On Thursday, January 15, President of the Chechen Republic Akhmad Kadyrov starts the official part of his visit to Saudi Arabia. This is his first foreign trip following his inauguration.
Saudi Arabia is the cradle of Islam, while its cities of Mecca and Medina are sacred to all Muslims. The invitation to visit the country, made by Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Abdullah Ben Abdul Aziz while he was in Russia, was greeted as the Islamic world's recognition of Kadyrov as the legitimate head of the Chechen Republic.
Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and president of the Centre for Civilisation and Regional Studies, Alexei Vasilyev said in a RIA Novosti interview, "Kadyrov's visit to Saudi Arabia is a continuation of the policy to promote relations between Moscow and Riyadh and at the same time a practical result of Russia's policy of seeking rapprochement with the Islamic world".
It may be recalled that last year President Putin, when speaking about Russia's intention to invigorate co-operation with the Islamic Conference Organisation, indicated that the Russian Muslims should perceive themselves not only as full-fledged citizens of Russia, but also as part of the Islamic world. And Kadyrov's visit to the Kingdom, during which he will make a short hadj apart from talks with Saudi officials, will throw open a kind of bridge between the Russian Muslims and their brethren in faith in the Arab world.
It may be that during the visit, Kadyrov will not only have to conduct political negotiations, but also have to deal with religious disputes.
Vasilyev recalled that Kadyrov was Chechnya's mufti in the past. "As a deeply religious man he will talk the same language with the Saudis: the language of Islam, the language of the great fundamentals underlying that religion, the language of tolerance, and of the jihad, a concept that is primarily concerned with man's self-perfection," the Russian academic remarked.
But this does not mean that the views of Saudi and Russian Muslims fully coincide. For example, the term "Wahhabism" is interpreted differently in Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Edi Isayev, head of information for the Chechen Republic's representative office in Moscow, recently said that, during his visit, Kadyrov would "urge the Muslim leaders of Saudi Arabia not to support but condemn the Wahhabi movement and also to keep financial and other assistance from getting into the hands of militants and all sorts of extremists in Chechnya".
The ideology of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on the teachings of Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab. "Back in the 19th century, Egyptian theologians from the leading Islamic University of Al-Azhar ruled that these teachings did not contradict the basics of Islam. The people of Saudi Arabia belong to the Sunni branch of Islam in its Hanbalit form. No matter how much the term Wahhabism may be linked in Russia and the West with Saudi Arabia, the Saudis do not themselves recognise it," Vasilyev explained to RIA Novosti.
In Russia, Wahhabism has come to designate extremist Muslim trends in the North Caucasus, a label associated with one definite state. "But this distorts the true picture," the Russian scholar believes.
Vasilyev explained that many Muslims in the North Caucasus, protesting against economic and social injustices, reject the form of Islam dominant in the region, specifically the Tarikatist one, and turn to Hanbalism and the teachings of Wahhab. This is their right and it would seem the Moscow leadership should not interfere with these intra-social and religious processes.
But this social protest, arising in part from discontent with local authorities and tainted with religious undertones, more often than not assumes extremist forms. And in this case, the state cannot stand back and look on. This, however, does not mean that any resident of the North Caucasus preaching Hanbalit Islam is an extremist or a terrorist.
Terrorism bears no relation to any religion, but "is the result of too fast changes in the modern world, with which a considerable part of the population cannot keep pace," believes Vasilyev.
The "portrait" of the terrorist of twenty-five years ago - a half-educated beggar - does not correspond to the image of the present-day terrorist, who is often the heir to a considerable fortune and has a high-class Western education. The Russian academic pointed out, "The main problem of this 'anti-hero' of the globalisation era is self-identity, rather than physical survival".
The central problem facing mankind is how to fight terrorism. Alone, no country can cope with this phenomenon.
No doubt the subject of struggle against international terrorism will be one of the most difficult in Kadyrov's negotiations in Riyadh. It is a matter of common knowledge that now an Arab connection surfaces in Chechnya, and then a Chechen one in Saudi Arabia.
At the end of last November, for example, Saudi security forces, during an anti-terrorist raid, uncovered a cache of weapons belonging to militants. The investigation established that they were led by Saleh Al-Oufi from the Group of 19, which engineered a terrorist act in Riyadh in May 2003. Several years ago Al-Oufi had fought in Chechnya.
It used to be the case that some Saudi charities made illegal use of their resources to support terrorist activity both within the Kingdom itself and abroad. Now the Saudi authorities are taking a series of measures to cut off this terrorist supply channel. And in this they are being helped by secret services of other countries, including Russia.
However, the problem of terrorism cannot be resolved by force of arms alone.
One way to stop the dissemination of extremist ideology is to promote religious education. "True religiosity, a knowledge of the basics of religion, is inconsistent with extremism and especially its most aggressive form - terrorism," believes Vasilyev. A survey conducted among Russian Muslims by the Russian Academy of Sciences' Africa Institute found that people with a real knowledge of the fundamentals of their religion are tolerant and willing to talk with those professing a different faith. In Moscow alone, about 1,500 people were polled.
However, according to Vasilyev, some Russian Muslims are also extremist-minded. According to the academic, they do not number more than 5 percent of the overall number of believers, and "are, as a rule, people not familiar with the fundamentals of Islam; they know only slogans relating to religion". They simply use their faith as a banner for extremist purposes.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the question of co-operation in religious education will also be discussed by Kadyrov during his visit.
It should not be forgotten, however, that Kadyrov is going to Saudi Arabia not only as a representative of Russia's Muslims, but also of Russia in general. Russia is a multi-confessional country and it is no secret that, like in the West, negative perceptions of Arabs, or the Arab Muslims, have recently emerged in the country. The same can be said with regard to the way members of Western civilisation are seen in the East.
In order to destroy these mutual negative perceptions, it is necessary to build bridges to mutual understanding between members of different cultures and religions and not only at an official level.
Vasilyev, for one, thinks, "Moscow should organise an Institute of the Arab World, patterned on the one existing in Paris". According to him, both Arab countries and Russia should contribute to it. Such an institute could provide a link with the Russian intellectual and political elite, and help the broad mass of the Russian population to gain an accurate true idea of the Arabic, Islamic culture via exhibitions, public lectures, books collected for the Institute's library, etc.
However, the Russian academic noted, "If the Arabs themselves fail in their efforts to dispel the negative stereotype, they will lose Russia". And Kadyrov's visit to Saudi Arabia is another occasion to pause and think about that.