In Western media there has been justifiable outrage over the reports of concentration camps being established in Chechnya. Naturally such a move should be condemned and pressure need to be put on the Russian government to either stop the persecution or permit the safe passage of those under threat out of Chechnya. However, this doesn’t require any substantive political analysis as even those who do not especially care about LGBT rights would oppose the establishment of concentration camps. The subject of this piece is concerning the discourse around this news story, particularly the view that seeks to link this new development with Chechnya’s status as a Muslim-majority area.
For opponents of religious fundamentalism, it is very tempting to place Chechnya in the same category as other Muslim-majority areas that persecute LGBT people for religious reasons. However there are some aspects of the situation in Chechnya that, in my view, convincingly contradict this more simplistic view. But to be perfectly clear, lest I am criticised for making this delineation, my writings about fundamentalism of countries across the Islamic world, from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia, clearly show that I am not an apologist for fundamentalism. So having said that, let’s begin.
Firstly the persecution of LGBT people is widely believed to have been ordered by the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov is an interesting figure when it comes to religion because he has personally identified himself as influenced by Qadiriyya Sufism and Sunni Islam. This is intriguing because Qadiriyya is a form of Sufism that allows for religious communities to choose their own Islamic values and practices. When a religious community choose their values, the community have already been socialised. There is nothing innate in humans to be prejudicial towards LGBT people, and therefore these attitudes can only have come from existing social norms. But more on this later.
Secondly, when representatives of the Chechen government have been pressed on the situation, they have responded in secular language. That is to say that the ‘justification’ provided by Chechen government spokespeople has been a denial of the existence of gay people. When religious fundamentalists at in a way that they believe can be justified by their religion, they tend not to avoid articulating the theological basis for their decision. For instance when Saudi Arabia or ISIS persecute gay people, they make either reference to specific hadiths or passages in the Qu’ran, or generally say how their actions are just in the eyes of God. The fact that Chechen leaders like Kadyrov haven’t done this would suggest that his motivation was not a frothing desire to impose his religious philosophy on others.
Thirdly and finally, the reaction of local clerics is also noteworthy. If religious leaders in Chechnya were supportive of the persecution of LGBT people, they would openly endorse the actions of the Chechen government. This has been the practice of clerics across the Islamic world who support ultra-conservative policies. However not only have Chechen clerics not come out in favour of Kadyrov’s policies towards sexual minorities, they have condemned the idea of the authorities persecuting the journalists who revealed the existence of these concentration camps. It would therefore be erroneous to agree that the actions of the Chechen government were religiously motivated.
The alternative explanation that I would put forward is something that alluded to earlier. I believe that the homophobic social norms of Russia are a more likely motivation for the actions of the Chechen government. All societies have social norms that influence how people behave and institutions, both governmental and non-governmental, play a role in shaping these norms. These norms are particularly powerful because they allow the state to take a back-seat and let people, of their own volition, regulate how others in society act without the need for overt forms of coercion.
In the case of Russia, homophobic social norms have existed for a long time. The attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church has been negative throughout the organisation’s entire existence. Before the October Revolution, the Church’s highly conservative views on gay rights set the tone for the rest of society for a number of years. Even whilst the Church was being persecuted by Soviet authorities, the social attitudes of the Church was reinforced by those who were pious despite repression of the official organisation. After the collapse of the USSR, the Church reaffirmed its anti-gay stance, and in 2016 the head of the Russian Orthodox Church said that the rise of ISIS was because of acceptance of homosexuals.
In the Soviet Union anti-gay laws were on the statute books of many of the constituent republics, and the Bolsheviks were no different to other political parties of the time and believed homosexuality was an illness. Under Stalin, male homosexuality was explicitly banned and gay men were depicted in propaganda as dissidents and/or Nazi sympathizers. Articles frequently appeared in Pravda denouncing homosexuality, including from prominent cultural critics like Maxim Gorky. After Stalin’s death, the cultural atmosphere created by persecution and propaganda had made the subject a taboo and this resulted in the Soviet government allowing to retreat from the issue as Soviet citizens would discourage homosexual acts in people without the state having to tell people.
Anti-LGBT social norms have existed in Russia for a long time, and this can easily be seen by the actions of people inside of Russia. According to a poll reported in the Moscow Times, social attitudes towards sexual minorities are becoming more conservative. In the poll, which was reported in 2015, around 20% of people said that gay people should be ‘isolated’ from Russian society.
This social attitudes survey was taken after the Duma passed the 2013 anti-gay propaganda law, which was overwhelmingly supported by law-makers. However the response of Russian society was determined by social norms. If a law was passed that society disagreed with, there would be a palpable and visual tension whereby people would conduct protests or participate in civil disobedience. The fact that the Russian people supported this law illustrate the purveyance of ultra-conservative views towards LGBT people.
This is my point about Chechnya. If the violence against LGBT people was solely about Islam then the following would happen: the Chechen authorities, supported by local clerics, would openly speak about the persecution; they would couch their persecution in religious language; the religious views of the leadership of the Chechen government would be front and centre of the discussions about gay people; and Chechnya would be an outlier when compared with the rest of Russia.
The fact that none of these are the case would indicate that it is social norms, and not Islam, that is to blame for this uptick in violence. Don’t get me wrong, the people conducting this violence will probably seek to legitimise their actions in their morality, and if this is influenced by Islam then the perpetrators will seek out passages in Islamic law that justifies their position. My point is that there is a difference between doing something for religious reasons, and doing something before finding a religious justification for those actions.
To conclude, the creation of concentration camps in Chechnya obviously requires public attention around the world but we must be on guard to call out anti-Muslim bigotry as well. I am by no means an expert on the social and political dynamics of Chechnya so I will deferentially bow to the expertise of a more well-informed source.
Given the regional dynamics I have outlined above, I hope I have convinced you of my position, and if not then feel free to let me know in the comments section. All I would say is the following. If Chechnya was the only part of Russia persecuting gay people and its leaders were talking about the righteousness of God we’d be having a very different conversation. The fact that they are not would seem to suggest that Islam is not the primary motive behind the creation of these concentration camps.