Russia's Ambivalent Muslim Heritage

On his recent visit to Brussels, Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned European leaders and journalists alike with his comments about the Islamic desire to establish a global Caliphate. Sensational in his rhetoric, Putin presents Russia's brutal war against the Chechens as his country's contribution to the international war against Islamist terrorism. But is it really?

Russia's attempts to subdue the Chechen insurrection are but another bloody chapter in a two hundred year colonial policy that began with Russia's subjugation of Caucasian mountain peoples in a cruel war that lasted for thirty years. This war lingered and flared well into the early Soviet era and, in 1944, the entire Chechen population was forcibly deported to Central Asia.

Fifty years later, President Yeltsin resumed the war when Chechens made a new bid for independence. So, from a historic perspective, it is more appropriate to compare today's Chechen war with the other great wars of the era of de-colonialization, particularly the bloody French war in Algeria, than it is to view it as a "Clash of Civilizations" or a war on terror.

All the while, the fighting and ruined cities of Chechnya cast a shadow on the otherwise much more complex encounter of Russia with the Islamic world. Indeed, the Chechens are only a fraction of the 13 million Muslims who live in Russia - 9% of the total population.