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Professor Ali Khan
Washburn University School of Law
JURIST Contributing Editor

Armed with explosive belts and masked in headscarves, Chechen feminists and their Muslim brothers raided and captured a Moscow theater in late October. They threatened to kill some 700 hostages (mostly Russians, and some foreigners) who had come to the theater to enjoy Nord Ost - Russia痴 first home-grown, Western-style musical, highlighting failed brotherhood, missed opportunities, death and patriotism. The Chechens said they would kill their hostages unless Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya.

The occupation of the Moscow theater, the Russian security forces' use of gas to end the siege, and the deaths of all the Chechens and over 100 hostages add more layers to an already complicated Russian war. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB Boss, apologized to his people for the casualties in the (unprecedented) rescue operation, but warned Chechans that his government would not succumb to terrorist blackmail (i.e. Chechnya will not be freed).

Possessing superior weapons and the will to kill, successive Russian regimes of the Czars, Stalin, Yeltsin, and Putin have tried hard to put down the Muslim rebellion (dream for independence) in this physically rugged, psychologically stubborn, and spiritually indomitable region. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Czars and Czarinas, including Catherine the Great, liquidated hundreds of thousands of the Chechens, but failed to pacify the resistance. In 1756, eighty percent of all the mosques in the region were destroyed, and the Chechens were forced to abandon Islam. Some did, most did not.

During the Second World War, Stalin accused the Chechens of colluding with the Germans. Along with others, 600,000 Chechens were deported to Serbia and Central Asia to do hard labor. The ill and the elderly were pushed out of the exile trains; many perished in the wilderness. Stalin ordered that Chechnya be removed from the official map of the Soviet Union, a move to deny Chechnya痴 separate existence. This official erasure did not last long, however, and Chechnya was soon put back on the official map as an autonomous region. In Chechnya, the bitter memories of deportation and death nonetheless survived, deepening the scars as well as the collective will to seek independence from Russia.

Freedom for Chechnya did not come even in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed as a nation-state and fell from the status of a super-power. The majority of 48 million Muslims were freed from the Soviet Union, but not the Chechens and the Kazan Tatars, the so-called 妬nternal Muslims. Boris Yeltsin, a democratically elected Russian President, waged a war against the Chechens to demand their allegiance to the Russian Federation and, incidentally, to secure Chechnya's substantial oil reserves). When the world community objected to Yeltsin痴 wanton use of force, Yeltsin responded with a well-known, though no longer valid international cliche: 典his is our internal affair. Yeltsin refused to negotiate with the Chechen 澱andits and vowed their 田omplete destruction.

The world quietly listened to these threats of genocide, as if delivered in a musical -- though President Clinton, at a leadership conference, once hugged Yeltsin and reminded him how the world did not dismiss it as an internal affair but cheered for Russia痴 freedom when Yeltsin stood up on the tank in Moscow, in open defiance to the authorities in the Kremlin. But Yeltsin did not change his mind. When he eventually left the stage, he handed over his cue cards to President Putin.

In the past few years, though the war with Chechnya lingers, the set has changed. Before, the war was in Chechnya. Now the war is with Russia. Instead of fighting the war in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, the Chechens have brought the war to Moscow, the capital of Russia. Before, according to Russia, the war in Chechnya was an internal affair; now, according to Russia, the war by the Chechens is part of an international crusade of Muslim terrorists. Before, the United States criticized the Russian use of force against the Chechens; now, it understands. Before, the liberation movement in Chechnya was anchored in the right to self-determination; now, it is a terrorist enterprise (the occupier has won the battle of labels). Before, Russia condemned Islam as a backward religion that oppresses women; now, Russia accuses Islam of turning Muslim women into heartless warriors. Before, the cause of terror was Islamic fundamentalism (Afghanistan); now it is Sufism (Chechnya).

Though Islamic theologians have been suspicious of the cult of the sufis, the Chechans (and others in the region) converted to Islam thanks to the sufis' personal power, not the sword. In Chechnya, scores of sufi tombs serve as pilgrimage sites, where the Chechans go to renew their spiritual strengths. The Soviets admitted the vitality of sufi shrines in Chechnya, but President Putin is considering how he might 田ompletely liquidate all cult structures in the mountains which serve as hiding places for the bandits. Following tradition, the Chechan sufis teach love, reconciliation and forgiveness. However, Chechen sufism has in recent centuries adopted militancy, at least since the first massive Russian aggression in 1785. The Chechen resistance then was led by a sufi, known as Shaykh Mansur Ushurma. Declaring jihad, the sufi and his men crushed the Czarist forces. Ever since, Chechen sufism has mixed and matched the elements of resistance - peace with war, the veil with the gun.

Back at the theater, the suffocating deaths in Moscow raise a thousand questions. Does the play have a deeper plot when the innocent viewers do not come home alive? Is it sufi militancy or sheer terror that has brought the war to Moscow? Are the Chechen bandits members of the Al-Qaeda, though the former have been around for centuries? Were the veiled women dressed in explosives just amateur actors, determined to kill the innocent audience of Nord Ost, or were they a new breed of Muslim women, determined to fight oppression and occupation? And then there is a more general question: What is it about Islam that prepares its followers to collide with mighty earthly powers? But of all the questions, one persists: What should one conclude when sufis, saints and poets threaten to kill the innocent?

Ali Khan is a professor of law at Washburn University School of Law, where he teaches International Law and Human Rights. He is the author of The Extinction of Nation-States: A World Without Borders (Kluwer, 1996).

November 4, 2002


JURIST Contributing Editor Ali Khan is Professor of Law at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. A law graduate of Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan, he also holds LL.M. and S.J.D. degrees from New York University, where he was the Robert Marshall Fellow in Civil Liberties and the Judge Jacob D. Fuchsberg Fellow in Criminal Law. At Washburn he teaches international law and human rights. He has published numerous articles on international law. His latest book, The Extinction of Nation-States: A World Without Borders was published by Kluwer in 1996.

Professor Khan is a member of the New York Bar.