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Istanbul: Gateway to a holy war

On the banks of the Bosporus the assault on Grozny is seen as a family matter
By Ali Isingor Special to CNNItalia ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNNItalia) -- For many of its main players, the Chechen war starts here, in the streets of Istanbul. It is here, in this Turkish metropolis, that they gather from all over the Islamic world, the Mujahedeen, the holy warriors of Islam. They are the same volunteer fighters that put up a fierce resistance to the Russian forces that have had Grozny under siege. Turkey is the principal ally of the Chechen independence fighters. Since the days of the Ottoman Empire, almost all the peoples of the Caucasus region -- including Chechens -- have had close ties with Turkey, which though secular is still part of the Islamic world. Each week Turkish Muslim groups and the Gray Wolves organize demonstrations against the Russian government. The Gray Wolves are extreme nationalists accused of being behind the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II and who have managed to become part of Turkey's governing coalition. The Gray Wolves run the mosques and commercial activities in some parts of Istanbul. It is in these mosques, in the suburbs of the city, that offerings are collected after daily prayers for the Chechen refugees. It is money that probably also goes to soldiers on the front lines. At the Fatih mosque, one of the oldest centers of worship in Istanbul, the pro-Chechen network daily enlists men to send to the front, gathers funds and organizes demonstrations. At the mosque of Beyazit, which is under the control of Sunnite Muslims, Friday prayers are followed by demonstrations on behalf of the "martyrs of Grozny."

Pro-Chechen Internet sites feature prayers for the fighters in Chechnya. Many who log on to those Web sites feel compelled to offer some form of solidarity to their Chechen brothers.

Tacit consent of Turkish officials


As the conflict in Chechnya has intensified and played out its more dramatic moments, such efforts have multiplied. According to some estimates, there are between 3,000 and 5,000 foreign Mujahedeen in Turkey on their way to fight in Chechnya. Their movements across Turkey certainly could not take place without at least the tacit consent of the Turkish government. Indeed, it is no longer a secret that the main training camp for the Chechen fighters is at Duzce, a town between Istanbul and the Turkish capital of Ankara. In the winter the camp at Duzce is buried in snow, and the surrounding landscape resembles the Caucasus. The historical and ethnic ties between Duzce and the Caucasian people are also strong: It is at Duzce that many of them were forced to seek refuge during the various Ottoman and Russian conflicts. Istanbul is where aid organizations that want to help the Chechens are setting up shop. The most active of these is the Kafkafasya Yardimlasma Dernegi. Many observers suspect the funds it collects are in fact used to purchase weapons that end up with Chechen fighters. In the headquarters of the association, situated in the working-class district of Axarai, the walls are covered with posters showing bearded fighters at prayer as villages burn behind them. It is here that many "crusaders" of this holy war pass -- men inspired by the ancient deeds of the Chechen hero Shamil and by those of fighters in more recent conflicts such as in Bosnia and Kosovo.

A Caucasian legend is born


A century and a half ago the Muslim cleric Imam Shamil united the peoples of Dagestan and Chechnya in a fight against the territorial encroachment of czarist Russia. Under Shamil's charismatic leadership the Dagestanis and Chechens waged a long and bitter campaign that led to the eventual establishment of an autonomous Islamic state, or imamate, in the northern Caucasus. Many of volunteers ready to join the Chechen guerrillas today reach the units by crossing the Republic of Georgia. It is a journey made easy by Turkey's lax surveillance of its frontier and by the fact that Georgia's own border has become more porous since the demise of the Soviet Union. At the end of their tour of duty at the front, or when they are wounded, the Mujahedeen return to Istanbul, where they are sure of finding protection and solidarity. Mustafa, an Albanian interviewed by CNNItalia, is typical: "They trained me here in Turkey and sent me to the front. I lost a leg there stepping on an Italian land mine. There were thousands of foreign volunteers with me. Muslim solidarity will save the Chechen people."

Politics of Islamic nationalism


Today the most active group aiding the Chechens is a branch of the Gray Wolves movement called Nizami Alem, or "universal order." Nizami Alem is an ultra-nationalist group created from a split in the official Gray Wolves political party, known by its initials MHP. Nizami Alem accuses the Gray Wolves of not being sensitive enough to Islamic thought. For its part, Nizami Alem maintains strong ties to the more radical Muslim groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The Turkish allies of the Chechens have a party known as the BBP (or Party of Great Unity). Positioned on the extreme right of the Turkish political spectrum, the party is enjoying considerable success. The official political wing of the Gray Wolves, the MHP, is in the government now. Its position as part of the establishment forces it to take a more moderate position on Chechnya, at least officially. Openly backing the Chechen separatists could create embarrassing parallels with the Kurdish situation. Its timidity is causing the MHP considerable internal problems. It loses support daily to the ultra-nationalists, who use the Kurdish and Chechen causes to underscore their rivals' weak positions on those issues. One of the most interesting elements in the Chechen mosaic is the fight by Iran and Saudi Arabia for control of Turkey's pro-Chechen nationalist groups. The Saudi Islamic faction, the Vahabi, finances the Chechen guerrillas. It has also established a presence in Istanbul. The government of Tehran is no less interested. Iran and Saudi Arabia are both heavily involved in the political and diplomatic activities that have allowed the Chechens to keep up such a long resistance to the Russians.

An alliance rooted in history


To better understand the reasons behind the Turkish-Chechen axis, one only needs to look at Ottoman history. The Caucasian tribes fought the Slavs from the Russian steppes for centuries. With the Ottoman conquest, they found a natural ally against the Orthodox [Christian] imperialists -- the Ottoman sultan who resided in Istanbul, ancient Constantinople. For many of the Caucasian peoples the Ottoman Empire offered not only a protective shield against Russian attacks, but also an ideological arm against Orthodoxy. Islam also served as a cohesive factor in a society of small tribes. In return, the Caucasian tribes for centuries strove to outdo each other in sending their most beautiful girls to join the sultan's harem.

The Russian response to the Ottoman policy was similar. The Russians tried to spread Orthodoxy among the people of the Caucasus. Often they succeeded. The Ossetians, for example, who are from the same ethnic branch as the Chechens, today are predominantly Christian. Throughout the slow decline of the Ottoman Empire, which took about 300 years, the Caucasian peoples began feeling new pressure from the Russians to the north. Again they put up a determined resistance. So much so that Turkish domination of the Caucasus lasted much longer than it did in other parts of the empire. When the Ottomans lost the war of 1856-57, the Russians decided to clear the region. Over the next 50 years, hundreds of thousands of Chechens and Circassians were relocated to various parts of the czarist empire. For the Turks it is one of the greatest tragedies of their history.

Caucasian diaspora of the Middle East


Many people of the Caucasus fled to Bulgaria, to Bosnia, to Jordan and to areas on the Black Sea. Even today many Circassians and Chechens live in Jordan and Bosnia. The cavalry unit that protects King Abdullah of Jordan, for example, is composed entirely of Circassians. Jordan's ruling Hashemite family today is more Caucasian than Arab. Prince Ali, King Hussein's son by his first wife, whose background was in great part Circassian-Chechen, last year traveled across the Middle East. With him were 12 horses so that he could participate in ceremonies in the Republic of Georgia. He dressed in Chechen garb, complete with an Astrakhan fur hat. It is from this rich historical and cultural background that the Chechen guerrillas of today draw all they need to resist the Russians: men, arms and funds, and the support needed for their voice to be heard all over the Muslim world. It should be little wonder that on the banks of the Bosporus the assault on Grozny is seen as a family matter.