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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2000, Page 51


The Sabres of Paradise

By Mowahid H. Shah

Forty years ago, Lesley Blanch wrote The Sabres of Paradise, an epic account of Tsarist Russia’s attempt to subdue Dagestan in the 1800s. Echoes of that have reverberated with the continuing conflict in Chechnya and Dagestan with Muslims of the Caucasus. The Caucasus has remained the Wild West for the Russians. The Caucasus was once considered an Indo-European hub—hence the word “Caucasian,” by which whites like to designate themselves. The Muslims of the Caucasus are a handsome, daring people who do not shirk from a fight.

Lesley Blanch wrote about Imam Shamil’s epic stand against the Russians for nearly 25 years in the Caucasian War (1816-1856). Under Shamil’s charismatic leadership, the Caucasians resisted the Russians in a bloody, heroic war, which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Russian troops. The memory of this is seared into the Russian psyche. Russian poets and literati like Pushkin and Tolstoy wrote about it. Tolstoy penned a novel, Hadji Murad, on the legendary exploits of a red-haired Muslim mujahid. It was turned into a movie under the same name starring ex-Mr. Universe Steve Reeves. This was before the wave of Islamophobia.

The region’s famous warrior-hero continues to inspire. According to a Los Angeles Times writer, the red flag and the bearded image of Lenin, which not many years ago used to dominate every public building in the Caucasus, were replaced with Islamic green flags and banners in honor of Imam Shamil.

The Russians have not learned the lessons of their 19th century Caucasus misadventures. To rephrase what Napoleon once said about the Bourbons of France: “The Russians learned nothing, forgot nothing.”

While Chechnya is being pummeled, remember it was the Russians who were screaming the loudest over the NATO air campaigns against their Orthodox co-religionists—the Serbs. The latest onslaught—the work of Russian PM and former KGB man Vladimir Putin—is clearly an attempt to erase the humiliation of the debacle in Chechnya in 1996 (which scholar Anatol Lieven called the “tombstone of Russian power”) and the earlier defeat in Afghanistan.

Hungarian freedom fighter Bela, in a letter to The New York Times of Oct. 27,1999 on Chechnya, wrote: “I am ashamed of “the deafening silence coming from the United Nations and Washington.” To this he could have added the OIC in Jeddah. In a recent speech, Kofi Annan waxed eloquent that, from now on, humanitarian compulsions can pierce the veil of national territorial sovereignty. But did he walk the talk?

In the past 200 years, the Muslims of the Caucasus have shown indomitable fighting spirit against Moscow’s animus toward Muslims. Stalin imposed Russia’s Cyrillic script on all Central Asian republics while allowing his own (non-Muslim) Georgian people to retain their own. Muslims who have resisted Russian suzerainty have been called “basmachi” (bandits). But, in the case of Chechnya, the real banditry has come from the Kremlin.

Mowahid H. Shah practices law in Washington, DC. This article first appeared in the Nov. 5 Pakistan Link, published in Los Angeles. Reprinted with permission.