December 17, 2001

Dagestan - Islamic Center and War Zone


Dagestan - Islamic Center and War Zone

The strip of land connecting south-west Russia and Turkey is known as the Caucasus. It is bordered by the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east. On the eastern side of the land bridge, the republic of Dagestan (also spelled Daghestan) and its capitoll city of Makhachkala is found. This area is home to roughly 2 million people and no less than 32 unique ethnic groups, the largest of which are the Avars. Immediately to the north of Dagestan is the embattled republic of Chechyna. The Caucasus is, also, home to the former Soviet states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Even though Dagestan is made up of over thirty ethnic groups, they have a common goal; independence from Russia. Dagestan is the Islamic center of the North Caucasus. Its capital, Makchachkala, is home to the Muslim spiritual board of Dagestan and the N. Caucasus.

With only a few exceptions, the Dagestani people are indigenous peoples who lived in the mountains. Two groups, the Kumyks and Nogai, hail from Central Asia, live in the steppe regions and speak Turkish. The many Dagestani ethnic groups are further divided into tribes, clans, and villages. The village community is a group of roughly 100 people who claim the same ancestor and are a sub-group of the larger clan. Individual loyalty is strongest to the village community and comes before loyalty to the clan or ethnic group. Thus, Dagestanis live a, primarily, rural and isolationist life by maintaining separation between the various village communities. Marriage between ethnic groups is generally prohibited.

There are roughly 30 different languages spoken in Dagestan. Each is unique and there are virtually no similarities between them. The largest ethnic group is Avar and, thus, this is the language spoken by about 500,000 people in Dagestan. The smallest group and language is Hinukh used by only about 5,000 people. There is no official language in Dagestan. However, Russian is typically used in government communication and documents and is a required course in Dagestan's elementary and secondary schools.

The majority religion of Dagestan is Islam. The republic has been a center of Islamic scholastics from as far back as the Middle Ages. Roughly 88 percent of the Dagestani people are Muslim. Most of Dagestan's mosques were destroyed during the pre-WWII years of Stalin. This did and has not slowed the growth of Islam in this region. Even though Islam is deeply rooted in Dagestani culture, individual loyalty remains stronger to the ethnic group. Thus, most Islamic communities are drawn on ethnic lines with little interaction. Most Dagestani males are members of Sufi religious groups. Again, these groups divide themselves by ethnic community and profoundly affect and regulate the life and culture of their respective villages. They oversee rituals surrounding births, marriages and deaths and serve as go-betweens and peace keepers with other clans within their ethnic group.

The geography of Dagestan is mostly mountainous with smaller areas of plains and steppes. The generally difficult access to much of this republic has left most of its natural resources in tact. Along Dagestan's Caspian Sea coastline, however, oil and natural gas are mined. The lowlands, to the north, are irrigated and produce grapes, fruits, corn and wheat. The major industry in Dagestan is fruit canning, wine making, machinery, wood products and textiles.

History . . .

Dagestan is an ancient land. It was a part of Caucasian Albania from as far back as the 600s BC. The succession of Dagestani conquerors have included:

~ 600s AD: Arabs and the introduction of Islam
~ 900s: Seljuk Turks
~ 1200s: Mongols and the Golden Horde, from whom the Nogai hail
~ 1500's: Ottoman Empire
~ 1700s: Persian Empire

Despite the many different foreign conquerors, the Dagestani people have, throughout history, managed to maintain their identity and independent nature. With tight knit communities and fearless local leadership, Dagestan was able to resist, for a time, the Russian Empire's attempts to occupy their lands even though they had been annexed from the Persians in 1813. The Russian Empire began its invasions of the Caucasus during the mid-1500s and established a colony of Cossacks from which military activities were deployed. This was during the days of Ivan IV the Terrible (1547-1584).

Most of the tribes and villages of the North Caucasus took an oath of allegiance to Russia by the end of the 1700s. The governor of the Caucasus, General Ermolov (1816-1827), wanted to centralize control over the region. He attempted to do so by constructing a series of forts and engaging in countless mountain raids. All this did was set off a 25 year revolt by the mountain peoples. The most glorified passage in Dagestani history is the Caucasian War (1816 - 1856). The Avars and their leader, Imam Shamil, held back Russia in a series of bloody battles. However, countless Caucasians were killed, shipped off to Siberia or emigrated (ca. 500,000) to the Ottoman Empire before the end of the 1800s. At the same time, there was an immigration of Russians and other Christian peoples to the Caucasus.

The native people of Dagestan endorsed the Bolsheviks during the Revolution of the early 1900s. Lenin had promised them ethnic autonomy and this was far more important than nationalism offered by the White Army. After the fall of the Romanovs and the ensuing civil war, Dagestan, in particular the Avars, supported an anti-Bolshevik revolt which ended in a bloody defeat (1921). In the same year, the Dagestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (DASSR) was established. It was made up of Tsarist Dagestan and the Kumyk district. The region came to include the Cossack lands to the north and parts of the Astrakhan Province (1922). The area west of Kizlar district, which once belonged to the Cossacks, was attached to Dagestan in 1923. These same lands were transferred to a recreated Chechnya in 1957. The lands north of the Terek River were given back to the Astrakhan Province in 1938.

Dagestan signed the the March 31, 1992 federation documents which formed the Russian Federation. Dagestan is an autonomous republic whose people elect and are represented by a 210 member parliament.

First of all, one should keep in mind that the conflict in Dagestan and Chechnya goes back roughly 300 years. Russia's latest war with Chechnya actually began in neighboring Dagestan when over 1,000 Islamics declared a holy war on Russia for Dagestani independence. These individuals were members of the militant Wahhabi group who wanted to see Sharia law in Dagestan. The Wahhabis took advantage of Dagestan's mountainous terrain as it was ideal for their guerrilla style of warfare. Their ultimate goal was an independent, Muslim North Caucasus which controlled access to the Caspian Sea.

Dagestani Muslims are not militant by nature, unlike their Chechen brothers. During August of 1999, acting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vowed to squash these rebels in two weeks. However, the Wahhabis proved to be tougher to beat and the conflict has drug on into the new millennium. Moscow, convinced that the rebels were maintaining bases of operation in Chechnya, began conducting military action back and forth across the Chechen - Dagestani border. As the war drug on, Moscow widen its scope to include putting down Chechnya's claim to independence from Russia.

The Islamic council of Dagestan is not recognized by Moscow; only the republic's elected parliament. During the summer of 1999, this council drew up and signed a declaration of independence and called upon Muslims in Chechnya to support their efforts. This declaration is reported to have been signed at a meeting held in one of the mountain villages of Dagestan, under the control of the rebel Wahhabi Chechens. The effort is aimed at making Dagestan and Chechnya a single Islamic state.

The Wahhabi movement dates back to the mid-1700s and was founded by Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdula Wahhab. His battle cry was for all Muslims to return to a pure form of Islam and put forth by the prophet, Mohammed. Wahhab preached that Islam should be spread and rooted in a given culture by force. This ideal did take root in what is now Saudi Arabia where the Wahhabis are still centered. Eventually, Wahhab's teachings spread to other regions, including the North Caucasus.

Moscow hesitated, at first, to use total force against the Islamic rebels. The disaster that was the Chechen war of 1994 - 96, is still very fresh in the mind of the Kremlin and the Russian people. Russia has deployed artillery units and air power to the region where the guerrilla population has proven to be greater than anticipated. One of the tactics used by the guerrillas is to burrow their way into the mountains, creating a series of fortified tunnels in which to hide, store their supplies and fight from. The Russian Army's chore is to bombard these fortifications in hopes of driving the rebels out into the open.

The war around Dagestani towns, such as Chabanmakhi, is a game of cat and mouse. The rebels take a village and dig in. The Russian's shell them until they either run away or come out and fight. The numbers of military and civilian deaths and wounded mount daily. This has turned into the same type of war fought in 1994 - 96, in which Russia lost. The question is, how much time, money and souls can or should Moscow risk in this round of warfare with the Islamic rebels in Dagestan and Chechyna?

The conflict in Chechyna and Dagestan still rages on. It is anyone's guess as to when or how it will be resolved. Since the details change daily, I suggest you refer to Russian Culture Updates for the latest headlines.

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