As horrible and harrowing as the hostage-taking in that Moscow theater was, the most chilling aspects had nothing to do with deadly gas. They were the Chechen threats made in pre-assault videotapes. They were delivered — predictably and disturbingly enough — to the Moscow bureau of al-Jazeera, the Muslim-friendly, Qatar-based news channel that often serves as an al-Qaida conduit.
First, some background. Since it was conquered by czarist armies in 1859, Chechnya has smoldered under Russian rule. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported many to their deaths during World War II. After a war in the mid 1990s, the breakaway republic in southern Russia gained de facto independence. Three years ago Russian troops re-entered in response, Russian leaders said, to rebel raids and bombings.
It’s your basic, intractable, sovereignty-and-freedom dilemma that has festered across the generations and cost countless lives. It is further fueled by religious affiliation. The population, approximately 1.2 million, is mostly Muslim.
For those who still harbor hopes that this increasingly polarized, terrorist-traipsing world is not a battle of civilizations and that it’s “not about Islam,” the Chechen videotape is required reviewing.
On one tape, a rebel acknowledged that the 50 or so Chechen hostage-takers, approximately half of whom were women, were on a “martyrdom operation.” To underscore their leverage, as well as a perverse sense of presumption, he said, “I swear by God we are more keen on dying than you are keen on living.”
On the other tape, five veiled women stood before a banner that proclaimed “God is Great” in Arabic. For the sake of argument, agreed. In fact, keen. But their point being? Could it be that nobody knows intractable sovereignty issues like Allah — especially after a century and a half to deliberate?
“We have chosen this path, the path of struggling for the freedom of the Chechen,” said one of the women. She then alarmingly added: “It makes no difference for us where we will die. We have chosen to die here, in Moscow, and we will take the lives of hundreds of the infidels with us.”
You knew it was coming.
This bloody conflict — borne of subjugation and thwarted self-determination since the middle of the 19th century — has been reduced to its 21st century, sectarian essence. This is no run-of-the-mill battle of dictatorial oppressors against the generically oppressed. It’s infidels vs. true believers.
Once you’ve assigned the “infidel” label, an assignation too easily accommodated by Islam, it’s no quantum leap to dehumanize the other side. Hitler, of course, was a foremost exponent, but pathologic power was his only religion.
Islam, we are told, is a religion of peace.
Islam, we are not told, is too easily perverted and too susceptible to dividing the world into “believers” and “infidels.”
Once someone — say, a theatergoer, an actress, an airplane passenger, a bus rider, a restaurant patron, an office worker, a wedding-reception guest, a child — has been designated an “infidel,” that person is unfair game for the religious fanatic. Especially a zealot who has seethed too long in a culture more intent on avenging the Crusades than competing with the West.
The historic, geographic and geopolitical trappings may be different — as different as New York, Jerusalem, Bali and Moscow — but make no mistake. This is about Islam.
You better believe it.
Especially if you’re an “infidel.”