A Muslim cause in Chechnya

Click to follow
You don't have to guess which story dominates the front pages of the Arab press these days, nor which pictures grip television viewers across the Middle East. The Russian battle for Chechnya is creeping into the editorials, even into the sermons and Friday prayers, just as Afghanistan did almost a decade and a half ago, just as Bosnia did two years ago. Only the perspectives are a little different out here.

In the West, our perception of the Chechen conflict has been focused on the dangers to the Russian Federation, the internal struggle in Moscow, the his- tory of the quaint "warrior people" who humbled the Tsar in the last century and have been doing the same to the troops of the old Red Army. But pick up a newspaper in Beirut or Cairo and the photographs are of Chechen men wearing Islamic headbands with "God is great" inked on to them in Arabic, of scarved women, of old Muslim men praying, of wooden grave posts with a crescent moon on them. In Russia, and even in the West, Chechnya is an illegal breakaway state threatening the cohesion of Yeltsin's regime; in the Middle East, the Chechens are seen as a Muslim people fighting for survival - with the same power to attract Arab sympathy as the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan once had.

The Islamic side of the Chechen struggle - a Muslim community fighting soldiers of the Christian Orthodox faith, just as Muslims are fighting Orthodox Serbs in Bosnia - has gone largely unrecognised, as if the religion of most of the Chechens is a coincidence, as if their repeated claims to have God on their side are merely the by-product of some rural upbringing. "You people never learn, do you?" a Lebanese Shia Muslim told me angrily after I returned from Bosnia at Christmas. He was once a guerrilla fighter in southern Lebanon, so he took a professional interest in the battle for Bosnia and Chechnya. "You won't even acknowledge that Chechnya is a war against `us'," he said.

Perhaps the pain that Arabs increasingly feel at the way in which the Middle East "peace process" is being meekly accepted by their governments lies behind the feelings of humiliation being expressed in the region. Nabil Khoury, a columnist in the Lebanese daily An-Naher, caught this disturbing spirit of popular reaction when he wrote last week of the example that the Chechen people were setting with their courage; "they" did not believe, he said, that wars could be won by being interviewed on CNN. Onlydays earlier, Sayed Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah, the most eloquent of the Hizbollah clerics in Lebanon, condemned the "atrocities" being committed against the Muslims in Grozny.

It would be easy to exaggerate the effects of the Chechen and Bosnian wars. Officially, the Hizbollah's response to the Chechen conflict has been muted. The latest edition of its weekly Al-Ahd carries a remarkably restrained and largely objective accountof the battle for Grozny - perhaps because the Hizbollah's Iranian paymasters have just signed a $800m deal with the Russians for the completion of their war-damaged nuclear facilities on the Gulf. And in some Arab states, coverage of the Caucasus and Balkan wars has been the subject of self-censorship. "There was a time when our government wanted to unify the country over Bosnia," a Saudi journalist commented bleakly. "Now they just want to keep it off the screen because it's so inflammatory."

But there is no mistaking the signs of anger. In Bangladesh this week, a million Muslims prayed for "victory" in Bosnia. A small group of Jordanian Muslims have already left for Chechnya in the hope of joining the last stages of the battle for Grozny. They are themselves from the 10,000 strong Chechen community in Jordan, men whose great-grandparents fled to the Middle East from Russian persecution in the 19th century.

In the West, we ignore these ethnic roots, just as we fail to understand why the Algerian Islamists claim to feel so strongly about Bosnia - because we forget that Bosnian Muslims immigrated to Algeria in the last century; indeed, the most beautiful mosque in Algiers city, near the "Pecherie" on the waterfront, was built by Bosnians.

But it is religion rather than ethni- city that is fuelling anger in the Middle East. When Jimmy Carter was trying to make a "quick-fix" deal in Bosnia over Christmas - a ceasefire that is already fragmenting as General Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander, tries to expand the terms of the Mount Igman withdrawal and refuses to re-open the main road into Sarajevo - the Islamic Conference in Casablanca was not seeking peace at any price. It was demanding action, help for the Muslims of Bosnia, a lifting of the arms embargo and - most ominous of all for Western nations - an international Muslim army to take the place of the United Nations in the event of a Western withdrawal. It is only a year since the Iranians offered 10,000 soldiers to defend the UN's "safe havens" of Gorazde and Srebrenica, an offer that the United States - with no troops of its own on the ground - turned down at once as "inappropriate".

Given the corruption of Middle Eastern political life, the notion of sending an Islamic army to defend Bosnia - an idea that would set Arab leaders squabbling over the command of such a force even if they were not bought off by the West before issuing a single order - might seem fanciful. There are, in any case, Muslim military units serving with the UN in the Balkans; Egyptians in Sarajevo, Jordanians in Croatia; and the long-suffering Bangladeshi batallion in the Bihac pocket, whose plight throughout Christmas might have stirred a little more anger and compassion in the West had they not been soldiers from a Third World Muslim country.

It is "within" the Middle East that the response to events in the Caucasus and the Balkans may prove to be more serious. Two years ago, Arabs had to listen as Christian Orthodox Serbs referred to the Muslims of Bosnia as "fanatics". Now they hear the Kremlin's Christian Orthodox leaders say the same thing of the Chechen Muslims who dare to defy Russia. The West is again failing to protect a Muslim minority. And once more, Arab governments, most of them quick to accept the terms of an American "peace process", have proved impotent to protect their fellow Muslims. It would be difficult to think of anything more calculated to encourage the Islamists of the Middle East in their campaigns against the "moderate" Arab regimes upon whom the West depends.