BOOK REVIEW From local fight to global struggle Russia's Islamic Threat by Gordon M Hahn
Reviewed by Dmitry Shlapentokh
The war in Chechnya has been a part of post-Soviet Russia almost from the
tumultuous early 1990s, but while interest in Russia - other than in Europe -
has waned to a large degree, this has not been the case with Chechnya.
Books on the conflict continue to be published every year, and Russia's Islamic
Threat is one of them.
How has it happened there is so much interest in the Chechen conflict? Gordon M
Hahn makes it clear: the conflict in Chechnya did not just outgrow the
confinement of the small republic; it now stretches beyond the North Caucasus
and spreads all over
Moreover, it has started to be a part of the global process, in fact, possibly
influencing global events as much as Russia does as a country, and possibly
The point is that the Chechen war started basically as a nationalistic exploit
- the desire to liberate Chechens from Russia and build an independent state
has transformed itself into a jihadi movement with global appeal.
rightfully pointing to the overall trend, the author does not elaborate on why
this has happened. He also does not place the "jihadization" of the Chechen,
actually North Caucasian, resistance in the broad context of President Vladimir
Putin's Russia. At the same time, placing Russian jihadism in the context of
developments in the Russian heartland reveals an interesting picture.
Developments in the North Caucasus are entirely opposite to what is going on
with ethnic Russians in the Russian heartland.
Nationalists proclaim that the goal of the Chechen resistance should be the
creation of an independent state, the jihadis not only proclaim that this goal
is actually quite modest, but simply should not be the goal at all. In
well-known polemics between Movladi Udugov - the chief theoretician of the
jihadis - and Akhmed Zakaev - the representative of the moderate nationalists -
Udugov made his point clear.
He stated he did not understand why the creation of an independent Chechnya is
the paramount goal, regardless of the ideological framework of the future
state, and he also failed to understand why he should feel any attachment to a
Chechen who, if by his life and thinking, has actually ceased to be Muslim.
It is this internationalism versus imperialism of a sort that not only makes
jihadis quite different from Chechen nationalists but also puts them in
opposition to the broad processes at work among ethnic Russians.
In fact, Russians - possibly for the first time in their history, have become
increasingly attached to the idea of nationalism in its classic 19th-century
European fashion, which defined nationalism as an attachment to a person of the
same blood/race. These processes in 19th-century Europe had been caused by the
continuous spread of capitalism and permeated the notion of law and contract to
the very bottom of European society. And only now are Russians free from
peasant communes in tsarist Russia and communal life of the same sort during
the Soviet era and are now entering the same stage. It was this that prevented
present-day Russians from being truly internationalists.
The internationalism of Russian Bolsheviks and even more so the attachment of
the Russian masses, including ethnic Russians, to their slogans, were not due
to Russian modernity but to just the opposite. Most Russian peasants who lived
in the communes were still a people of the Middle Ages and had a very vague
notion of "Russianness", beyond attachment to the Orthodox religion and the
Russian language. This also could explain the spread of internationalist
jihadism, mostly in the Northern Caucasus, which is much less affected by
capitalist modernization than the Russian heartland.
These people of the Northern Caucasus have lived in conditions of pre-modernity
throughout their history. And these conditions were solidified by the Soviet
regime, which, in itself - by its social-economic arrangements - was closer to
pre-modernity than to modern capitalism.
While the theoretical framework of the book is not very engaging - and here it
is not much different from other books on the subject - it is the factual
background and focus on the trends in the North Caucasian resistance that makes
it quite interesting reading. The author shows how jihadism started to slowly
emerge in the Chechen resistance during the first Chechen War (1994 to 1996)
and how this became more pronounced over time.
The increasing influence of jihadism has corresponded with the spread of the
Islamic underground in the North Caucasus. And finally, Muslim extremism has
moved outside the Caucasus, mostly into the Volga region. Here the jihadi
universalists and the nationalistic extremists have acted in unison against the
Russian authorities, finally becoming blended with global jihadism. The
concluding chapter, on the potential implication of the spread of jihadism in
Russia, is instructive.
First, it shows that Russian jihadism could become more integrated in the
global jihadi network. And these Russian jihadis could well help international
Islamic extremists in their most daring terrorist enterprises.
For example, they could help them in obtaining nuclear weapons. At the same
time, the jihadi underground, together with other forces, could play a serious
role in destabilizing the Russian Federation, especially in the event of a
The collection of interesting data and, above all, the description of the
integration of North Caucasian jihadism into the broad picture of Russia and
Eurasia, and actually the world, make the book worth reading.
Russia's Islamic Threat by Gordon M Hahn. Yale University Press (July 9,
2007) . ISBN-10: 030012077X. Price US$35, 368 pages.
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of
Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of
East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.