On Jan. 10, a protester holding a sign “I am Charlie” was arrested in Moscow and later sentenced to eight days in jail. A few days later, the federal media watchdog ordered the St. Petersburg edition of the Business News Agency to remove the new cover of Charlie Hebdo from its website. The same agency was warned that reprinting the cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad could be considered a criminal offense, and that it would violate the “ethical and moral norms formed in Russia through the centuries of different peoples and faiths living side by side.”
On Monday, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, whom Vladimir V. Putin appointed president of Chechnya in 2007, held a mass rally in Grozny, the regional capital, against “the enemies of Islam.” It was reportedly attended by tens of thousands of people, many of them sporting slogans that read “We love Muhammad,” in Russian, Arabic and English. The largest banner quoted Mr. Putin: “Islam is a vital part of Russia’s cultural makeup.” In his speech, Mr. Kadyrov pledged to defend Russia and denounced Western journalists and politicians.
To a certain extent, the rally shows how adept — at least so far — Mr. Putin has been at mixing religion and politics. It is well known that he relies heavily on the Russian Orthodox Church to bolster his support whenever he needs to draw public attention away from his country’s troubling economic and social ills. But Russia also has a large Muslim population — nearly one-sixth of its people are Muslim. Moscow alone has two million Muslim residents, and according to some estimates, an equal number of Muslim migrant workers. Mr. Putin wants to keep them in his camp, and this requires pragmatism and the utmost delicacy. The brutal war in Chechnya may have ended, but Islamist rebels, some of them professing loyalty to the Islamic State, still roam the Caucasus, and Moscow is fearful that their influence can easily spread northward.
Though the Kremlin was quick to express solidarity with France and condemn terrorism in the aftermath of the Paris attack, the pro-government media placed equal blame at the feet of the Charlie Hebdo journalists for their provocative cartoons, and at the Western liberalism that allows such publications.
Mr. Putin’s Russia is not a friendly place for irreverent humor. Early in his presidency the Kremlin banned the widely popular satirical television show “Kukly,” or “Dolls,” which mercilessly mocked Russian politicians. In 2012, several members of the punk group Pussy Riot were sent to prison for their protest in Moscow’s largest cathedral. In 2013, the Duma adopted a law that criminalized insulting one’s religious sensibilities.
Behind the purported wish to protect the feelings of the faithful lies a pragmatic attempt to maintain the support of conservative Christian, Muslim and Nationalist groups, and to keep Islamic extremists at bay. After all, Russia has been the target of numerous attacks by Chechen and other terrorist groups from the North Caucasus. Neither military actions nor economic policies in the 15 years since Mr. Putin came to power have succeeded in completely stamping out insurgency in that restless Islamic land. Russian media reports indicate that attacks on police and government officials are still common.
When Mr. Kadyrov assumed power in Chechnya, the war-ravaged region lay in ruins. Using ruthless methods, he suppressed any opposition, whether from Islamists, other political rivals, or human rights advocates. Counterterrorism operations were formally declared over in 2009. With massive Kremlin aid, he rebuilt Chechnya.
Mr. Kadyrov has proven a fierce Putin loyalist, bragging of his readiness to send Chechen “volunteers” wherever the Russian president needs them. Several hundred have been fighting on the side of the rebels in eastern Ukraine, and Mr. Kadyrov recently offered to dispatch more.
But the price of peace and order has been the emergence of an Islamic state within Russia. Chechnya’s nominally secular institutions are now thoroughly Islamicized. Public schools have instructors who teach Islam. Each district administration has a qadi, or Islamic judge, who wields de facto power in the district. Shariah courts function in the guise of state courts. Women are ordered to keep covered in public places, and the consumption of alcohol is prohibited. During his “virtue campaign,” Mr. Kadyrov openly declared that a woman is a man’s property and defended “honor killings.”
Tellingly, Mr. Kadyrov never condemned the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. Instead he denounced the publication’s cover as a provocation against Muslims and declared that anyone who supported Charlie Hebdo was his enemy — apparently no idle threat from a man who is widely believed to be behind the assassinations of many of his opponents.
Despite his vigorous protestations of loyalty to Moscow, it is not clear how comfortable the Kremlin is with such shows of force like the rally on Monday. At one point, Mr. Kadyrov boasted that he could easily get a million Muslims to protest on the streets of Moscow. According to Russian news reports, Muslim leaders had planned to hold a demonstration in Moscow on Sunday, but city officials denied permission for the rally, citing security concerns.
It is also telling that the pro-government media’s coverage of the rally in Chechnya on Monday was light. This could have been because the demonstration coincided with celebrations of the Epiphany in Russian Orthodox tradition. But it is also likely that the Kremlin is increasingly concerned with losing control of a man whose job was to bring Chechnya into Russia’s fold and who instead created an Islamic state within the Russian Federation.
Mr. Kadyrov, a member of the council of Russia’s ruling United Russia party and a decorated Hero of the Russian Federation, admitted several years ago that, for him, Shariah was above any other law. For the moment, President Putin seems to find Shariah more palatable than freedom of speech.
Michael Khodarkovsky is a professor of history at Loyola University Chicago and the author of Bitter Choices: Loyalty and Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus.