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23 April, 2020  ▪  

In Ukraine under the crescent moon

How and under whose influence the Muslim diasporas live in our country

The results of the “census” (in fact electronic evaluation) of the population of Ukraine have recently been released. Without going into the accuracy of the data collected, it can be stated that this “census” gave practically nothing to study the religious or ethnic situation. Because the technology has not yet come to be able to determine, for example, a citizen's religion by his or her valid phone number or identification code. Therefore, there are no relevant statistics. Especially when it comes to different ethnic minorities, and with “non-Christian religiosity” in addition (by the way, the paradoxical term “non-Christian religions” is used in some normative documents).

Paradoxes of perception

Some time ago, I was asked to prepare a report on Islamophobia in Ukraine, that is, an expression of hatred, fear or other hostile feelings towards Muslims. It included, in particular, political statements, that is, the rhetoric of central and local government that could offend the religious sentiments of Muslims. However, no Islamophobic allegations were found. First of all, because in our political discourse, neither anti-immigrant nor, more importantly, anti-Muslim topics are presented today, no matter how often citizens would express themselves on social networks about migrants or local Muslims. Somewhat ethnophobic content can be found only in statements by far-right organizations and various Telegram channels dedicated to the promotion of “white supremacy” and the like. What is the reason for this? Why is our situation better than that of Western or even Central European one? What are the Islamic diasporas in general in Ukraine and is there a consensus at societal level between indigenous population and new inhabitants of the country? What are the “centers of gravity” among the Muslim diasporas and how does it affect the religious life of the country? Is there a contradiction between “native” and “foreign” Muslims?

To begin with, the fact that since 2014 the attitude towards Muslims in Ukraine (at least at the level of central government) has changed somewhat should not been overlooked. The question of the Crimea and the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people was raised, and therefore pursuing the anti-Muslim theme further, as it happened in the 2000s and early 2010s, became unprofitable either in terms of internal or foreign policy. However, an interesting paradox has arisen: the attitude towards the Crimean Tatars as indigenous people has improved, but sociological surveys are steadily fixing Islamophobia at the level of 14-15%, and in the southern regions it reaches 18% (Razumkov Center data). However, as soon as news of the construction of the mosque appears, say, in Lviv or in Kiev, it causes a flurry of negative comments. Not to mention the reaction to the criminal news featuring members of some “Asian diaspora”.

Internal diversity

If you look at the main Muslim organizations of Ukraine (there are five of them including those based in the occupied Crimea), almost all of them are led by Ukrainian citizens. This applies to both central government and regional communities. All Muslim structures, including the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Crimea, which during the occupation “re-registered” in the Crimea as the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, represented either by Tatars or Ukrainians. The exception, of course, is the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine, which has been led since 1992 by a Lebanese Arab, as well as some other organizations with Arab leadership, but these are mostly “naturalized” Arabs who have long lived in Ukraine, have citizenship, families here etc. According to our legislation, registration of a religious community requires Ukrainian citizenship. Another question is that the function of an imam, that is, the head of the Friday (Juma) or other prayers, may be performed by a foreigner. Yes, several Turkish imams (in the line of the Turkish Administration of Religious Affairs) come to us each year, and foreign students and others can gather in separate prayer rooms, particularly at universities.

There are also various “transnational” Muslim groups (the so-called Jamaats), but they are mostly transient and usually promote the heritage of a particular school or a spiritual leader (such as Said Nursi), with little regard for the local specifics. There are also a constant number of illegal migrants (estimated from several thousand to tens of thousands), but they usually try to get to EU countries without much delay here. Moreover, Ukraine maintains a visa regime with Muslim countries, where there is a significant threat of migration. But, as practice shows, even after obtaining a visa, citizens of these countries can once again find themselves being “interviewed” at an airport or other checkpoint.

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Among the “naturalized” Muslim diasporas, the first places of influence, as a rule, were occupied by those who came from the former republics of the USSR, first of all Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and the North Caucasus. The history of Ukrainian-Azerbaijani relations in general is very ancient, and in the twentieth century many common pages appeared in it. In 2001, there were nearly 50,000 Azerbaijanis in Ukraine, and today, according to diaspora representatives, this figure ranges from 100-500,000 people. Knowledge of Russian, Soviet education, orientation to work in the business sector and even the authorities gave Azerbaijanis many advantages. Therefore, despite the return of many to their historical homeland (in 2014-2015, primarily from the temporarily occupied territories), the influence of the Azerbaijani community is still strong. Of course, there are different trends in the diaspora: some focus on cooperation with the current authorities (under the presidency of Ilham Aliyev, the work with the diaspora has become much more active), others are somewhat remote or even oppositional.

In 2019, the three largest local Azerbaijani organizations united in the Council of Azerbaijanis of Ukraine, which (hereinafter quoted from the official document) “is guided by exceptionally wise advices and large-scale tasks set before our union and addressed to it, including in Kyiv, by a great leader of Azerbaijani people Heydar Aliyev, and implements the policy of consolidation of the nation of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev.” To some extent, the union represents not only the Ukrainian Azerbaijanis, but also the cultural politics of Azerbaijan itself in Ukraine. Azerbaijanis, along with Iranians, are also distinguished by their religious affiliation, in fact, they make up the vast majority of Ukrainian Shiites.

The Uzbek diaspora (30-50 thousand people) is not as organized as the Azerbaijani one. When it comes to religious life, there are some imams and even religious preachers, but they are primarily aimed at their communities. The same can be said about the Chechen and Dagestan diasporas: there is a very strong aspect of the fellow-countrymen, business and family ties, but at the same time they are characterized by great differentiation. Some focus on the authorities of the Caucasian republics of the Russian Federation, others are in opposition to them, and this stratification became particularly noticeable after 2014. It is known that many of the Caucasian volunteers fought on the Ukrainian side in the ATO-JFO (ATO – Anti-terrorist operation, further JFO – Joint Forces Operation – Ed.). Among them, of course, the Dzhokhar Dudayev International Battalion and Sheikh Mansour Volunteer Battalion. Tens, if not hundreds, of people have served in these units, many of them owning passports of different EU countries. Among the non-governmental organizations that bring together immigrants from the North Caucasus, it is worth mentioning the Chechen people’s Diaspora, which has more than 1,000 people in its ranks.

Migration of ideas

Various religious figures from the Caucasus, who for various reasons ended up in Ukraine (some were accused of extremism in Russia), caused a lot of controversy between 2014 and 2019. On the one hand, they sought refuge in Ukraine and were threatened with extradition to the courts in the Russian Federation, and on the other hand, they often continued to profess the same approaches to understanding religious life that they had before. The exemplary in this sense is the story of Dagestan preacher Abdulhalim Abdulkarimov, who requested asylum in 2016 and in October 2019, was ordered out of the country by the SBU (he was given the opportunity to go to Georgia because Turkey, where he wanted to go, refused to harbor him and sent back to Ukraine). Along with other religious apologists from the Caucasus, Abdulkarimov could not find common ground with local religious leaders, condemning them for alleged incompatibility with Islamic practices, recognition of “non-Muslim power” (that is, Ukrainian authorities), etc. Many preachers drew with them the “tails” of radicalism, the habit of accusing of infidelity those who didn’t accept their methods. It was noticeable that with the exception of individual activists, few advocated for them. Moreover, there are known facts when the visitors in the Ukrainian mosques were shown the door, they were told, “pray and go”, and “we do not need such problems”. There are a few other cases when Muslims with Russian passports displayed, to say the least, paradoxical beliefs. On the one hand, they sought asylum in Ukraine and tried to acquire citizenship, and on the other hand, crushingly criticized Ukrainian Muslims for “nationalism” and respect for the Ukrainian state. There are known cases in Dnipropetrivsk region when visiting “Russians” tried to appoint their imams in some communities (however, unsuccessfully). At the same time, there are many positive examples when Muslims of “moderate” orientation actually came from the Russian Federation.

Ironically, the most integrated and least involved in the various internal Muslim controversies are representatives of the Arab and Turkish “new” diasporas, that is, those who have come to Ukraine in recent years and are significantly different from their fellow countrymen who have lived here since the 1990s or 2000s. For example, many Muslim religious figures complain (not for camera) that the contingent of Arab students nowadays arriving in Kyiv and regional centers is, to say the least, problematic in terms of religiosity. These are mostly secular people, disillusioned with any Islamic movements of today. They often get into different troubles like fights in nightclubs and other apparently “non-halal” places. “When I was flying to Lviv by a Turkish plane, I did not like the faces of my countrymen very much – I didn’t feel much piety in them,” a representative of some religious foundation in Istanbul complained to me. It also happens that practicing Muslims (that is, those who refrain from alcohol, read prayers, visit mosques, etc.) often belong to various “Jamaats” in which other Muslims see sectionalism. It also produces a certain atmosphere of distrust, not to mention that the Arab diaspora itself is not the only one. For example, Palestinians, Syrians, and natives of Maghreb countries (they are most numerous in Ukraine) are very united, which are mostly “scattered” between two main organizations: the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine “Umma”. There are also many internal movements among them. For example, some Syrians are loyal to Bashar al-Assad, others are in opposition to him (they are much greater in number). Recently, there has been a tendency for “new” citizens of Ukraine to move to EU countries, especially from Western Ukraine, where there is considerable turnover among young people in local Muslim communities. As a result of the migration crisis of 2015-2016, many of their relatives got in the West. And now, with Ukrainian passport, they are able to reunite with families quite freely.

Financial connections

Against this background, Arabs from the Persian Gulf are somewhat different. They come to Ukraine mainly in business affairs and usually retain their identity. To some extent, this becomes fundamental to them because of their desire to present themselves as the “Arabs of all Arabs”. The growing controversy between countries in the region (in particular, between Qatar on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other) has led to tensions between religious organizations focusing on sponsorship. And practically all such structures are oriented to it. Despite the fact that the Muslim diaspora in our country is primarily associated with small and medium-sized businesses (which to some extent is true), funds for the maintenance of mosques and other needs are not enough.

That is why very often Muslim organizations remain as such states within the state. Once the theme of Euro-Islam was popular, but beyond the doorstep of any mosque in Germany, France or another EU country, whether a small Turkey or one of the Arab countries began. On the one hand, there is the concept of a global umma; on the other hand, national identity often manifests itself under the guise of a religious one. The latter is a problem often faced by newly converted Muslims: by leaving the “home” culture, they are so completely unable to take root in different ethnocentric communities, becoming relatively easy prey for radicalized transnational networks. In view of the presence of the indigenous Muslim population (primarily the Crimean Tatars), it was somewhat easier for Ukraine to deal with this problem. Moreover, many ethnic diasporas gladly favored local religious leaders because it greatly facilitated dialogue with the authorities and fellow citizens of other faiths. Moreover, according to our calculations, today we have more than 20 imams-Ukrainians practicing, which is a significant progress compared to the 1990s and 2000s.

As the problem of illegal immigration is still relatively small in Ukraine, the topic of Islam will not be the focus of political attention. And Muslim diasporas, at least their religiously active part, will continue to “naturalize”, although they are unlikely to get rid of outside influence.

By Mykhailo Yakubovych

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