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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Showdown Looms for Tatarstan's Moslems

KAZAN, Central Russia -- Imam Ramil Yunusov does not know whom to vote for when it comes to a crucial decision Saturday on who should become the sole spiritual leader of Tatarstan's fractured Moslem community.

He is hardly alone. While a congress of about 700 imams gathering in Kazan is being billed as a bid to unify Moslems in the autonomous Russian republic, confusion seems to reign in the hours before the election.

"I have observed all the six candidates, and I have not seen a real program, a path, along which to raise the spirituality in Tatarstan in the 21st century," Yunusov said sadly, drinking tea in the back room of the Muhammadia madrasah, or Islamic school, in central Kazan where he teaches future imams.

The drama playing out in Tatarstan reflects confusion that has plagued many Moslem communities across the former Soviet Union as they attempt to find their way after decades of communist repression and control.

Yunusov, 29, was studying Islamic law at a university in Saudi Arabia in 1995 when a deep rift in Tatarstan's Islamic community seemed to become unbridgeable.

That was the year Islamic students and opposition fighters led by Mufti Gabcullah Galiullah stormed the madrasah building and insisted that the government take it away from a local newspaper, which occupied it at the time, and return it to the Moslems.

While that might have earned Galiullah the respect of many devout Moslems, it cost him crucial support from Tatarstan's government authorities and intellectuals. It also might cost him Saturday's election.

Galiullah had carefully cultivated such support since being elected an independent leader of Tatarstan's Moslems in 1992, the year after the Soviet collapse, when a strong local nationalist movement clamored for an independent Moslem body.

He had good reason to want their support: They control the funds and resources that have been used, for example, to build more than 200 mosques in impoverished towns across the region.

An estimated 1.2 million of Tatarstan's 3.6 million people are believed to be Moslem, although only a small portion of those are believed to be close adherents of the faith. That means the ability to improve living standards is as important as spiritual support for many.

If maneuvering in the run-up to Saturday's vote is any indication, Galiullah stands to lose to a government-backed candidate bolstered by the power of local administrators to dole out resources.

The government's choice among the six candidates appears to be Gusman Iskhakov. Galiullah contends that the government is already busy pressuring rural imams to vote for their candidate.

"They want to control the activities of the clergy," Galiullah said, sitting in the first-floor office of the Narullah Mosque in central Kazan. "In order to do this, they need to install their own leader, as is it is usually done in state structures."

An earlier attempt to unify Tatarstan's Moslems failed after the second

congress in 1995, largely because of Galiullah's actions.

Last year, the Tatar government, led by authoritarian President Mintimer Shamiyev, stepped into the chaotic situation and took initiative from the disorganized clergy. An "organizational committee" was formed by the republic's Council for Religious Affairs, a remnant of the Soviet system of strict religion control. The Cabinet of Ministers paid all the expenses which included travel and cash allowance for the delegates.

An effort last month by Galiullah to postpone Saturday's congress failed when Shamiyev insisted that it go ahead.

The real split among Tatarstan's Moslems dates back to 1992, when Galiullah was elected Mufti during a resurgence of independent Moslem activism after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In the Soviet era, about 20 mosques allowed to remain open in Tatarstan were run from Ufa, the capital of the neighboring republic of Bashkiria -- now Bashkortostan. That was the base of the Soviet-sanctioned Moslem Spiritual Directorate for European Russia and Siberia, led by Mufti Talgat Tadzhutdin.

Once the Soviet system collapsed, so did much of Tadzhutdin's authority.

"The schism was inevitable," said Damir Iskhakov, Tatar ethnologist and former ideologist of the moderate nationalist movement in Tatarstan. "Tadzhutdin was unable to react to the changes and had no control in the decisive moments."

But those who did remain loyal to Tadzhutdin formed their own formal body in Tatarstan in 1994 and were also registered by the government as a Moslem spiritual directorate.

Unlike Christianity, Islam does not presume an organizational hierarchy. Even an imam is simply the person who knows the Koran and the Arabic language the best in his community.

In Tatarstan's communities, which suffered religious persecution in the 1930s and were deprived of proper Islamic training for several decades, the educational and cultural level of imams is usually very low.

The powers of the mufti, or senior imam, who has the right of interpreting the Koran and Islamic law, are very limited and are built largely on general respect among his constituency.

"The spiritual directorate has a very amorphous structure, which practically does not exist as such," said Rafik Mukhametshin, a leading Islamic expert in Kazan and deputy director of the Tatar Encyclopedia Institute of the republic's Academy of Sciences.

He contended that Galiullah, in addition to lacking crucial access to financial resources, has come to be viewed by many as a dictator. He has lost the support of many imams while moving closer to radical nationalist leaders disliked by the government.