Following European rallies in support of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after the terrorist attack on its Paris offices, tens of thousands of residents of Russia's mostly Muslim Chechen Republic came out for a government-backed protest on Monday against the "immorality" of the French cartoonists.
The anti-"Je suis Charlie" demonstration was called last week by Chechnya's strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov on his popular Instagram account. Kadyrov declared he would mobilize half a million of his denizens against the magazine's Muhammad caricatures and called its supporters his "personal enemies."
According to Chechnya's interior ministry, more than 1 million people came to the capital Grozny's central square to take part in the protest. Although official counts of state-backed rallies are often inflated, video from the scene showed tens of thousands of people marching and singing near the Heart of Chechnya mosque.
"We won't allow the name of the prophet to be insulted with impunity," Kadyrov told the throngs of attendees. "You and I see how European journalists and politicians crassly insult the feelings of believers. What freedom of speech are they talking about? Russia condemned America and Europe's terror against Syria and Iraq, as well as the war-mongering in Ukraine, and Western countries and the United States adopted sanctions against Russia."
Besides his latest crusade against the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, Kadyrov has often spoken out against the West's support for the new regime in Kiev, and said this summer he would be ready to send 74,000 Chechen volunteers to "instill order" in Ukraine.
Moscow sent its foreign minister to Paris for the march in support of the Charlie Hebdo victims, but it has discouraged such cartooning at home. After the attack, Russia's media regulator warned that publishing cartoons of Muhammad could violate the country's stringent anti-extremism laws for inciting religious hatred.
In the past, Russia has criticized Western responses to Islamist violence. In October, President Vladimir Putin argued that the US has fomented Islamic extremism by intervening in Middle Eastern affairs and funding militants, while the loudly pro-Kremlin Kadyrov has called the Islamic State a CIA project. One of Russia's most popular newspapers, Komsomolskaya Pravda, led its issue on January 12 with the headline "Did the Americans organize the terrorist attack in Paris?"
The Chechnya march is the latest in a string of anti-Charlie Hebdo demonstrations in countries including Pakistan, Jordan, Niger, and Afghanistan, where hundreds praised as "heroes" the two gunmen who attacked the magazine. Chechnya's neighboring republic of Ingushetia got the jump on Kadyrov, who has been trumpeting his protest in the media for the past week, by holding an "Islam Against Terrorism" march on Saturday that reportedly had 20,000 participants.
'He wants to break out of the boundaries of Chechnya and become leader of Russia's Muslims.'
In Grozny on Monday, Chechens streamed into the city center with huge numbers of red balloons, placards, and banners, filling the square and roads near the mosque with a sea of humanity. Most of the signs appeared to be mass-produced and bore one of a few stock phrases: "I *heart* prophet Muhammad," "We're against caricatures," "Hands off the prophet Muhammad," "Islam is a religion of creation and good," and "You simply can't understand how strongly we love our prophet Muhammad." Other signs warned no one would be allowed "to insult the religious feelings of believers," mimicking the language of a law essentially criminalizing blasphemy that Russia adopted after the conviction of two Pussy Riot punk activists on hooliganism charges.
Habib Ali al-Jifri, a Yemeni Muslim scholar reputed to be directly descended from Muhammad, gave a lengthy, rousing speech at the rally, drawing cries of "God is great" and bringing many, including Kadyrov, to tears of sorrow and rage.The scholar later presented Kadyrov with a ceremonial cape.
Al-Jifri also thanked the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow for their support. Bishop Varlaam of Grozny and Makhachkala and other Orthodox clergy attended the protest to condemn the West for "trying to sow discord between our religions," Russian news agencies reported.
Kadyrov has often publicized his Muslim beliefs while trying to keep a lid on a simmering Islamic insurgency in the region, which analysts say is in danger of igniting as hundreds of radicals from Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan return home after fighting for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Chechnya, where the Kremlin crushed a nationalist and Islamist rebellion during two bloody wars in the 1990s and 2000s, has recently faced a new flare-up of insurgent violence when a suicide bomber killed five police officers in October and gunmen killed 14 police officers in December in Grozny.
In response to the December attack, whose perpetrators said they were avenging the alleged assault of women by Kadyrov's security forces, the Chechen leader called for the punishment of the attackers' relatives. Masked men soon set fire to the houses of suspected militants' families in the village of Yandi.
Sergei Markedonov, an associate professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities who studies the North Caucasus, interpreted the protest against Charlie Hebdo as yet another attempt by Kadyrov to position himself as a politician of national standing and as a spiritual leader of Russia's estimated 16 million Muslims. Asked whether Kadyrov's Quran-thumping was tied to the recent Islamist attacks in Grozny, Markedonov noted that Kadyrov similarly denounced the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten when it published cartoons of Muhammad back in 2005.
"He wants to break out of the boundaries of Chechnya and become leader of Russia's Muslims. Plus, if he is a leader of national significance he will be able to win more concessions [from Moscow]," Markedonov told VICE News. "An expert can say that on the one hand he's fighting Islamists while on the other hand he's supporting them, but here there is no logic, politicians don't operate by that logic."
Despite the October and December attacks in Grozny, terrorist acts in the North Caucasus have continued to decline in recent years, Markedonov added. "Of course, the problem is complicated by the North Caucasians now fighting in Middle East," he said. "Will they come back and cause trouble?"
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn