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Foreign Policy and Civil Society Program

August 2012

Summary: The July killing of an Islamic leader in Tatarstan shocked the Russian regions leaders and citizens. Terrorist attacks are generally rare in the Volga Ural region. The collapse of the USSR opened up a new upsurge of Islamic religious activity, and mosques must still often go outside Tatarstan to find imams. Conservative North Caucasians and others are now actively infiltrating all Tatar mosques, and tensions, and sometimes violence, are the result.

The Tension at Russias Center: Radical Islam in Tatarstan


by Nadir Devlet

On July 19, 2012, the mufti of Tatarstan, Ildus Fayzov, was injured when his car was bombed in Kazan, the capital of the autonomous Tatarstan republic, about 735 km (450 miles) east of Moscow. At the same time, Valiulla Yakubov, former deputy mufti of Tatarstan and the imam of the Apanay mosque, was gunned down by at least six bullets. This kind of terrorism might pass with little notice in the North Caucasus, for example in Chechnya, Ingushetia, or Dagestan, where acts like this are frequent. But in the Volga Ural region, home to the Turkic Muslim Tatars and Bashkirs, terrorist attacks are rare generally and unprecedented against clergy for the last few decades. The incident shocked Tatarstans authorities and citizens. Tatarstans regional leader, Rustam Minnikhanov, condemned the attack while visiting the injured Fayzov. He described the event as an attack against traditional Islam. Islam indeed has a deep tradition in the Volga-Ural region, longer than Orthodoxy. Bulgars, the forefathers of todays Tatars, officially recognized Islam in 922. In 1789 under Catherine the Great, Islam was recognized as an official religion in Russia. Until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Muslims of Volga Ural region and Siberia were controlled by a single muftiat, or reli-

gious administration, in Ufa (today the capital of Bashkortostan). Moderate Islam flourished, and many famous Islamic scholars emerged. Religious schools (maktap) and high schools (madrasah) were known as centers for modernization, especially at the end of 19th century. Kazan became an important Islamic center for Russias Muslims, and its famous Muslim modernists, or jadids, were known throughout the Islamic world. The communist takeover changed all this. It featured the abolition of religious institutions and the suppression or killing of most clergy. Like other Soviet Muslim citizens, Tatars and Bashkirs were forcibly cut off from their religious traditions for 70 years. During the Soviet period, the muftiat in Ufa was responsible for no more than 20 mosques. Such mosques were visited mostly by retired older men. Twenty to 30 clergy, who were educated mainly in the religious schools of Uzbekistan, sufficed to tend these mosques. But the collapse of the USSR opened up a new upsurge of Islamic religious activity. New mosques sprang up everywhere, and old mosques were returned to believers. A dramatic shortage of imams developed for all the new and old mosques, and this created a vacuum into which flowed

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individuals with marginal religious credentials for example, former Soviet-trained propagandists of atheism who were allowed to act as new imams. When the shortage persisted, other Muslim countries and Turkish religious associations offered their help. Many youngsters traveled to these Islamic countries to receive education sufficient to become Muslim clerics. The Muslim Religious Board (MRB) was set up in 1992. In 1998, the Tatarstan Muslim Unifying Conference elected mufti Gosman Khazrat Iskhakov its chairman. The main tendency of this early post-Soviet period was toward stabilizing inter-confessional relations and facilitating the interaction of state bodies with Muslim institutes and organizations. Today, Tatarstan, along with Dagestan and the Moscow region, is considered a leader among the regions of the Russian Federation in terms of the number of functional religious communities. The most significant event for the Muslims of Tatarstan was the grand opening of the Kul Sharif Mosque, the largest in Eastern Europe, on June 24, 2005 in Kazan. This project was facilitated by Tatarstans former president Mintimer Sheymiyev, a gesture that demonstrated the states debt to religious affairs. The mosque memorializes the independent Kazan Khanate period, which was destroyed in 1552, the date from which all Muslims of the region were brought under the Russian rule. According to the Republic of Tatarstans official website, revivals in the Muslim ummah (religious society) have not always been peaceful. The most difficult problem is the unveiling of various radical currents hiding under the larger Islamic umbrella, which undermine the traditions of the regions established Islamic practice. The problem of wahabism spreading in Russia is especially serious because it erodes both religious and national traditions, struggles that take place within state institutions. The problem of spreading wahabism and other Islamist approaches is linked to training of clergy, especially those who receive religious education abroad. In the early 1990s shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed, religious propagandists from Saudi Arabia began arriving in Russia to spread their conservative doctrine. So, too, did Turkish imams and educators, most belonging to the Fethulla Glen movement. They opened private schools, which attracted the attention of parents because of the

The problem of spreading wahabism and other Islamist approaches is linked to training of clergy.
high quality of the Glenist education, not unlike Christian missionary schools. Students able to attend Glenist schools learned Russian, English, and their national tongue. At the same time, the Glenists propagated Islamic education in the dormitories. Moscow eventually identified these Turkish schools as dangers to religious stability in Tatarstan and moved to close them down. Kazan at first resisted Moscows decision, but on the basis of a High Court verdict in 2008, the last Glenist schools were closed, all Glenist religious activities were forbidden, and a number of Turkish citizens were deported. Glens movement is derived from Nurcular movement, which seeks to purify Islam, but it is some distance from the radical conservative doctrines of the wahabis or salafis. Moscows concern clearly was that the Glenist pathway could lead to these radical destinations, and indeed some Glenist students embarked on this journey. Authorities sought ways to put barriers in front of these conservative movements. One approach was to revitalize the development of national religious traditions, which were considered less susceptible to the force of Islamic conservatism due to their deep historical content. Efforts were also made to marginalize the revival of obsolete or alien religious practices within Tatar Islam. But these efforts and others have not been able to stop the influence of salafist Islam, which insists on the recognition of sharia (religious) laws and customs from the Prophets time. In an interview with Rimzil Veliev on June 7, 2012, Yakubov spoke directly about how this emerging radicalism was surmounting impeding nationalist barriers, like the Tatar language. On this front, he lamented that the Tatar language would likely disappear from mosques in 10 to 15 years because of the inflow of imams from the Caucasus who belong to the Shafi school of Sunni Islam (Tatars and Bashkirs belong to Hanafi school) and use Russian in their preaching, not Tatar or Bashkir.

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In fact, the conservative North Caucasians are actively infiltrating all Tatar mosques, not just in Tatarstan, but throughout Russia. Tatars are the second largest ethnic group (5.5 million) in the Russian Federation, but the population is scattered. Most live in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and neighboring republics in the Volga-Ural region. But there are also large numbers in Moscow, while others are found in Siberia. The diffusion of the Tatar population away from Tatarstan strains the ability of outlying Tatars and their families to maintain Tatar as their first language. In his last speech, on July 18, Yakubov pointed to the problem of Tatars losing national attachments: We are all victims of the miserable psychology of internationalism and altruism... If we realize this and become more warlike, then our language, our culture, and the Tatar people will receive great rewards. Sixteen hours later, Yakubov was dead. After the attack on the two Tatar religious leaders, several people were arrested, but they proved to be simple businessmen who had business connections with former mufti Gosman Khazrat Iskhakov. Later on, several hundred people thought to be connected to radical Islamic groups were arrested, and religious literature was confiscated. Some remain in custody. The detentions touched off a number of protests, the largest organized on August 5 in the center of Kazan, during which men and women were strictly segregated, revealing the protestors Islamist character. The belief that the attacks were organized by radical Islamists persists. The wahabi presence in Kazan, symbolized by their own mosque, remains strong and may be growing. Journalist Reshit Akhmetov believes that the announcement by radical Chechen fighter Doku Umarov about moving the Islamic struggle from the Caucasus to the Volga region may have had some influence on this event. Of course, rivalry among clergy is also well known; everyone wants to become a mufti because it is a profitable job and the educational barriers to entry are notoriously low, as noted. Former Moscow mufti Ravil Gainutdin and todays Tatarstan mufti Ildus Faizov illustrate this point. Both received theatrical education and worked for some time as actors before switching to religion. These clerics have every incentive to work hand-in-hand with governments in order to keep their positions. But with little real scholarship to buttress their credentials, radical elements quickly undermine the legitimacy of these official imams, which highlights a systemic problem. So long as Moscow regu-

lates Islam, incompetent clergy will continue to hold these official positions, thus providing openings to the salafis and other radicals. This can only deepen the crisis between the government and Muslim communities where salafis or wahabbis have influence. This is the tension currently playing out in the center of Russia.

About the Author


Dr. Nadir Devlet is an expert on Turkic peoples. He concentrates on 20th and 21st centuries and studies their past and future. He writes mainly on their political, social, cultural, economic situations, and security issues. He has worked at Marmara (1984-2001), Columbia (1989/1990), Wisconsin-Madison (1996/1997), Yeditepe (2001-2007) universities, respectively. Currently he teaches at the international relations department of Istanbul Commerce University. He has more than 20 published works in Turkish, Tatar, and English.

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