Islamism in the South Caucasus

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<ul><li><p>Islamism in the South CaucasusAuthor(s): Hrant Ter-AbrahamianSource: Iran &amp; the Caucasus, Vol. 11, No. 1 (2007), pp. 127-139Published by: BRILLStable URL: .Accessed: 16/06/2014 03:01</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .</p><p> .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact</p><p> .</p><p>BRILL is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Iran &amp;the Caucasus.</p><p> </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 03:01:18 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>brill Iran and the Caucasus 11 (2007) 127-139 \Cl! / </p><p>Islamism in the South Caucasus </p><p>Hrant Ter-Abrahamian Arya International University, Yerevan </p><p>Abstract </p><p>The article is dedicated to Islamism and its specific forms of manifestation in the </p><p>South Caucasus (in Georgia and Azerbaijan Republic in particular). Making no at </p><p>tempt to a full-scale coverage of the subject, the author aims at identifying and dis </p><p>playing the specific targets of a complex study of Islamism, indicating its primary and secondary geographic, social and other points, as well as specifying the basic </p><p>tendencies for each point thus identified. A special attention is paid to the Internet forums and blogs as more relevant sources for specifying the lines of conflict within </p><p>diverse trends of Islam and Islamism in the South Caucasus. </p><p>Keywords </p><p>Islamism, Islam in the South Caucasus, Georgia, Azerbaijan Republic, Wahhabism </p><p>FOREWORD </p><p>Islamism, a rather uncertain term, indicates in this paper the public and </p><p>political programming and activities, finding their substantiation in the Islamic religion, and contrasting themselves to programmes and activi ties based upon secular principles. The subject of Islamic development in the South Caucasus as hereby represented, has been rather insuffi </p><p>ciently covered, anyway, it has been rarely considered in its complexity, spanning a complete gamut of all regional aspects. This situation, no </p><p>doubt, has a realistic explanation. Researchers are mostly attracted by regions with distinctly observable Islamist activities. Meanwhile, par ticularly during the last years, a considerable number of different publi cations on this subject, mostly journalistic, still appear in growing num bers. Despite its sluggish activity, Islamism in the South Caucasus is a </p><p>fairly important trend, which is not to be discounted when analysing the regional political developments. </p><p>Making no pretence to a full-scale coverage of the subject under </p><p>scrutiny, we nonetheless visualise two main targets. ? Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2007 DOI: 10.1163/157338407X224969 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 03:01:18 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>128 H. Ter-Abrahamian /Iran and the Caucasus 11 (2007) 127-139 </p><p>First, stating the problem, i. e. identifying and displaying the specific targets of a complex study of Islamism in the South Caucasus, indicating its primary and secondary geographic, social and other points, as well as </p><p>specifying the basic tendencies for each point thus identified. </p><p>Second, identifying the sources. The author's priority is to specify the material to be drawn from the Internet forums and blogs, which enables a researcher to observe the trends and processes that are either faintly or not at all represented by the "traditional" sources. In particular, the lines of conflict within diverse trends of Islam and Islamism accord </p><p>ingly, downplayed oftentimes in printed sources, are presented quite prominently in live discussions at forums and blogs. Actually, forums and blogs are in many ways functionally identical to the field material. </p><p>Besides, they constitute a crucial component in the structure of the most recent phenomena in the south Caucasian Islamism, or, at any rate, of its essential parts. </p><p>Traditional Areas of the Spread of Islam in the South Caucasus </p><p>It is a common knowledge that of the three recognised regional states in </p><p>the South Caucasus, only one, the Republic of Azerbaijan, is traditionally Islamic.1 Of the other two, Armenia and Georgia, the former as of today has zero Islamic population (although there is the famous 18th century Blue Mosque of Yerevan, recently restored, taking care of the tempo rary residents from Iran). As to Georgia, despite the traditionally domi </p><p>nating role of Christianity there, with a crucial role of the Christian fac tor within the national discourse of that country in our days, some sub stantial regions are compactly populated by groups confessing Islam. </p><p>And, in spite of the seeming weakness and little promise for the future of Islamism in this country, it should not be currently discounted nor, all the more so, disregarded as to the possible contingencies of devel </p><p>oping the Islamistic discourse and networks in the future. Thus, looking at the Islamism in the South Caucasus, we can primarily make out the two countries of the region: Azerbaijan and Georgia, without loosing </p><p>sight of Abkhazia, a republic created on the former Soviet Georgia's ter </p><p>ritory that has yet to be recognised. In the case of Armenia, being cur </p><p>rently devoid of a resident Muslim population, it is naturally defaulting from the general domain of the subject, however, in view of the future </p><p>developments, the Armenian factor, too, should not be disregarded, </p><p>being one of the operational entities in the region in the context of re </p><p>See, e. g. A. Yunusov, Islam v Azerbajdzane, Baku, 2005. </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 03:01:18 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>H. Ter-Abrahamian / Iran and the Caucasus 11 (2007) 127-139 129 </p><p>gional contingencies, particularly with regard to the probable further </p><p>upgrade of the role of Islamism in the South Caucasus. </p><p>Islam and Islamism in Georgia </p><p>The Islamic Regions in Georgia Islam in Georgia is spread both among a part of ethnic Georgians and </p><p>the representatives of national minorities. There are several distinct ar </p><p>eas of residential Islamic groups, primarily Kvemo Kartli, an area south of Tbilisi down to the Armenian border, also known as Borchalu or </p><p>Marneuli (by the name of its largest population centre); Pankisi, or </p><p>Ajaria. Moreover, some villages in the north-east are home to the Avar </p><p>population. According to the 1989 census, the total number of the fol lowers of Islam in Georgia can be estimated around 640,000, with </p><p>308,000 in Kvemo Kartli.2 In Kvemo Kartli, with the Azerbaijani majority descended from the </p><p>Turkic-speaking tribes (mostly the tribe of Borchalu) and relocated there in the early 17th century by Shah 'Abbas I (1587-1628) to replace the exiled Georgians, dominating is the Shi'a Islam, though with some </p><p>Sunni presence. Population is mostly rural, stipulating the popular character of the local Islamic tradition. Meanwhile, it is to be noted that Kvemo Kartli is, as it were, a "strong" zone amidst the Islamic centres of </p><p>Georgia, and despite the Shi'a Islam being dominant in Borchalu, the lo cal preachers had an influence on other Islamic regions of Georgia, in </p><p>particular, they were instrumental in the so-called "re-Islamisation" of Pankisi in the 70s of the 20th century, during the Soviet rule.3 The Mus lim identity is of paramount importance in group self-determination of the population; it has not yet been completely replaced by the purely ethnic one, the two being rather intermixed. If questioned on national </p><p>identity, the common response by residents of Borchalu even today is </p><p>miisurman, i. e. "Muslim".4 This may allegedly be due not only to the ru </p><p>ral, hence conservative character of the population, but rather to living in a country with a non-Islamic religion, where the religious identity is </p><p>becoming the chief marker of distinction amid the surrounding groups. The Pankisi Gorge populated by the ethnic Vainakhs, the Kistins, be </p><p>came known a few years ago through the war in Chechnia. Kistins, the </p><p>See NacionaVnyj sostav naseleniya SSSR: Perepisf naseleniya (Goskomstat SSSR), </p><p>Moscow, 1989. </p><p>E. W. Walker, G. Sanikidze, "Islam and Islamic Practices in Georgia", Occasional </p><p>Paper Series, Berkeley Program in Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies, Fall 2004: 28. 4 Field Materials of the Author Recorded in Sadakhlo (15-26.08.2006). </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 03:01:18 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>130 H. Ter-Abrahamian /Iran and the Caucasus 11 (2007) 127-139 </p><p>traditional residents of this gorge, were joined by refugees from Chech </p><p>nia, including the groups confessing radical Islam, the so-called Wah habism. That changed not only the demographic but also the social and </p><p>religious picture of Pankisi. Although the Kistins are regarded as follow ers of Islam, there are specific features characterising this group and </p><p>having an impact upon the traditional Islam in Pankisi. The Kistin </p><p>community is very outdated even against the background of other </p><p>highlander groups of Georgia (the Svans, Khevsurs, Pshavs, etc.) and the North Caucasus. Even during the Soviet period, the Kistins were gov erned by the traditional patriarchal rules. The official structures and </p><p>standards operated formally, rather than essentially.5 They are the peo </p><p>ple of oral traditions, hence Islam here has rather a fanciful manifesta tion from the viewpoint of cultures leaning upon a written tradition. Al </p><p>though the Pankisi residents regard the religious affinity as an impor tant marker of group identity, and see themselves within the Islamic </p><p>tradition, in the course of the 19-20th centuries, the Kistins used to con </p><p>vert to Christianity and back to Islam several times, the latest large scale conversion to Islam having taken place, oddly enough, in the late Soviet period (1970s) through the efforts of the preachers from Kvemo </p><p>Kartli.6 Such twists and turns of traditions could only occur under the conditions of a profoundly patriarchal community with a dominating oral culture whereby the events aged three to four generations may seem to be grey antiquity. </p><p>Ajaria is another traditionally Islamic region of Georgia. It is mostly </p><p>populated by the Ajarians, the ethnic Georgians having adopted Sunni Islam during the 16-19th centuries, when the territory was under the Ottoman Empire. It should be noted that a considerable part of Georgi ans living under the Ottomans were converted to Islam. Part of them </p><p>(mostly the Laz) reside in Turkey to date, another part, including the </p><p>Ajarians, were joined to the Russian Empire, and later to Georgia (So viet, then independent). Islam had been well rooted amidst the Ajarians, but was appreciably weakened in the 20th century as a result of both </p><p>the modernising and directly antireligious policies in the USSR and of </p><p>the Georgian national discourse regarding the Byzantine Christian </p><p>confession (the so-called Orthodoxy) an important component of the </p><p>Georgian national identity. </p><p>I. Culaya, "Byf kistincem mezdu gruzinami I cecencami", Yuznyj Kavkaz: Territo </p><p>rii, istorii, lyudi, Tbilisi, 2006:179ff. </p><p>G. Sanikidze, E. W. Walker, ibid. </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 03:01:18 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>H. Ter-Abrahamian/ Iran and the Caucasus 11 (2007) 127-139 131 </p><p>In Abkhazia, Islam has very specific forms, as, by the way, Christian </p><p>ity. The Abkhazians are formally divided into Muslims and Christians </p><p>(the spread of Islam goes in parallel with the similar processes in Aja ria). Actually dominating and encouraged by the current authorities is </p><p>the so-called Abkhazian popular religion, i. e., a complex of pre-Chris tian and pre-Islamic local beliefs retained to date.7 Islam in Abkhazia is so formal that even consumption of pork or alcohol is not regarded as </p><p>prohibitive by the Muslims. This situation is contrasted by the high de </p><p>gree of Islamic devotion in the Abkhazian diaspora, among the so-called </p><p>Muhajirs, descended from the expatriates of the 19th century. </p><p>The Post-Soviet Trends in the Traditional Zones of the Spread of Islam in </p><p>Georgia Kvemo Kartli (Borchalu or Marneuli) The post-Soviet developments in Kvemo Kartli were primarily con nected with national and social problems, while the religious factor was </p><p>somewhat in the background. In the last years, however, the religious or Islamic factor has been coming to the fore. As has been noted, the </p><p>Turkic-speaking population of Kvemo Kartli has a predominantly rural </p><p>life-style. A stereotypic Azerbaijani person in Georgia is a farmer selling his produce in the market. A virtual table of ethnic rating inherently visualised by the Georgian mind, would show the Marneuli Azerbaijanis on the lowest line. The reason is both a stereotypic non-acceptance of </p><p>Islam, as well as instilled Georgian cultural values partly stipulated by the traditional (prior to early 20th century) aristocratic and feudal na ture of the Georgian social medium, in contrast to, say, the Armenian </p><p>society characterised by the early emergence of urban and trading strata with a nearly complete extinction of the feudal aristocracy. A sys tem of values like that could naturally feature an Azerbaijani person only as a farmer or a salesman devoid of whatever manlike or djigit (horsemanlike) features, having a low level of social culture, to boot. </p><p>The ethnic problems of the post-Soviet Kvemo Kartli are very closely associated with the social ones. The economic slump of the 90s, corrupted officials (mostly ethnic Georgians), low modern background and the ensuing social inactivity (the Azerbaijani population of Bor chalu has become more vulnerable than the Armenians of Javakheti/ Javakhk living in harsher economic and natural environment) in the context of Georgian nationalism fearing the growth of minorities </p><p>See A. Krylov, Religiya i tradicii Abxazov (Po materialam polevyx issledovanij 1994 </p><p>2000 gg.), Moscow, 2001. </p><p>This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 03:01:18 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>132 H. Ter-Abrahamian / Iran and the Caucasus 11 (2007) 127-139 </p><p>against the negative demog...</p></li></ul>