Pro-Moscow Expert Sees Radical Islam A Threat To Tatarstan
Reports of the July, 19th, 2012 attack on chief Muslim cleric in Tatarstan – mufti Ildus Faizov received wide international coverage. The explosion of Faizov’s car, which followed the assassination of his former deputy Valiulla Yakupov really shocked Tatarstan which had always been the example on non-violent settlement of ethnic and religious issues. Both victims are known as severe critics of radical Islam.
These were the first attacks on Muslim religious leaders in modern Tatarstan’s history and they had been immediately perceived as signs something going wrong in the region, which has always been promoted as a center of religious and ethnic tolerance in the very heart of Russia.
Kazan Times correspondent Landysh Zariova asked Rais Suleymanov, the Head of the Volga area Center of Regional and Ethnic-Religious Studies in Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, to comment on the notorious events and their consequences for the republic’s further development. Suleymanov, an ethnic Tatar is often criticized by the moderate nationalist Tatar public for being “pro-Russian” and “pro-Moscow” in assessing the confessional and ethnic policies in Tatarstan. Some of his publications warn about the grievous perspectives for ethnic Russians in Tatarstan and slam the gloomy present of non-Tatar and non-Muslim population of Tatarstan.
Suleymanov sees the attacks as something “natural” for the republic, since for several years he had spoken about threats to the region’s stability. As a result the July 19 tragedy became the “glorious hour” for the researcher who traditionally states the lack of federal involvement in Tatarstan’s affairs.
Landysh Zaripova: What do you think is under the two attacks?
Rais Suleymanov: The recent attacks on the Muslim leaders in Tatarstan came as no surprise being symptomatic of Wahhabism taking root in the region. It’s the result of the regional Muslim community development over the past years which the secular society has been mostly unaware of. No one knows exactly what is happening behind mosques’ doors. Still, the situation has some features similar to that in North Caucasus republics where Islamist insurgents tried to escalate the conflict between state security forces and radicals arranging armed raids and killing the regional clerics. The first Tatarstan-born terrorist was detained in Checnya in 1999, he came from Naberezhniye Chelny where he had attended a madrasah Muslim religious school and studied Wahhabism. Almost eleven years later, in November 2010, several Islamist insurgents were wiped out in the southern part of the republic. Then in 2012 accidentally the police disclosed explosive materials producing laboratory in one of the villages very close to Kazan. That man was definitely planning explosions…
LZ: How could Salafi and Wahhabi versions of Islam spread in the region with deep roots of traditional Islam?
R S: After seventy years of forced secularization under the Soviet Union decrees the region welcomed any foreign religious educators. The regional students started going to Saudi Arabia to study Islam, Saudi Arabians in their turn actively spread their influence in the republic through schools, educational centers establishment and mosques construction sponsorship. The inner changes in the Muslim ummah, resulted in growing number of young people being sucked into Wahhabi Islam, were mostly neglected and blinkered at by the regional authorities. They were more concerned about creating the image of tolerant and peaceful republic to the satisfaction of the federal centre.
LZ: Any estimation of Wahhabi extension in Tatarstan?
R S: According to the recent research there are almost 3000 members of Wahhabi circle; among them nearly 100 are radicals who are ready to come out for militant insurgency. The remaining part is mostly their sympathizers.
LZ: What did Ildus Faizov do to seize radical Islam rise the region?
RS: Certainly, Faizov was well aware since extremists had previously appeared, it was evident that radical Islam ideas had fertile ground in the region to flourish. He started anti-Wahhabi campaign and dismissed several clerics in the remote areas of the republic who were practicing Salafi interpretation of Islam imported from Saudi Arabia. Faizov came out against any foreign influence on religious spheres than contradicts to traditional moderate Islam historically acknowledged by the local population. Naturally, suspended imams opposed to the newly appointed mufti and even attempted to create alternative Muslim authority, however failed. In April 2012 Ildus Faizov tried to ease out Ramil Yunusov, the imam of the chief Tatarstan Mosque Qul Sarif, who had previously studied in Saudi Arabia and was known to advocate non-traditional Islam. Yunusov called for his supporters and several hundred fundamentalists forced the mufti to retract his order. Additionally, the Qul Sharif Mosque has already turned into the specific wedding palace that attracts more than 20-30 couples a day to register Nikah, Islamic marriage. The monthly proceeds are considered to reach 4-5 million rubles (USD 120 – 150 thousand), which are not controlled and charged. So obviously, Yunusov and his followers did not only protest against their ideological opponent but also tried not to lose grip over generous cash flows.
LZ: Explanations of attacks on Valiulla Yakupov and Ildus Faizov circulate around the public in Kazan and vary from Muslim hajj tours market rearrangement set by Faizov to conspiracy theory of security services’ plot. What do you think about these theories?
RS: Faizov made an attempt to arrange Muslim hajj tours to Mecca in proper way so that pilgrims could not be influenced by non-traditional Islam missionaries. He set up a new company affiliated to the Spiritual Directorate of Tatarstan Muslims to provide moderate Islam compliant hajj tours. This company gained all hajj quotas as they are traditionally distributed only through state religious bodies. The previous tours operator Idel-Hajj company, which had rejected to meet Faizov’s requirements, was suspended. However, the business-motivated theory of attacks cannot explain Valiulla Yakupov’s assassination as he was not involved in economic affairs. The former chief mufti deputy Yakupov was fully occupied by educational work, he wrote the Islam text books adjusted to Russian interfaith policy, monitored the educational process in Muslim schools. On the whole, he was responsible for the ideology being “the brains” of traditional Islam in the region. With this respect, Valiulla Yakupov’s figure is truly irreplaceable.
As for conspiracy theories, they are made up to divert society’s attention from the burning issue of Wahhabi extension in the region. Their providers are probably not familiar with the situation enough.
LZ: Is there any chance the situation can improve in the nearest future? What steps should be taken?
RS: The current state of things gives no ground for optimistic forecasts. The situation has been gradually getting worse over the past decade. Still, if the proper measures were not taken, it would run out of control at all. Firstly, imams practicing nontraditional Islam must be dismissed. At least 14 imams out of 52 Kazan mosques are regarded to follow Wahhabi thinking. Secondly, foreign education especially of young generation should be restricted and pointed to domestic religious educational system. At the time, religious curriculum and text books must be thoroughly reconsidered so that to be compliant to traditional Islam. Furthermore, Tatarstan Muslims should be directed to local religious centers situated in Kazan, Ufa, Grozny, not be focused on studying foreign Islamic experience. Otherwise, foreign states (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Kuwait) would gradually increase their religious and political influence in the republic. Also, private Islamic centers currently booming in Tatarstan must be paid more attention. They are completely out of any authorities’ control. The cornerstone of sustainable development of the society is comprehensive all-round government support of traditional Islam.
LZ: What is the worst-case scenario for Tatarstan now?
RS: One of the alarming signals is gradual exodus of ethnic Russians from Tatarstan. According to the census, it corresponds to 39 percent in 2010 compared to 43.4 percent in 1989. All this together with fundamental Islam extension could lead to archaic style of living establishment. Salafism is the enemy of anything moderate and tolerant. The Salafis believe that the only true path is to follow the practices of the early generations of Muslims – literally. One minor instance, they reject nonsectarian knowledge… Wahhabism mustn’t be negotiated or made concession to. How can one carry on a dialogue with those who gun down a defenseless person with six bullets at his home’s doorway?!
From the Kazan Times: The fact that Ildus Faizov retired from the mufty’s post following the attacks is the sign of that the republic’s government and probably himself are not confident in his “efficiency” as a religious leader. In the other hand, Russia’s practice of government-controlled clerical agencies also seems to lack efficiency, since even in stable regions as Tatarstan upsurges of violence take place.
The case of Pussy Riot – a female punk group going on trial these days for insulting the Russian Orthodox Church by singing an anti-presidential anthem with colored ski masks on in a temple also indicates deep mutual involvement of the cleric and the state across the country. Russia’s situation in this important ideological field seems to have changed only a little since the Soviet times.
Perhaps more openness among the religious leaders so that the most of the people see and understand the actual differences between the “traditional” and “non-traditional” religions could be a more efficient tool against radicalism? The government looks more natural in monitoring the legality of all religious groups and their leaders, rather than supporting some of them and persecuting the others.
What do you think?