GROZNY — On Monday morning, the Russian republic of Chechnya saw the biggest street protest in its history. Packed crowds hurried up Putin and Kadyrov Avenues to join the demonstration, which Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was calling “Love for the Prophet Muhammad.”
The protest—which experts at the human-rights center Memorial described to The Daily Beast as the biggest rally ever in the Northern Caucuses—took place in the Chechen capital of Grozny, on a big square in front of The Heart of Chechnya Mosque. Mullahs and imams praised Allah and the Prophet, while citizens prayed together to make a statement: Russian Muslims were uniting against Charlie Hebdo's cartoons and anybody who supported them.On Monday afternoon, the Chechen interior ministry reported that one million protesters participated in the rally. Chechen Muslims were joined by their neighbors from the republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, as well as by Orthodox Christian demonstrators. Thousands carried banners that said: “Keep your hands off our beloved Prophet Muhammad!”At about 10 am, a uniformed policeman handed protesters paper signs: “We are the ummah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH,)” they said. The square was packed with people carrying heart-shaped balloons with a symbol for the Prophet Muhammad on them. Many chanted at the top of their voices: “Allahu Akbar! We love Muhammad!”
Soon Kadyrov appeared at the microphone, wearing a white vest and a traditional Muslim hat. "We gathered to protest against those who support the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, against those who deliberately kindles fire of religious hostility," he told the square.
Earlier, Kadyrov had declared that he considered both the cartoonists and those who republished the cartoons as their own type of terrorists, as bad as the Wahhabis. Addressing the Monday rally in Grozny, Kadryrov condemned the “show organized by French authorities with the participation of presidents, prime ministers and kings.”
In his speech, Kadyrov mentioned the “Unity Rally,” that took place in Paris on January 11th, after 17 people were killed in the attack on the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. It was an event that authorities in Moscow had supported; Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had headed the Russian delegation that participated in the Unity Rally. Was Kadyrov, known to Russians as a Putin loyalist, now sending a message to Moscow—a warning backed by hundreds of thousands of Chechen Muslims?
“This is a fight between different pillars of the Kremlin, between those who want to have a war with the West and those who wants to live in peace,” Grigory Shvedov, the Russian editor-in-chief of the website The Caucasian Knot, told The Daily Beast about the Grozny protests. “Kadyrov is basically saying in the language of values that by insulting Islam, one insults Russia.”
While Russian human-rights groups have expressed concern about Muslim activists attacking journalists or civil workers in Russia, the Kremlin-backed media has been busy criticizing the Charlie cartoons. One of the country's biggest newspapers, Komsomolskaya Pravda, published a series of articles under the headline “Why I am Not Charlie Hebdo.”
Earlier that morning, a dozen local men were watching the news on a Russian TV channel over breakfast at a Grozny restaurant. A female TV host spoke about Westerners deliberately insulting Muslims' feelings, as she pointed at a bunch of Charlie Hebdo magazines on display, with cartoons of Prophet Muhammad on the latest cover.
"The magazine Charlie increased its circulation and made 21 million Euro on death and Islam," the channel's host said. The Chechen viewers in the restaurant looked upset. They left their unfinished breakfast and walked out to join the protest on the central square.
The relationship between Chechnya and Russia has been tumultuous and often strained. Under Joseph Stalin, the entire Chechen and Ingush people—over 500,000 of them—were deported from the North Caucuses to Central Asia. Nobody had a chance to protest; the Soviet military came knocking on doors in the middle of the night. People had just a few hours to pack their belongings before freight trains took them away. Close to 100,000 Chechens and Ingush, known collectively as Vainakh, died as a result of the deportation.
It took more than a decade for the Vainakh to return to their historic lands. And in 1990, Russian forces once again invaded Chechnya to restore ‘territorial integrity’. The war that followed, which ended only in 2009, was known as ‘Russia’s Vietnam.’
"Nobody would allow us to protest back then and today's protest is allowed and organized by our leader," Aslan Akhmedov, 72, told The Daily Beast on Monday. When asked about the 5,000 Chechens registered as “disappeared” by human-rights groups since 1999, Akhmedov just looked away.