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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Keeping Islam in Line

Tatarstan's authoritarian leadership has managed to avoid conflicts with its growing Islamic community. But instability among the Moslem leadership and tighter government control over the religion threaten to upset the delicate relationship.

KAZAN, Tatarstan -- After four years of study at an Islamic University in Medina, Saudi Arabia, Ramil Yunusov returned home to Tatarstan with dreams of transforming the Russian republic into an Islamic state. But with a Moslem population only just beginning to examine its religious traditions, Yunusov realizes that a conversion won't happen any time soon. "The reality of Islam today is that it is a process of raising the people's spirituality," Yunusov says. "If a person has no spirit, one cannot think about an Islamic state."

Such practical views have helped Tatarstan, 750 kilometers east of Moscow, maintain a careful balance between its Islamic and Christian communities and avoid the growth of radical Islamic groups seen in the republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. Wary of Islamic extremism, Russia, along with the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union, have made control over Moslem communities a major government policy. Tatarstan's religious harmony is in part due to the strategy of authoritarian President Mintimer Shaimiyev. He has shrewdly cultivated close ties with the traditionally Christian half of the population, as well as with the other half, ethnic Tatars who are traditionally Moslem.

But it is a delicate balance. There are signs of growing instability within the roughly 1.5 million-member Islamic community that threaten to upset Shaimiyev's course. A rift between rival clergy has led to bitter factionalism among the religious leaders of the mostly uneducated and poverty-stricken Moslem population. Shaimiyev's strict rule is antagonizing some opposition groups. Last month, a local court shut down Tatarstan's only opposition newspaper, run by the radical Islamic party Ittifak. The publisher of Altyn Urda, or Golden Hordes, charged that a "criminal regime" was behind the publication ban.

Some observers worry that the environment is fertile ground for indoctrination by nationalist, Islamic extremists, as well as by the growing number of young imams, or Islamic community leaders, returning to Tatarstan after studying in Arab countries. "They are planting notions of Islam that are not traditional for Tatarstan's Moslems," says Rafik Mukhametshin, deputy director of the Tatar Encyclopedia Institute. "It can be a serious threat to religious peace here in the future."

In the last few months, Shaimiyev barely succeeded in ending a feud between two rival muftis, or spiritual leaders, over who would rule Tatarstan's Islamic community. Fighting over the spot were Mufti Gabdullah Galiullah, the previous mufti for Tatarstan, and Farid Salman, a protege of Soviet era mufti, Talgat Tajutdin, who claims to be the supreme mufti for all of Russia. To end the dispute, Shaimiyev organized a kurultai, or Islamic congress, in the capital, Kazan, in February. The congress elected the government-supported imam, Gusman Iskhakov, to be the mufti overseeing Tatarstan. Imam Valiullah Yagkub, head of the Imam Youth Moslem Center and one of the six mufti candidates at the congress, said since Islam presumes no separation between spiritual and political power, Shaimiyev might as well have appointed the new mufti.

Shaimiyev's heavy hand was evident everywhere at the congress. The government offered per diems to the delegates and put them up in Kazan's best hotels. Shaimiyev, 61, sat behind his own desk in front of the red and green Tatar flag, and when he finished his speech, the entire congress rose to its feet shouting "Allahu Akbar," or God is Great. Galiullah and Salman initially resisted the election of Iskhakov, who won with 430 of the 713 votes, until Shaimiyev made it clear the following month that he would legally recognize only religious groups affiliated with Iskhakov.

By quashing Galiullah, Shaimiyev weakened an increasingly unstable and unpredictable voice in the Islamic community. The 44-year-old mufti rose to prominence along with Tatarstan's nationalist movement in the early 1990s. As the Soviet Union crumbled, secessionists -- represented by the political organizations Tatar Public Center and Milli Mejlis -- rallied around Islam, mixing political and religious slogans. But after Tatarstan signed a treaty in 1994 with Moscow, agreeing to remain in the federation but with much autonomy, the radical nationalists were marginalized and shifted their emphasis from ethnic nationalism to religious nationalism.

Galiullah further antagonized the establishment with his volatile behavior. In 1995, he led a group of students in a violent takeover of Kazan's Muhammadia Madrasa, an Islamic school that had been occupied by a local newspaper. "We stirred things up," Galiullah said, admitting the move was one of his "mistakes." Other "mistakes" he admitted to in an interview included beating up an imam who refused to obey orders and meeting with former Chechnya President Dzhokhar Dudayev and protesting the war in Chechnya, against Shaimiyev's position. Two days before the recent congress, Galiullah lost his temper with a parliament deputy who attempted to force his way into a preparatory meeting. Galiullah tore the politician's suit and went on to rough up a young imam who protested the use of violence.

The election of the government-backed Iskhakov is evidence that Shaimiyev's influence extends to the highest echelons of the Islamic community. "Any manifestations of democracy are simply impossible. The authorities control everything. Now they have reached the Moslem organizations," says Tatar ethnologist Damir Iskhakov. Among Kazan's intellectual circles, the government has earned the nickname "Khalyafat," after the first name of Shaimiyev's chief of staff, Khalyaf Nizamov, which derives from the ancient title of caliph, a supreme Islamic ruler.

Many observers view Shaimiyev's political involvement with the Moslems as a reasonable strategy for a country that has never been -- and remains far fr om -- democratic. Shaimiyev is "one of the smartest and most balanced politicians in Russia," says Mukhametshin of the Encyclopedia Institute. A former minister of irrigation, Shaimiyev rose to head the Communist Party in Tatarstan in 1989. In 1991, riding on the fervent mood of nationalism, he won the republic's first presidential elections and ran again, unchallenged, in 1996. Galiullah says that Shaimiyev "bought" the support of many of the nationalist leaders, pointing out, for example, that Talgat Abdullin, leader of Milli Mejlis, became head of Tatarstan's largest private bank, AK Bars.

Shaimiyev's enforced religious harmony and Tatarstan's formal entry into the Russian Federation has allowed the republic to maintain stable ties with Moscow, unlike the similarly secessionist and largely Islamic Chechnya. Different religious histories and traditions also account for the divergent political paths each republic has taken. Islam in Tatarstan dates back to the 10th century when the Volga Bulgars, predecessors of the Tatars, learned their faith from Baghdad missionaries.

Geographically, the Tatars comprise the northernmost Islamic enclave. They are surrounded by a Slavic Christian population and lack direct connection with the Arab world. Such isolation, as well as Russian occupation since the 16th century, encouraged Kazan's clergy in the late 19th and early 20th century to embrace jadidism, an Islamic movement that seeks to incorporate some aspects of Western civilization and adapt Islam to modern realities.

Tartars practice Khanafite Islam, the most moderate of the four schools of Sunni Islam, which makes allowances for local customs and traditions. Tatars, for example, wear socks inside mosques instead of the bare feet common in Arabic countries. In daily life, they do not wear turbans but don traditional, round hats. Tatars commemorate the third, ninth and 40th day after a person's death, a practice borrowed from Orthodox Christianity.

Currently, Tatarstan remains largely secular. In the hotel hosting many of the visiting imams for the recent congress, the waitresses covered their heads with white kerchiefs, but wore miniskirts. Alcohol was removed from bar shelves, but was served if ordered. The congress took place on Valentine's Day when many Kazan men were preoccupied with delivering chocolates to the women in their lives.

By contrast, the Chechens converted to Islam much later, in the 18th century, and have since maintained frequent contact with other Moslem countries. Chechen Moslems follow a much stricter form of the faith with a strong Sufist tradition and never made coexistence with Russian Christianity a priority. Conquered by Russia three centuries later than Tatarstan, Chechnya always remained on the fringe of the empire and centered its resistance to Russian occupation around Islam. Many Sufi leaders called for ghazavat, or holy war against the unfaithful, in their attempts to defend their lands from the Russians. Chechnya continues to uphold Islam as an integral part of its separatist movement and practices the Islamic legal code of Shariah.

Like all religions, Islam was silenced during Soviet times and reduced largely to ritual, practiced fully only by a small group of courageous individuals. "They forbade me to teach, promised to put me in jail," recalls Rashida Abystai, the 74-year-old mother of Mufti Gusman Iskhakov. "I said, 'Do it. There are plenty of people to teach there.'" Abystai taught Islam at her home for 25 years and now teaches groups of women at a local mosque.

"This is our constitution," says one of Abystai's students, Abi Arslanova, pointing to a Koran as she sits among about 20 other women around a long table. "The one who knows the Koran cannot violate the law. We don't need a prison or a policeman," Arslanova says. The women of Tatarstan have remained more observant of Islamic practices than men, who were further integrated in the atheistic and often spiritually demoralized Soviet society.

Perestroika triggered a religious revival, and since 1989, the number of mosques in Tatarstan increased from 19 to about 750. According to a survey by sociologist Roza Musina, in the 1960s, 18 percent of Tatars identified themselves as practicing Moslems. By 1994, 67 percent of urban and 86 percent of rural Tatars identified themselves as such.

According to the same survey, however, more than 75 percent of Tatars who consider themselves religious, do not attend prayers in mosques. Tatarstan's religious community remains largely uneducated and poor. Only a small group of imams, mainly in Kazan and other cities, have received formal theological education. Lacking finances, the republic is just beginning to open an Islamic university, and clergy are trained at mid-level Islamic schools.

Outside of cities, the imams, the most knowledgeable community members who lead prayers, are barely educated themselves. In a new mosque in the village of Utyaganovo, 200 kilometers from Kazan, about a dozen people pray daily with Imam Rakhimjan Zamilov, a short, elderly man whose hands are decorated with tattoos common among prison inmates. Zamilov was already a pensioner in 1994 when he bought his first Koran. He does not know Arabic and reads the Koran in Tatar, written in Cyrillic letters. Still, he was the most spiritually enlightened villager. "Someone has to keep the Islamic faith, so I go," says Zamilov of his role.

The Islamic community hopes to fill its dearth of spiritual leaders through the growing number of active madrasas and students traveling to foreign Islamic universities. Imam Ramil Yunosov, who studied in Medina, lectures at Kazan University and teaches Shariah and Arabic to boys training to become imams at the Muhammadia Madrasa. A son of school teachers, Yunosov became interested in cosmology while studying engineering at the Aviation Institute. A search for the origins of the universe took him to the Bible and the Koran. In 1992, Yunosov received a grant to study in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking quietly in the backroom of the madrasa, Yunosov seems to disprove the label of "Islamic fundamentalist" sometimes attached to him because of his study abroad. "I have searched and continue to search for truth in this life. Does it exist?" he asks, in a reflective mood. "The only truth is in the Koran." Yunosov attempted to run for the position of mufti at the recent congress and received support in several of Tatarstan's regions. But senior imams resentful of his youth and experience abroad introduced a requirement of a minimum of five years experience as an imam in a Tatar mosque to qualify for candidacy, thereby taking him out of the running.

There are concerns within the Islamic community that Shaimiyev's authoritarianism, which so far has not incurred much wrath, is at risk in the future of prompting more radical Islam among the population searching for a spiritual and national identity. Fauzia Bairamova, for example, founded the militant Ittifak party after leaving the Tatar Public Center movement when it caved in to government pressures and became inactive. Bairamova declares herself a devout Moslem, does not appear in public without a kerchief and calls for the restoration of the Golden Hordes -- the medieval Mongol and Turkic empire comprising vast territories of Eurasia, including most of contemporary Russia. "She preaches that Islam is the best of the faiths and that it should dominate Tatarstan ... against the Judeo-Christian European civilization," says Iskhakov, the ethnologist.

But Tatarstan has a strong history of harmony between Christianity and Islam. The two religions are divided largely along ethnic lines -- Slavs and Tatars. Some Tatars converted to Christianity in the 16th and 18th centuries, but today there are virtually no conversions across ethnic lines. "By God's will, we are already divided, and we have nothing else to divide," Galiullah says.

For centuries, the Russian Empire observed the rights of Moslems in its territory in exchange for reciprocal treatment of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. "The fundamentals of this tolerance were built long time ago," says Archbishop Anastasy of Tatarstan, who heads the republic's Russian Orthodox community. In the early 1990s, Moslems and Orthodox Christians staged joint protests demanding the return of their houses of worship. The giant Azimov Mosque in Kazan's market area and the eloquent baroque St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, both not far from the kremlin, were returned as a result of those demonstrations.

Last year, in a highly symbolic act of inter-religious peace, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, visited Kazan. The patriarch even surprised his Moslem hosts by respectfully removing his shoes when he visited the Nurullah Mosque. At the same time, Galiullah held at bay nationalist groups demanding that Alexy formally apologize for the 16th century massacres of Tatars by Ivan the Terrible. The Russian tsar is believed to have killed as many as one third of the Tatar population when he took over Kazan in 1556. "It is history," Galiullah says.

The delicate affinity between the Christians and Moslems sometimes gives rise to bizarre competition. There is a sense among Moslems and Christians of "they have done this, and we will do better," says Archbishop Anastasy. Galiullah recalled that after Tatarstan's state-run oil company donated a Volga sedan to him, he recommended that the archbishop also ask for one, on the basis of equality of two faiths. The Orthodox diocese of Tatarstan subsequently received a similar car.

Well aware that past and current coexistence is no guarantee of tolerance in the future, Shaimiyev is building Tatarstan into a geographical, bicultural region, and not an ethnic republic. A few hours after presiding over the Islamic congress, where he opened his speech with a passage from the Koran, Shaimiyev appeared at the downtown Orthodox Epiphany church. In the midst of reconstruction, with bare walls and still lacking domes, the church was hosting a commemorative service for the 125th anniversary of the birth of the revered singer Fyodor Shalyapin, born in Kazan and baptized in the church. Clearly pleased to welcome Shaimiyev, Archbishop Anastasy, in full vestments, practically ran back and forth in the church making arrangements for the president, his entourage and a large press crew. "We thank our dear president, Mintimer Sharipovich, for his many labors for the good of our multi-ethnic people, for the good of Tatarstan," the archbishop said after the ceremonies.

In the 16th century kremlin that dominates Kazan, Turkish construction workers are building the framework for the Kul Sharif Mosque, which Shaimiyev calls a "symbol of Islamic revival in Tatarstan." The ornate structure with four minarets will eventually stand across the square from the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Annunciation. Shaimiyev has promised the Orthodox diocese that services at the cathedral will be resumed, but only after the completion of the Kul Sharif Mosque.

"In the multinational Tatarstan, where two confessions dominate, I think that a president ... cannot but be a centrist," Shaimiyev says. He proudly adds, "Time shows that such an approach is the right one." The question remains as to whether Shaimiyev's firm control will provoke the extremist fervor he is hoping to prevent.