The horrors in Russia have, rightly, outraged all sides of the civilizational divide: both East and West. Images of injured and murdered children elicit disgust in a way that transcends creed, politics or race. These crimes may have been committed in the name of Islam or ostensibly to further its cause, but the unavoidable fact is that these terrorists forfeited any right to Islamic legitimacy when they targeted children and non-combatants. No justification — political, religious or practical — can justify these atrocities, and the perpetrators and those who aided them must be brought swiftly to justice and punished severely.
However, if our outrage and horror means anything, it must mean a recognition of the need to prevent further atrocities. We cannot do that unless we understand that the horrors of the recent days did not occur in a vacuum nor did they lack powerful historical antecedents.
When Muslims commit terrorism, there are almost always two conditions: a pervasive ignorance of their religion and its laws, and a belief that, whether in perception or reality, they are facing an injustice that must be changed by desperate means. It is the responsibility of Islamic scholars to address the former condition, but it is the responsibility of the world to address the latter by addressing the root causes of terrorism.
Since September 11, Russia has cast its subjugation of the Caucasus as a Russian variant of the "War on Terror", invoking all the same arguments and characterizations as the Bush Administration; a rhetorical smokescreen that has seen it largely removed from the humanitarian radar of Western governments.
However, the events of today can only be understood by looking at the events of yesterday: the centuries of tragedy that precipitated the kind of irrational rage that unleashed itself on the poor children of that North Ossetian school.
The story begins in 1722 when the Russian Tsar attempted to conquer the Caucasus. Although outnumbered and outgunned, the Chechens resisted Russian forces for 142 years before finally falling in 1864. Thirteen years later, they would revolt, resulting in the Tsarist forces killing 60% of the population.
Whilst the Russian Revolution was taking place, the Chechens seized the opportunity to declare independence in 1918. However, Stalin would later reignite the war for the Caucasus only to eventually be forced to reach a truce in 1921. Stalin agreed, that in return for accepting Soviet authority, Chechnya would be allowed to practise Islamic law, have autonomy in domestic affairs and all captured territories would be returned. The promise was broken and on 31st July, 1937, 14,000 Chechens were executed (3% of the population of the time).
Although Hitler’s army never reached the region, Stalin accused the Chechens of having been collaborators. In 1944, he ordered the entire Chechen nation expelled to the Siberian gulags. The Soviet Census of 1939 had counted 407,690 Chechens. 400,000 were forcefully expelled. Of them, around 30% died in transit or in the camps.
Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn noted the Chechen mindset when he wrote of Stalin’s gulags: "There was one nation that would not give in, would not acquire the mental habits of submission — and not just individual rebels among them, but the whole nation to a man. These were the Chechens."
In 1957, Kruschev finally allowed the Chechens to return home.
The collapse of the Soviet Union saw the Chechens again announcing their independence. However, in December, 1994, Russian forces attacked again, beginning an embarrassing chapter in Russian military history that ended with 100,000 Chechens dead, 6,000 Russian soldiers killed, most of Chechnya razed, and 17 million land mines deployed. By 1996, the Russians had incurred $5.5 billion in losses as a result — a precipitator of Russia’s 1998 economic crises.
After some years of independence, the Russians invaded again in September, 1999. A few thousand Chechen guerillas held off over 100,000 Russian soldiers until February, 2000 when Chechen forces evacuated Grozny. Although Putin has claimed victory, a guerilla war has ensued since then amid ongoing reports from human rights organizations of summary execution by Russian forces and even rape of Chechen civilians.
Chechen history is unwritten except in the blood of innocents, but it is a history also characterized by broken promises. However, tragically, only one promise remains unbroken: in 1818, the Chechen leader promised the Tsar that as long as one Chechen remained alive the Russian occupiers would never experience peace.
It is time for a new promise to be made by Western leaders to both the victims of this most recent terror and the Chechen and Russian peoples: that finally a just solution to the centuries-old problem of Chechen self-determination will be found.
– " Torture and rape stalk the streets of Chechnya"
by Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich
– " Chechnya – human rights under attack"
by Human Rights Watch
– " Endless Brutality:Ongoing Human Rights Violations in Chechnya"
A Report by Physicians for Human Rights