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Chechens in the Middle East: Between Original and Host Cultures

Event Report, Caspian Studies Program

 

On September 18, 2002, the Caspian Studies Program hosted a seminar at the Kennedy School of Government on the topic of Chechen diaspora communities in the Middle East. This seminar featured Wasfi Kailani, an anthropologist at the University of Yarmouk who has studied Jordan's Chechen communities.

 

On September 18, 2002, the Caspian Studies Program hosted a seminar at the Kennedy School of Government on the topic of Chechen diaspora communities in the Middle East. This seminar featured Wasfi Kailani, an anthropologist at the University of Yarmouk who has studied Jordan's Chechen communities.  Mr. Kailani is currently conducting research on questions of modern Jewish identity among residents in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Kailani began his remarks by providing some background on the Chechen people as a whole. The largest community of Chechens continues to live in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation and much of Chechen identity is derived from a sense of connection to this area. In addition to Chechens' regionally based identity and distinctive language, Sufism is one of the most fundamental aspects of collective Chechen identity and Imam Shamil is an important figure in Chechen culture.  

For hundreds of years, Chechens were geographically concentrated at the intersection of the Russian and Ottoman empires' respective spheres of influence. Chechens lived under Ottoman control by the beginning of the seventeenth century, but the Caucasus was often a zone of conflict between the Ottomans and Tsarist Russia in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. After several conflicts between these two powers, the Russian Empire established control of Chechnya in 1859. During the upheaval that accompanied Russia's conquest, some Chechens fled to adjacent regions still under Ottoman control (Anatolia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan).

In addition to this initial migration of Chechens out of Chechnya proper during the mid-nineteenth century, political events in the Ottoman Empire fifty years later would prompt some Chechens to relocate once again. When the nationalist-oriented Young Turks began to take hold of Anatolia during the first decade of the twentieth century, some Chechens in this region took the opportunity to move deeper into the Ottoman Empire— including into parts of the present-day countries of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. One of the reasons Ottoman authorities encouraged Chechens to settle in these areas was so that they could serve as something of a bulwark against the encroachment of the Bedouin tribes of Arabia.  

After providing this historical background, Kailani moved on to discuss his own anthropological research among the Chechen communities in Jordan. His fieldwork has focused on fundamental questions of identity among Chechen diaspora communities— whether they have identified with and attempted to assimilate into the host cultures of Arab- and Turkic-majority countries, or whether they have tried to maintain strict separation and a distinct Chechen identity within these societies.  

Kailani explained that he primarily concentrated his research on a community of 450 Chechens in Al Suhknah, a Jordanian town of about 12,000 people on the outskirts of the larger city of Az Zarqa'. He described some of the ways in which the Chechens of Al Suhknah had managed to keep their separate sense of identity during the last one hundred years, even after large waves of Bedouin and Palestinian immigration into Jordan over the course of the twentieth century. One of the main ways they have done this has been through the use of the Chechen language. While younger Chechens can use Arabic in public situations, most Chechens still speak their own language in private settings, even though they often cannot read or write it.

The preservation of certain symbols of Chechen culture— including clothing and marriage customs— is another way the Chechen community in Jordan maintains its identity. Kailani indicated that one example of this phenomenon is that in addition to having pictures of Jordanian Kings Hussein or Abdullah in their homes, Jordanian Chechens also often display pictures of the late Chechen rebel leader Dzhokbar Dudayev or the Sufi Imam Shamil. Kailani explained that another way Chechens preserve aspects of their culture is through their own form of patriarchal gender relations.  

Kailani concluded that the Chechen community in Jordan has managed to maintain a strictly separate Chechen identity. This has largely been possible because these Chechens have succeeded in cultivating a close relationship with the ruling Hashemite family and have maintained a degree of economic independence. Chechens' independent identity in Jordan has also been possible, Kailani argued, because the notion of national citizenship— as opposed to the more pan-Islamic sense of 'umma (community of believers)--has not been strong in the Middle East. At the same time, however, Chechens in other Near and Middle Eastern societies have largely assimilated into the surrounding Arabic and Turkic cultures. Kailani mentioned that one reason why Chechens have not able to maintain a separate identity in Iraq and Syria was because the ruling Ba'ath Parties in these countries confiscated their lands and essentially forced them to assimilate into the larger culture.  

Q & A  

Brenda Shaffer of the Caspian Studies Program asked Kailani if contemporary media references to "Arabs fighting in Chechnya" actually referred to ethnic Chechens living in Arab-majority countries who have become involved in Chechnya's conflict with Russia. Kailani answered this question by explaining that much of the foreign presence in and funding for the Chechen conflict has come from Saudi Arabia. Kailani indicated that Saudi militants have come to Chechnya to participate in what they see as a jihad and Saudi missionaries have come to the region to teach Wahhabi Salafism to Muslims who are embracing Islam after decades of Communist rule in the Soviet Union.

Kailani said that religion has been a motivating factor for some actors (especially Saudis) in the Chechen conflict. For diaspora Chechens, however, ethnic and national identities play at least as strong of a role as religion in shaping their response to the Russia-Chechnya conflict. Kailani also noted that diaspora Chechens have supported the Chechen independence movement through a variety of means over the last decade— everything from joining the military effort in Chechnya to setting up web sites promoting the Chechen cause. 

Bob Goshgarian asked Kailani to provide a more specific breakdown of the numbers of Chechens living in certain communities in the Middle East and the Caucasus. Kailani explained that coming up with accurate figures of the number of Chechens in various countries can be difficult, due to some governments' desire to minimize the significance of the Chechen communities within their countries and some diaspora Chechens own wishes not to be explicitly identified. After noting these restrictions, Kailani indicated that in addition to the majority of Chechens who live in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus, the number of Chechens in various countries breaks down approximately as follows: Turkey (100,000), Jordan (8,000), Egypt (5,000), Syria (4,000), and Iraq (2,500). Kailani also noted that there are significant numbers of Chechens living in the countries of the South Caucasus. Some commentators estimate that there are one million Chechens in Georgia in addition to one million in Armenia, although Kailani dismissed these figures as unreliable. 

Ruth Daniloff asked Kailani if he knew whether any Chechens had fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. Kailani said that in his extensive contacts with Chechens in Jordan, he had not encountered any instances where members of this community went to fight in Afghanistan. At the same time, Kailani indicated that he did not have sufficient information about members of other Chechen communities to be able to decisively answer this question about whether or not any Chechens have been involved in the fighting in Afghanistan. Kailani also explained that several members of the Taliban and a number of "Arab Afghans" went from Afghanistan to Chechnya in order to join the fight against Russian forces, viewing this as part of their obligation to "reply to the command of jihad."

Hillel Neuman asked Kailani to elaborate on how the Jordanian population views the Chechen minority in the country and on the nature of Chechen-Palestinian relations within Jordan. Kailani answered this question by examining Chechens' relationship with the Jordanian ruling family. The Chechen population, although very small, has developed a reputation of being extremely loyal to the Hashemite Dynasty and is well-represented in high positions of the Jordanian government and military. Kailani traces this relationship between Jordanian Chechens and the Hashemite ruling family to the time when the Chechen and Circassian communities in Jordan hosted King Abdullah I when he first came to the region from Al Hijaz (in Arabia) and later built his palace in Amman. Since the establishment of the Kingdom of Jordan, the country's Chechen community has had peaceful relationships with its Arab neighbors. As for Palestinian-Chechen relations in Jordan, Kailani pointed out that these two groups occupy very different position within this society, since Chechens are a very small non-Arab minority whereas Palestinians are Arabs who make up approximately 50 percent of the total Jordanian population.

Kailani concluded his remarks by explaining that ethnic groups in Jordan draw on their identities of origin because contemporary Jordan is still largely structured along tribal community lines. In addition, Kailani said that the more tolerant Hashemite regime has never forced members of different ethnic communities to adopt a specific ideology or affiliation.

Summary by John Grennan, Caspian Studies Program

 

For Academic Citation:

Kailani, Wasfi. "Chechens in the Middle East: Between Original and Host Cultures." Caspian Studies Program.

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