under their influence and in part because of fear, supporters of traditional Islam began to surrender their positions” and accept “the more aggressive platform” of the Salafis.

That trend was actively promoted by the Saudis who over the last generation have spent from 1.2 to 1.6 trillion US dollars in promoting the form of Islam, Wahhabism, that exists in Saudi Arabia, an increasing share of it going to the Caucasus and Central Asia and involving both the training of mullahs and the building of mosques.

But the Saudis would not have been as successful as they have been, Beshto suggests, had the societies of the North Caucasus not in many cases viewed the untrammeled impact of western globalization as unacceptable and thus been willing to look elsewhere, to choose, to use his lapidary expression, “hijabs as an alternative to mini-skirts.”

(The Saudi-Salafi effort was aided as well by something few have called attention to: economics.  Given the recession in the North Caucasus, the Circassian analyst says, a young woman would have to spend a great deal to have a diverse western wardrobe but could dress for all occasions with a single hijab if she chose to follow the Salafis.)

But the expansion of Salafi Islam, initiated by those who wanted to protect their national cultures, soon overwhelmed the latter in many places, leading its adepts to declare that they were not members of a particular ethno-national community but rather simply Muslims, a shift that undercut national claims.

While there have been important variations among the Muslims of the North Caucasus and elsewhere as this shift has occurred, what many call “traditional Islam” has not been able to block it.  That form of Islam “is like Orthodox Christianity in which the cast of religious servants play an enormous role,” something inherently alien to Islam as the Salafis have pointed out.

But if the Salafis reject such a role for mullahs, they at the same time have insisted on creating structures such as schools and even quasi-police forces in which their leaders play an enormous role. For example, Beshto notes, the Salafi-controlled muftiate in Stavropol kray is now pushing for the creation of schools attached to mosques in which girls could wear the hijab.

Obviously, the radicalism of the Salafis attracts many young people, Bashto continues, and one factor which helps to explain their success is their efforts to impose “harsh control over the libido and sexual relations” of the young. If western globalization promotes greater sexual freedom, the Salafis do just the reverse, something that also wins them support in the population.

To address these problems, the analyst says, the Salafis call for “’a sexual jihad’” which involves early marriages “exclusively on the basis of ideological agreement” rather than familiarity and choice and gives Salafi leaders the dominant role in deciding who marries whom and when.

Some analysts have suggested that the very harshness of the Salafis will provoke “an Arab spring in the Caucasus,” and “if one considers this threat through the prism of Arab globalization, then this threat seems real.”  But just as the Arab Spring has not spread through the entire Arab world, it won’t spread through the entire North Caucasus, something “the Russian establishment” doesn’t understand.

There are of course many similarities among those societies in which Salafism and eastern globalization have become rooted, but “the distinctions are all the same greater,” Bashto argues.  Chechnya, for example, because of its ethnic homogeneity and taip system is unlikely to experience a spring in the next 50 years.

But in the western Caucasus, where “Islam traditionally has not had particular strength,” the chances that there will be a reaction to the Salafis and that there will be an opening for democracy are far more real. Those who seek to govern the region need to take such differences into account as the region goes through its own specific form of the clash of civilizations.

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