Self-Preservation for Crimean Muslims

24 April 2014, 12:51

“If people who love Ukraine and speak for dignity, liberty and equal rights are called Banderites, then Ukrainian Muslims and particularly Crimean Tatars can, with some humour, be called Islamo-Banderites”, notes Mufti Said Ismagilov. He speaks to The Ukrainian Week about the current situation, the problems faced by his fellow-Muslims in Crimea under Russian occupation and the position of Islam in unrecognised republics.

U.W: Which Muslim spiritual directorates and Muslim groups are present in Crimea? How are they related to political organisations and unions of Crimean Tatars?

– Only the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Crimea (DUMC) as the successor of the Crimean Khanate traditions and entities officially existed in Crimea until 2010. Later, under the influence of preachers from different movements, for the most part acting unofficially, others started to emerge, such as Hizb ut-Tahrīr (Party of Islamic Liberation). The goal of the classic version of Hizb ut-Tahrīr was to unite Muslim countries into an Islamic State or caliphate, ruled by Islamic law. However, current adherents of the movement understand that this is impossible in non-Muslim countries, so they preach Islam there and call for aid to build a caliphate in Muslim countries. In Crimea, there are supporters of the old Hizb ut-Tahrīr as well as its new followers. However, no one says frankly that they are followers of this teaching. It was never registered as an organization.

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Later, Crimea saw Salafi groups and movements emerge. They are dissimilar and diverse, professing conservative views brought from the Arabian Peninsula, which are widespread and popular in those countries. Their followers feel that they should only listen to their religious leaders. The Salafi adherents keep themselves separately from others and are not in the friendliest relations with other Muslims. They are very few and not radical in Crimea.

But the biggest problem for Crimean Muslims came through the Habashi movement, spread in Ukraine and Lebanon only. Its representatives preach in Crimea, where they have gained a fairly good following and registered several communities in the Yevpatoria and Saky regions. In 2010, in spite of warnings from the DUMC and the Ukrainian Council of Muftis, on the day prior to its dissolution, the State Committee for Religious Affairs of Ukraine registered the Spiritual Centre of Muslims in Crimea. So today, there are two Spiritual Directorates, which are legally completely independent of one another and have equal rights. For Muslims in Crimea, this is somewhat of a tragedy, because they had previously been united in terms of religion despite the existence of different Muslim groups.   

U.W: What is the situation with religious freedom, particularly Islam, on occupied and unrecognised territories, such as Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and so on? What are the problems faced by Muslims there?

– The situations are different in these regions and generally depend on their local spiritual leaders. If they are sufficiently respected and support the maintenance of national religious traditions, the local situation is better. There are very few Muslims in some occupied areas, such as Transnistria. Crimean Tatars live there but do not have their own mosques or Muftis. In Abkhazia only the name Islam remains. The people there consider themselves to be Muslims, but this is an extremely secular form for their identification with the religion. In Abkhazia, Muslims fail to follow the most basic religious Islamic principles, they have hardly any relevant spiritual buildings and no one preaches openly.

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In this context, what could happen to the Muslims of Crimea, occupied by Russia? They will strive to maintain their autonomy, particularly their religion, as much as possible. Prior to the current Russian occupation, Crimean Tatars had extensive opportunities to develop their spiritual lives. Mosques have been built in every village or town that has Muslim residents. Several madrasahs and primary religious education institutions have been opened for both men and women; historic places of worship that are more than a hundred years old, have been restored. Even the Koran has been published in the Crimean Tatar language. In addition, Crimean Muslims have defended their right to build mosques in Simferopol, which they fought for in court against the local authorities and the leadership of Crimea, for many years. The design has already been approved and Turkey has promised to invest in this construction. No one knows what will happen to these plans now.

U.W: Russia will probably use every means possible to impose its own order on Crimea’s spiritual life. What is the situation with Islam in Russia itself, particularly in the North Caucasus?

– In my view, the status of Muslims here is far better than in Russia. There were terrorist acts there for an extended period, which were blamed on Islamic radicals. This was the official rhetoric of state institutions there, which contended that the Nevsky Express bombings of 2007 and 2009, were an assassination attempt on Ildus Faizov, former mufti and  leader of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate in Tatarstan, a republic in Russia; the 2012 murder of his deputy Valiulla Yakupov in Tatarstan, as well as the explosions at the Volgograd railway station were committed by Muslims from the Caucasus and Russians, who had recently converted to Islam. The current Russian Islamophobia is no secret. Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia are viewed with hostility, particularly in Moscow. The Russia is the site of ethnic pogroms, destruction and murder, based on ethnic religion. Something similar has never happened in Ukraine.

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The spiritual life of Muslims in Russia is very closely controlled by the state. Some of the Muslim leaders there say that it is better to refrain from expressing themselves, talking or preaching openly there. To do so, is to court danger. They have to observe the ruling official ideology. This is the case throughout Russia. In the North Caucasus, the situation is even more complicated, because there are virtually constant skirmishes between so-called Caucasian militants and Russian law enforcers. The official explanation for this intense control is the threat of expanding extremism.

There have been bans on Muslim religious literature, which for some reason is considered to be extremist, even when it is classic books from the Middle Ages. One such book is a popular translation of the Koran into Russian by Elmir Quliyev. This is complete nonsense, as would be the banning of the Bible or the Torah. The Muslims of the Russian-occupied Crimea certainly have something to think about, because no one knows whether the same fate awaits them.

U.W: With the Russian occupation, what changes pose a threat to Crimean Tatars as Muslims? What could the Kremlin try to do, using spiritual persons that it controls in Crimea?

– Last week, the Mufti of Crimea, Emirali Albayev, met with a delegation of the Russian Council of Muftis, chaired by Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, a respected and liberal leader of Russian Muslims. This meeting took place on the initiative of the Crimean side. The impression emerges that the supporters of Islam in Crimea are beginning a dialogue with their most authoritative fellow-Muslim in Russia, in order to discuss their status and situation. I feel that the Crimean side will demand that Muslim religious communities in Russia do not interfere in its matters. There will possibly be negotiations with other Islamic spiritual leaders, in order to assure mutual respect and agreement that Crimean Tatars will preserve their traditional religious differences in Crimea. Russian Islam is not uniform. The Muslims of North Caucasus are Sufis, as well as Hanafi Muslims, who are in conflict on some issues. This is why, to a certain extent, the actions of the Crimean Mufti are a preventative measure.

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U.W: Who, of the Muslims in Russia, if any, do you at least nominally see as alliesfor Crimean Tatars? And what reaction in the global Islamic world could the Russian occupation of Crimea possibly evoke?

– I don’t know who in Russia could be an ally for Crimean Tatars. I am concerned about this, because in the last few months, the propaganda in Russia was directed against Crimean Tatars after they openly declared their support for the EuroMaidan. They were shown in Russia as undisguised opponents of the Kremlin and the pro-Russian choice of Crimea.

The only friends of the Crimean Tatars in the world are the Turks. Mustafa Dzhemilev has made several visits to Turkey in recent times, where he spoke to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. During the visits, they addressed guarantees for Crimean Tatars and the monitoring of the situation in Crimea by Turkey. The diasporas in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Romania and other countries are also assisting where they can. In addition, literally a couple of days ago, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (the largest international governmental organisation in the world), expressed its concerns regarding the fate of Muslims in Crimea.

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U.W: We are getting information from Crimea, that there is a significant percentage of Chechens among the Russian occupation military forces. Is it fair to say that even all those who support Ramzan Kadyrov, also support Putin’s imperial ambitions?

– The presence of a Chechen military contingent in Crimea can be easily explained: they know how to control Muslims, because this is what they are doing in North Caucasus and can successfully react to conflicts with Tatars in the interests of Russia. If such a conflict were to emerge, there would definitely be victims. Crimean Tatars do not need this, because they are trying to save themselves on their own territory.

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