During spring 2017 the Western world was shocked about horrible stories from young gay men living in Chechnya. They were detained in so-called concentration camps for gay people. In these camps they were being tortured. There are also some reports of deaths. European leaders called for immediate action by Russian president Vladimir Putin. Putin promised an investigation and also conducted it. The investigation resulted in a denying by the Russian government about the existence of concentration camps in Chechnya. Despite this, several Western and Russian media were able to speak to gay people who fled from Chechnya to Moscow and/or Europe. It was the most popular Russian non pro-government magazine Novoya Gazeta who brought the first reports on the subject. Afterwards Western media like Vice News and Buzzfeed followed. Lithuania was the first EU member state that accepted so-called gay refugees from Chechnya.
Some new intelligence from inside Chechnya tells us that the government stopped the active prosecution of gay people after international pressure. So now it’s time to look how this could have happened. Where does the anger towards gay people in Chechnya come from? Does the media point out the right culprit? A first study of what the media wrote on the subject shows that they pinpoint Radical Islam as the cause for what happened. In the coming paragraphs I will argue that this causation is incorrect. Since their is no serious Islamic text approving the torture and murder of homosexuals, we need to find other causes for the existence of concentration camps against LGBT people.
A necessary glimpse of a struggle towards Chechen identity
To understand the contemporary situation in Chechnya it is necessary to look back at it’s recent history. After the collapse of the Soviet Union several previous regions attached to the USSR declared independence. Several regions declared independence around the Baltic and Black Sea, the Southern Caucasus and in Central Asia. Chechnya was one of the few, if not the only one, that was not able to do that. This led to a very bloody civil war between the Chechen rebels and the Russian military.
These Chechen rebels were searching for a shared identity and acquired Islam as a common religion. The word “acquired” in my previous sentence is very important. During the Soviet period the majority of people living in Chechnya were atheist. There was no evidence of a Muslim-majority. The Chechens became Muslim only two decades ago.
Russia portrayed the form of Islam that was acquired by the Chechens as very radical and dangerous. They saw not military intervening in the Chechen struggle for independence as jeopardising their own internal security. Also the international community believed somehow that support for Russia would secure themselves from radical Islam. Many academics argue that this is a total misunderstanding of the Chechen crisis. The struggle of the Chechen is a fight for their independence. It is not a fight for religious dominance (Parker, 2015, 3).
You could even argue that their struggle is just the same struggle all Russians experienced after the collapse of communism. Russia, and Chechnya, do have an identity crisis. They do not know how to define themselves since the fall of communism. Both Russia and Chechnya searched for their identity and a common enemy. Internationally they found quite easy their old enemy back: the West. The internal enemy of the Soviet Union was religion. The Russian Orthodox Church grew considerably in the last two decades and has a huge influence inside the Kremlin nowadays.
The last years showed that Russia shifted their anger on religion towards an anger against non- traditionalism. Women and LGBT rights have often been attacked by Russian officials. After several bloody years, Russia came to an agreement with Kadyrov, one of the high-ranking rebels. Since that moment Putin and Kadyrov are thick as thieves.
Chechnya institutionalised what Russians want to institutionalise
In 2013 there was a law introduced in the Duma (the Russian parliament) to ban the promotion of LGBT issues. The lawmakers did not want LGBT activists convincing children about their lifestyle. This law literally banned every single possibility to organise a Gay Pride or even publish a personal coming-out on YouTube. By this law the closet was institutionalised in Russia.
It is also in law with what the majority of people think about homosexuality in Russia. Only 16% of the Russian population thinks that homosexuals should be accepted by society (Pew Research Center). There are no numbers focusing on the region of Chechnya, but one can assume that you will find the same numbers in this Chechen region.
In Russia itself human rights organisations often reported about violence against LGBT youngsters by far- right groups. These allegations were never taken seriously by any official institution. This created an atmosphere of anarchy towards LGBT people. You could do whatever you want with these people, the police was never going to intervene.
I argue that this stance of the Russian government is the biggest cause why the Kadyrov regime started with the concentration camps against gay citizens. Since the agreement between Kadyrov and Putin, the influence of Russia on the Chechen society and government rose considerably. Kadyrov wants to become a strong regional leader within the Russian Federation. So he has to keep up a strong leadership towards Chechens and be a reliable partner for Putin.
Putin’s ignorance of LGBT-rights in Russia led to the legitimising of the concentration camps against Chechen gay citizens by the Chechen political leader.
A true Muslim does not kill, nor torture
Sufism is a central part of the identity created by the Chechen government. Scholars argue that the government uses sufism to ban criticism on their policies. Since they are claiming that every act the Kadyrov regime is undertaking is in the name of Sufism, every critique on the regime is a critique on Sufism. (Hankey, 2015, 69)
Despite many Russian politicians arguing that the reason for the Chechen conflict is a radical form of Islam, academics argue that Chechen Muslim political elites alien to the Sufi Islam. As Wilhelmsen argues: Chechen warlords are not international jihadis, but separatists (Wilhelmsen, 2005).
Vatchagaev argues that the Chechen Sufi fraternities are highly politicised. He argues that mysticism has given priority to politics already a long time ago (Vatchagaev, 2013, 2). In 1991 Boris Yeltsin had chosen his representative a new representative for Russia in Chechnya. Akhmed Bagaudinovich Arsanov was part of the Qadiris fraternity, one of the most influential Sufi fraternities in the region. The first president of Chechnya Dadaev also came out in favour of this fraternity (Vatchagaev, 2013, 3).
After the Chechen-Russian war the Kremlin didn’t want to create a multi-party system in Chechnya anymore. They start to become allies of the Sufi fraternities. Ramzan Kadyrov became there first-hand ally. Kadyrov’s rule is contested, because his coalition does not have a majority. For instance the Naqshbandis fraternity is against Kadyrov’s rule. Despite this, nowadays the Sufi allies can be found in all levels of power in Chechnya Vatchagaev, 2013, 6).
Sufism is a more mystical tradition, that is very politicised in Chechnya. The fact that Chechens follow Sufism, very much argues why religion is not the main factor for the prosecution of homosexuals in Chechnya. The traditions of Sufism “is based on a homo-erotic relationship between 13th century men, Mevlana Rumi and Shams of Tabriz.” (Barzan, 1998, 25) Despite the explicit language of the verses describing this story, many Muslims still ignore this fact. The homo-erotic component is highly contested. But a lot of Muslim scholars acknowledge the existence of a natural relationship between men and boys (Van Weven, 2015, 7-8).
Chechnya’s identity struggle
Many Western media simplified the prosecution of homosexuals in concentration camps in the first half of 2017. The Muslim tradition of Sufism is based on a mystical relationship between men. Some consider it even a homo-erotic relationship. But according to Vatchagaev the Sufi fraternities in power, dropped the mystical tradition to become more politicised. Sufi allies can be found in every level of power in Chechnya. This means that the reason for the prosecution has to be found somewhere else.
The struggle for a Chechen independent identity within the Russian Federation is the main factor for this. Since relations between Moscow and Grozny have been improved, the Chechen leadership wants to befriend the leadership in the Kremlin. Since the introduction of the anti-propaganda law in 2013 in the Duma, the LGBT community has been marginalised in the whole Russian Federation.
At the same time Chechnya is undergoing it’s own identity crisis. First the Chechen leadership wanted to separate themselves fully from Russia. Now they want to be a strong independent region within the Russian Federation. By prosecuting homosexuals, the Kadyrov regime want to show force and make a statement towards the mostly anti-LGBT population within the Russian Federation.
Gays were the victim of a growing up state. The concentration camps had everything to do with the Chechen integration in the Russian Federation.