European Islam & the Caucasian "War on Terrorism"

Europe (Europe proper, the geographer’s Europe) is an odd thing, curiously shaped and conceptualized since Herodotus invented it as the object of Persian invasion 2500 years ago. As the concept grew, Europe came to extend from Viking-settled Iceland in the mid-Atlantic (to the northwest); to the Iberian peninsula (abutting Africa in the southwest); and from the Kara Sea and the upper extremity of the Urals (in the northeast), down the mountain range to the Ural River, which avoiding all but a small slice of (Asian) Kazakhstan, defines Europe to the Caspian Sea. Thence the borderline straddles the Caucasus Mountains, from Baku on the Caspian to the Black Sea coast and onto the Crimean Peninsula, making the Caucasus the southeastern corner of the European continent, at least the European continent of the stickler academic. (Some place the Caucasian countries in the Middle East as well as Europe, rather like geographers count Vietnam alternately as an East Asian and Southeast Asian country.)

Actually, no Europe makes sense as a “continent,” if the latter term is to claim any consistency or analytical utility. Europe is not surrounded by oceans, as are normal continents (Africa, North America, South America, Australia and Antarctica)—and as Asia would be if we simply included Europe, as Nietzsche once suggested, “as a peninsula of the greater Eurasian super-continent.” Continental Europe is the invention of people who wanted to be as special, and separate as oceans can make you, but lacking the eastern ocean which ought to be there to validate continental pretensions. South Asia (India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh), surrounded by the Indian Ocean and Himalayas, could make an equally valid case for continent-hood. The concept is ultimately arbitrary.

But back to the southeastern corner of this imagined Eurocontinent: the Caucasus. “Caucasian” is of course often used as a synonym for “white” (as in white people), and has been used in that sense since pioneer ethnologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, in 1775, pronounced Caucasians (supposedly descended from Noah’s son Japeth after the Ark landed on Mt. Ararat following the Flood) the “most beautiful race of menthe primeval type [from which] others divergewhite in color, which we may fairly assume to be the primitive color of mankind” But white folks flattered by Blumenbach’s pseudo-science, and folks in general outside the region, have little knowledge of this part of Europe. I can think of various reasons why this unawareness is unfortunate:

(1) the Caucasus is a key site of Russian-U.S. contention concerning the construction of oil pipelines from the Caspian oilfields (in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan) to Black Sea and Mediterranean ports;

(2) it is a maze of new, weak nations with vigorous secessionist movements;

(3) it is a region of centuries-old Muslim communities, from which some “Islamic extremist” trends have emerged;

(4) it has, since the deployment of U.S. forces in the Pankisi Gorge of Georgia in 2002, and the announcement of Russian President Vladimir Putin around the same time that Chechen rebels are al-Qaeda-like terrorists, been posited as a major theater in the “War on Terror;” and

(5) given its record, the U.S. government might do something very brutal and very stupid in the region. So one should pay attention. To understand “ethnic conflict” in this area in the context of big-power rivalry, one should brief oneself on the basics.


Compare the Balkans

The Caucasus embraces southern Russia (referring to the zone between the Black and Caspian Seas), and the three nations of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. This region is culturally linked to the west and north by Orthodox Christianity (kindred Russian, Georgian and Armenian varieties), and to the east by Islam (a legacy of past encounters between Persians and Turks and the local peoples). In this mix the Caucasus resembles the Balkans, where you have one more or less Muslim nation (Albania, where religious practice was banned for decades but which is officially now 70% Muslim); an unusually-constructed Bosnia-Herzegovina in which about 40% of the population (not all the Bosniaks) embrace Islam with varying degrees of interest; and the de facto NATO protectorate of Kosovo, which is about 90% Albanian Muslim. There are also longstanding Muslim minorities in Macedonia (29%), Bulgaria (12%) and elsewhere in the Balkans. The collapse of the Soviet bloc, the implosion of neutral “socialist” Yugoslavia involving catastrophic ethno-religious strife, and fall of the idiosyncratic Hoxhaite regime in Albania brought Balkan Muslims onto the world stage, as recipients of religious proselytization (by Arab “Wahhabis” in particular, backed up by Saudi largesse) and as the beneficiaries (at least short term) of US-NATO protection against the vilified Serbs and Croatians.

In the Balkans, Washington postures as the great friend of the Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars, although its position is fraught with contradictions. U.S. acquiescence to Helmut Kohl’s reunited Germany, which unlike the U.S. State Department championed an independent Slovenia in 1990, contributed to the disastrous dismantling of the Yugoslav state. (This produced much ethnic conflict, including what some term the “Bosnian holocaust.”) The U.S., having labeled the Kosovo Liberation Army “terrorists” in 1999, made common cause with the Kosovar Albanians against a Serbian foe whose atrocities were wantonly exaggerated to justify the bombing of Milocevic’s Yugoslavia. The Russians meanwhile posture as friends of the Serbs and other Slavs aggrieved by Washington policy.

Across the Black Sea from the Balkans, in the Caucasus, we find Armenia, ethnically homogeneous but abetting an Armenian secessionist movement within the Armenian-peopled Nagorno-Karabakh region of neighboring Azerbaijan. Armenia has occupied 16% of Azeri territory since 1994. 94% of the population of Azerbaijan are Azeri, a Muslim Turkish people. (That’s seven million Muslims, double the number of Albanian Muslims; hence if Azerbaijan is in Europe, it is the largest European Muslim country.) Fellow Azeris live across the border with Georgia; 5.7% of Georgia’s 4.69 million people (668,000) live in the Adhzaria region. In Abkhazia, in the north along the Black Sea, live an additional 85,000 to 100,000 Muslims speaking a Causasian language distantly related to Georgian. Altogether 11% of Georgia’s population (over half a million) is Muslim. About 4% of the population of Armenia are Kurds, mostly adherents of the Yezidi faith, which reveres the Prophet Mohammed but is not commonly regarded as an Islamic sect. So within the southern Caucasus, we have Azerbaijan, Adhzaria, and Abkhazia as Muslim zones. In the northern (Russian) Caucasus, we have in addition, lined up westward from the Caspian coast, Daghestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia, three republics in the Russian Federation with predominantly Muslim populations. Daghestan has about two and a half million people, of whom at least 90% are Muslim. There aren’t good current figures for Chechnya and Ingushetia, but in 1989, when they were united in the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic, there were 735,000 Muslim Chechens and 164,000 Muslim Ingush, together 71% of the republic’s population (the rest being mostly Russian).

Bordering Ingushetia is North Ossetia, a predominantly (80%) Christian republic in the Russian Federation, with an Ingush minority. (Among the ethnic Ossetians themselves, some 20% practice Sunni Islam.) Then to the west, bordering Georgia, are the predominantly Muslim republics of Kabardino-Balkaria (Kabardins mostly Sunni Muslims, Balkarians mostly Orthodox Christian) and Karachayevo-Cherkessia, whose Muslim populations together number maybe a million. In other words, in the Caucasus you have in addition to the seven or eight million Azeri Muslims, four or five million other Muslims, living in historically Muslim districts in the Christian-majority behemoth that is Russia, and in the ancient Christian land of Georgia.

Some of these Muslims, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, have become involved in violent secessionist movements. Moscow and Tblisi, who have differences between themselves, have both become inclined since 9-11 to depict their response to such movements as counter-terrorist in character, to represent the secessionists as ideological soul-mates of al-Qaeda, and to manipulate the “War on Terror” paradigm to justify their repressive measures and to even threaten “pre-emptive” actions. Putin like Bush vows to strike at terrorists “wherever they may be” (which might mean, say, striking at Chechens in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia). Thus in the Caucasus, the implosion of the USSR, like the implosion of Yugoslavia in the Balkans, produces a welter of nationalist strivings, coupled with long-dormant religious sensibilities, that both the hyperpuissance U.S. and the weakened regional hegemon Russia seek to exploit. They do so now in the context of Bush’s eternal war project, which exploits anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. (drawing especially on the most ignorant varieties of Christian fundamentalist intolerance), even as the administration insists before the global audience that the U.S. respects Islam as “a religion of peace.” Putin, powerless to prevent the U.S.’s projection of power into formerly Soviet territory from Central Asia to Georgia, applies an “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” policy, depicting his own measures against unruly Muslims in Russia as part of the global Terror War.



Of Muslims seeking independence from Russia, the Chechens receive the most attention. Their secessionist movement has been the bloodiest in the region, and exacted a most grotesque toll on Russians, in particular, from the Caucasus to Moscow. The small Chechen homeland has had a very bad press, internationally, and most Americans who’ve heard of Chechnya no doubt by this point associate its people with Islamic terrorism. The recent school hostage episode in Beslan, in Russia’s North Ossetia, presented the world with the most nightmarish spectacle: a school commandeered, children specifically targeted, seized, terrified, shot in the back as they attempted to escape. About 330 Christians, half of them kids, killed by Muslims from Chechya, and the adjoining Muslim republic of Ingushetia, and (if one believes an early Russian report uncorroborated by reporters) Muslim Arabs. (I seriously doubt any Arab participation, simply because it too obviously serves Putin’s wish to depict his repression of the Chechen independence movement as part of the global Bush-war project targeting Arabs.) Anyway, a horrible, unforgivable scenario, which some may see as Russia’s 9-11.

One might suppose that, as Putin seeks to link Chechen rebels to al-Qaeda, the U.S. would support the Russian leader in his moves against Chechen separatism, rather as it endorses every single move the Likud regime in Israel takes against the cause of the Palestinians (a “terrorist” cause to the Likudists in the Bush administration), or that President Arroyo in the Philippines takes against the Moro. But no, not quite. Just as Washington found it useful to validate Bosnian and Kosovar nationalism in the Balkans (entrenching its expanding NATO-self into what was once proudly non-aligned European territory), so it has (under the Clinton and Bush administrations alike) found it useful to promote Muslim separatisms in southern Russia, to better destabilize the Russian Federation. Why? Because Russia seeks to thwart U.S. oil pipeline ambitions and the U.S.’s general pursuit of geopolitical advantage in the Caucasus. Ruling circles in both the U.S. and Russia are acting rationally in pursuit of their ends. Those anti-people ends are the problem.

As the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Chechens, having resented Russian domination for a century and a half, under the leadership of air force general Dzhokar Dudayev declared independence. Russian President Boris Yeltsin refused to grant this, and Russian forces invaded in 1994 to reestablish central government authority. The invasion met with fierce resistance, prompting a withdrawal in 1996 and a peace agreement in 1997. A new Chechen government, headed by Aslan Maskhadov, failed to acquire international recognition, or to contain rampant crime, corruption, and warlordism. “Islamic extremism” flourished and spread into neighboring Ingushetia and elsewhere. In October 1992, Ingush militias clashed with Russian-backed North Ossetian security forces, paramilitaries and army troops in the disputed region of Prigorodnyi. This is 978 square kilometers of once-Ingush land given North Ossetia during the Stalin years. This land dispute is at the heart of Christian Ossetian-Muslim Ingush animosity, and the Ingush and Chechens, whose languages are mutually comprehensible, identify with one anothers’ struggles. (The Beslan school seizure was a joint operation involving Chechens and Ingush militants.)

Thousands of Ingush homes were destroyed in 1992, and the bulk of the Ingush population in North Ossetia (46,000 by official Russian count) displaced. Complicating matters, South Ossetia, in the Republic of Georgia, attempted to succeed from Georgia and unite with North Ossetia. In response, the new Georgian government sent in troops, leveling 100 Ossetian villages and producing 100,000 refugees, many of whom wound up in Prigordnyi, seizing Ingush homes. (Tit for tat, Moscow tilted towards Abkhazia as fighting there killed 16,000 and drove 300,000 ethnic Georgians from their homes.)

Following bombings in North Ossetia that killed 53, an attack on a Russian military barracks in Daghestan, and the bombing of two Moscow apartment buildings in1999 that killed over 300, the government of President Putin resumed the war with Chechnya, forcing Maskhadov underground. Moscow blamed Chechens for the Moscow attacks, although rebel leader Shamil Basayev disclaimed responsibility, and skeptics claim the attacks were staged to justify renewed Russian intervention. When Putin succeeded Yeltsin as Russian president on December 31, 1999, his military was bogged down in an unwinnable guerrilla war in Chechnya, and cutting its losses, the Putin administration simply proclaimed victory, turning over power to a Chechen puppet (recently assassinated) in 2002. Russian troops remain, harassed by forces loyal to Basayev, whom Moscow says it knows “for certain” was behind the Beslan school attack. (A Russian daily has claimed that in a message signed by Basayev, he demanded an end to the war in Chechnya, the withdrawal of Russian troops, autonomy for Chechnya within the Commonwealth of Independent States, Chechnya’s continued inclusion in the ruble zone, and CIS peacekeepers for the region.) Some of Basayev’s forces, Moscow claims, operate out of bases in Georgia, and since 2002 Russia has threatened to take action against Chechen militants in that country. Washington warns against this.


The Neocons’ Role

For over a decade, U.S. policy has been to criticize Russian actions against Chechen and Ingush rebels, while discouraging Russian support for all three separatist movements in Georgia. In 1999, many key players in the current administration formed an “American Committee for Peace in Chechnya” (ACPC), whose membership roster includes omnipresent neocon operator Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Kenneth Adelman, Elliot Cohen, Midge Decter, Frank Gaffney, Glen Howard, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, Michael Ledeen, Bruce Jackson, James Woolsey, and Caspar Weinberger. Since 9-11, while insisting on al-Qaeda links to Muslim terrorism everywhere else (from the Philippines to Palestine), they have pronounced any Chechen-al-Qaeda link “overstated.” ACPC has successfully campaigned for the U.S. to provide political asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, foreign minister in Maskhadov’s toppled regime and considered a terrorist by Moscow. Bush policy was expressed by Steven Pifer, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, in an appearance before the Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2003: “[We] do not share the Russian assessment that the Chechen conflict is simply and solely a counterterrorism effort. . . . While there are terrorist elements fighting in Chechnya, we do not agree that all separatists can be equated as terrorists.” According to John Laughland in the Guardian (Sept. 8), “US pressure will now increase on Moscow to achieve a political, rather than military, solution – in other words to negotiate with terrorists, a policy the US resolutely rejects elsewhere.” Putin’s Chechnya war, that is to say, is not, as the Russian leader wants to paint it, part and parcel of the global War on Terrorism initially focused on al-Qaeda. It is an ongoing statement of Russia’s still-brutal, dictatorial character, and hence an encouragement for the Caucasian nations to strengthen ties with the U.S.

While seeking regime change throughout the Muslim Middle East, inventing facts to achieve that end, the Bush administration (pleased with the new U.S.-educated president Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, which it helped place in power; pleased to have military forces training troops in Azerbaijan; grateful to Armenia for its 50 troops in Iraq; planning on bringing these all into NATO) wants the status quo in the southern Caucasus (except for the remaining Russian bases in Georgia, which it wants to replace with its own). It also desires the advance of Muslim separatism in the northern (Russian) Caucasus. Should southern Russia decompose into a series of small, weak nations (from Daghestan to Karachayevo-Cherkessia), this part of Muslim Europe will fall firmly into the U.S. lap, terrorizing nobody and happily cooperating with U.S. energy corporations. This, at least, is the neocon hope, which is why they so embrace, even after the Beslan attack, what they imagine to be the Chechen cause. Meanwhile Moscow, repressing Muslim separatism at home, courts Muslim separatists in Georgia’s Adzharia and Abhkazia. Thus the main issue in the Caucasus is not Islam, or Chechen terrorism, but geopolitical control, with the U.S. and Russia competing to depict their competition as a War on Terror.

To this the world should simply say, with Bertolt Brecht, “The valley to the waterers, that it yield fruit.” (Caucasian Chalk Circle, Act V)

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: