By Amie Ferris-Rotman
GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) – Adam, 52, keeps his three wives in different towns to stop them squabbling, but the white-bearded Chechen adds he might soon take a fourth.
“Chechnya is Muslim, so this is our right as men. They (the wives) spend time together, but do not always see eye to eye,” said the soft-spoken pensioner, who only gave his first name.
Hardline Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov is vying with insurgents for authority in a land ravaged by two secessionist wars with Moscow. Each side is claiming Islam as its flag of legitimacy, each reviles the other as criminal and blasphemous.
Wary of the dangers of separatism in a vast country, Moscow watches uneasily as central power yields to Islamic tenets. It must chose what it might see as the lesser of two evils.
Though polygamy is illegal in Russia, the southern Muslim region of Chechnya encourages the practice, arguing it is allowed by sharia law and the Koran, Islam’s holiest book.
By Russian law, Adam is only married to his first wife of 28 years, Zoya, the plump, blue-eyed mother of his three children, with whom he shares a home on the outskirts of the regional capital Grozny.
His “marriages” to the other two — squirreled away in villages nearby — were carried out in elaborate celebrations and are recognized by Chechen authorities.
The head of Chechnya’s Center for Spiritual-Moral Education, Vakha Khashkanov, set up by Kadyrov a year ago, said Islam should take priority over laws of the Russian constitution.
“If it is allowed in Islam, it is not up for discussion,” he told Reuters near Europe’s largest mosque, which glistens in central Grozny atop the grounds where the Communist party had its headquarters before the Soviet Union fell in 1991.
“As long as you can feed your wives, and there’s equality amongst them, then polygamy is allowed in Chechnya,” he added.
Islam is flourishing in Chechnya which, along with its neighbors Dagestan and Ingushetia, is combating an Islamist insurgency which aims to create a Muslim, sharia-based state separate from Russia across the North Caucasus.
Though Islam first arrived in the North Caucasus around 500 years ago, in Dagestan’s ancient walled city of Derbent on the Caspian Sea, religion under Communism was strongly discouraged.
Kadyrov, like most of his region’s one million people, is Sufi, a mystical branch of Islam which places a greater focus on prayer and recitation.
Political analysts say that in exchange for successfully hunting out Islamist fighters, the Kremlin turns a blind eye to Kadyrov’s Muslim-inspired rules.
Today Grozny’s cafes hold men sipping smuggled beer out of teacups as alcohol has been all but banned, single-sex schools and gyms are becoming the norm and women must cover their heads in government buildings.
Clad in a tight hijab, Asya Malsagova, who advises Kadyrov on human rights issues and heads a state council dealing with the rights of Chechen prisoners, told Reuters: “We believe every woman should have a choice — but we prefer she covers up.”
Against the backdrop of a bubbling Islamist insurgency, Islam’s revival has also brought violence against those who do not live by sharia law in the North Caucasus — a region the Kremlin has described as its biggest political domestic problem.
Islamist militants, who label Kadyrov and other regional bosses as “infidels” for siding with Moscow, have been behind attacks on women they say worked as prostitutes in Dagestan and murders of alcohol-sellers in Ingushetia.
In Chechnya and Ingushetia, rebel fighters who regularly carry out armed attacks on police are celebrated as “martyrs” by Islamist news sites with links to the insurgency.
Dirt roads lead the way to Chechnya’s first camel farm, about 55 km (34 miles) northwest of Grozny, where 46 of the two-humped creatures munch on salt and grass while they are groomed to be gifts for dowries and religious holidays.
Considered holy animals in Islam, they sell for 58,000 roubles ($1,886) each, said Umar Guchigov, the director of the farm, which opened just over a year ago under Kadyrov’s command, and plans are in place to build three more in Chechnya.
“So many people, simple people, congratulated us for bringing back this ancient tradition,” Guchigov said.
Animals are also being used to reintroduce Islam at Chechnya’s round-the-clock Muslim television channel, where 60 young bearded men and headscarved women create children’s programs in large studios adorned with photos of Mecca.
A bevy of bumble bees joyfully scream “Salam Alaikum” (Peace be with you) upon entering the studio of Ruslan Ismailov, who is making a full-length cartoon on hi-tech Apple computers for the channel, which is called “Put,” meaning “The Way” in Russian.
“The bees appeal to children, and they will teach them how to live properly by the Muslim faith,” Ismailov said.
Set up two years ago by the state and broadcast to thousands across the North Caucasus, instantly becoming one of the top channels in the region, it also features programs for women on how to keep home and reading of the Koran throughout the night.
“It’s no secret what Chechnya has been through,” said the channel’s general director Adam Shakhidov, sporting a ginger beard and traditional black velvet cap.
“Two wars, the Soviet Union and today’s Muslim extremism… it’s time to show the true beauty of Sufism and install the basis for sharia,” he said.