Living With the Chechens

In 2001-2002, I lived in Baku, Azerbaijan.  It was a decade after independence. My part of town was colored bydecadent black sunflower seeds, eaten whole and sometimes sold in the city’s center, Fountain Square, by Chechen and Dagestani child refugees.

Baku bulged with refugees of all sorts by that point. There were war veterans from Nagorno-Karabakh, a semi-autonomous region in Azerbaijan that was contested in armed conflict between Azeri and Armenia forces. In the early 2000s, it remained a region overrun by too many landmines for resettlement.  The Dagestani conflict erupted between the Saudi-funded Islamist spillover fromChechnya, both seeking to obtain independence from Russia.

The Chechen conflict brought about all sorts. There was anAfghan who came to assist the Chechen resistance in the late 1990s. He lost all of his documentation and had no way of obtaining replacements. He made well of the situation and married an Azeri woman. He also begged every Afghan he came across to attest to his nationality, in writing, in hopes he could compile enough evidence to prove his identity and one day return to his home. For Afghans, the Chechen conflict represented unfinished business with the Russians. For other players in the conflict, such as Saudi money and influence, Chechnyarepresented Islam’s new frontier.

Those former Soviet Republic Muslims, in many ways,aren’t like the rest of the Muslim world. While much of the Muslim world cycled though Western colonialism, nationalism, and then Islamism, Muslims in the former Soviet Union had their Islamic history obliterated in one long communist stretch. In some cases, ancient mosques were systematically destroyed. History was rewritten to exclude a vast canvas of Islamic influences.  Sixty years of secularism stifled spirituality. When the Iron Curtain fell,Central Asian Islam had to rebuild from this spiritual void.

In that void emerged the possibility of Western consumptive culture where McDonald’s and shopping trips to Dubai defined identity. On the flip side, Salafi Islam,alien to indigenous tenants of Islam in this region, swooped in and served as well-funded cultural imperialism.

This was an unfortunate development, for the re-emergence of Islam in the former Soviet Union in the late 1990s and early 2000s was one of hope. It was an region of Muslims excited about opening up their economies and culture to the West while also enthusiastically embracing Islam within these new global boundaries. I was curious to see how this Islam would develop in hopes that our Muslim comrades would provide a new model of global, progressive Muslimidentity. But boundaries come in all sorts, and some arrivedin forms of “Ummatic colonialism.”

There are well-documented reports of l Al-Qaeda moneysupporting the Chechen cause. But there were outward markers that Gulf money and cultural influence also foundits way to the former Soviet Union. The black abaya startedshowing up in the Abu Bakr mosque in Baku, just as it was making its way to other non-Arab parts of the Muslim world.  Saudi-funded Salafi influence was also growing among Chechens. By that time, an estimated 10,000 Chechen refugees lived in the country (and most in Baku) among Azeri Muslims, who are Turkish-speaking Shias.

This was an uncomfortable emerging dynamic for the Azeri government, whose opinions about Chechens were influenced by Russian produced, anti-Chechen propaganda. Likewise, Chechens became vulnerable to political and criminal exploitation.  They were known to do the “dirty work” of Azeri corruption.

Life was hard for Chechen refugees as they had few political rights: their children were not allowed to attend public Azeri schools, leaving what pundits term “radicalized” Islam to fill an educational void.  Chechen children born in Azerbaijan were denied birth certificates.  It is no wonder that refugees filtered through Islamist communities as they received little support elsewhere.

September 11th, 2001 happened during my stay in Baku. The event shifted American and Muslim identity at a global scale. It also impacted Chechens refugees, as Salafi-induced Islam became problematic for Azeri authorities. Chechens were the collective al-Qaeda link in Azerbaijan due to their adopted version of Islam. They became the bad guys, the Other that was a threat to the Azeri way of life, particularly at the insistence of the United States forAzerbaijan to distance from unofficial support for Chechen independence.

Today, relations have improved between Azerbaijan and Chechen officials, and there is bilateral support and public concern for Salafi influence in Chechnya. Likewise, there ispassage through Azerbaijan for Chechens going to hajj, as well as avenues for economic cooperation.

But these historical trajectories may have little to do with the Tsarneav brothers, who apparently spent little timeactually living Chechnya as children. They never lived in Baku, as far as we know. Based on media reports, theybecame refugees in Dagestan soon after the SecondChechen war on 1999. It wasn’t long after that when they arrived in the US, sponsored by the mother, and embraced American-secular cultural markers, such as girlfriends and boxing belts.

At this time, we don’t know if they had any tangible connections to Chechnya, although news reports say the eldest spent several months there in 2012. We don’t yet know how observant they were with Islam, or if they were attempting to rewrite their personal Chechen identity through Salafi-filtered lens. Maybe, as their uncle stated, they were just losers. Or, even still, as their parents insist, they were framed and put into a situation where consequences were not fully revealed.

We have no idea whatsoever what may have inspired them to allegedly design the Boston bombings.  There is still so much we don’t know. Yet, they seem to have met the same fate as Chechens in Azerbaijan: sufficiently Othered, they are the outcast, the ones doing the dirty work for a larger, nefarious political agenda.

It is ironic that two Chechens in the US were, in early media reports, were possibly “white guys.” Then, for a brief time, someone said that they were Russian. Once people discovered they were of Chechen ethnicity and culturally Muslims, assumptions between about their ethnic-Islamic identity suddenly became media fodder. A matter of significant – the missing link of the puzzle.

Still, there is so much that we don’t know.


I am white American-Muslim. was in hijab during my time in Baku, and Azeris often thought that I was a wealthyChechen.  Despite the otherness and marginalization of Chechen refugees, no one ever treated me as a terrorist.






Deonna Kelli Sayed is an American-Muslim author. Her work is featured in Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. Her articles have appeared at and Muslimah Media Watch. She also serves as one editor of Visit here to learn more about Deonna.

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