RUSSIA: Islamic Extremism - Tatarstan's Phantom Menace?

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 8 July 2002

On 17 May, reported Russian national newspaper Izvestiya, a Moscow delegation including Russian Security Council secretary Vladimir Rushailo, Nationalities Minister Vladimir Zorin and Duma (parliament) speaker Gennadi Seleznyov visited Kazan to ascertain the likelihood of a growth in extremism in the region. According to Izvestiya's sources, "Moscow is greatly disturbed by recent extremist manifestations" - with the Volga region, which includes Tatarstan, being "a source of particular concern".

According to Faizov, local religious representatives insisted to the delegation that Islamic extremism is insignificant in Tatarstan. "But they said, 'Nevertheless, we think there's a problem.' They want a certain amount of tension." In an interview published on the website www.polit.ru last spring, Zorin was asked which were the main religious problems currently affecting the Volga region. They were numerous, he replied, and cited the example of "the appearance of Wahhabism in the Muslim community".

Perhaps the most publicised example of alleged Islamic extremism in Tatarstan concerns the Yoldyz ("Star") madrassah in the city of Naberezhnyye Chelny, which lost its registration after failing to meet a 31 May 2001 deadline set by a local court to obtain a new licence. On 1 June 2001 Izvestiya detailed how the madrassah's original licence was suspended in 1999, when one of its pupils, Denis Saytakov, became suspected of involvement in the bombings of two apartment blocks in Moscow the same year. "Numerous checks on the madrassah revealed that an Arab country, which spent a lot of money supplying Yoldyz with literature, equipment and technology, was trying through its teachers to inculcate into the pupils standards that are alien to traditional Islam," continued the Izvestiya report. "Visiting teachers secretly organised something resembling courses in Wahhabism in the madrassah."

On 28 May the chairman of Tatarstan's Council for Religious Affairs, Renat Nabiyev, maintained to Keston that the Yoldyz situation first arose due to "radically orientated" individuals from abroad, but that, since they had all left, there was no longer a problem. Interviewed by Keston on 29 May, however, a Kazan-based specialist in Islamic studies Rafik Mukhametshin claimed that the situation surrounding Yoldyz remained unresolved.

Even before its closure, local imam Iskhak Lotfulla warned that such a step would be counterproductive. "If state officials get carried away with closing functioning madrassahs," he commented to local Tatarstan newspaper Zvezda Povolzhya in March 2001, "then underground religious schools will appear. As in the communist period, problems between Muslims and the state will arise, except that they will be more acute." Faizov disputes entirely the implication of Yoldyz in terrorist activity. While Saytakov was indeed enrolled as a student at the madrassah, he told Keston, he had been a poor student and was thrown out after several months. Besides, he added, "all murderers and criminals went to school at some point".

In his Zvezda Povolzhya interview, Lotfulla suggested that Yoldyz could be put under state control: "We are not at all opposed to that. One should co-operate with religion, not fight against it." As a preventative measure against radicalism, the Tatar authorities indeed appear to be promoting local Islam in the form of structures within their sphere of influence, such as the Russian Islamic University (see separate KNS article). In the view of Mukhametshin, local Muslims are naturally amenable to such policies: "Tatar Islam was always moderate towards the authorities - this isn't the Caucasus."

According to Faizov, the specific nature of Tatar Islam is indeed crucial to the weakness of radicalism in the republic. Since in the Volga region, he argued, Islam replaced monotheistic Tengrianism rather than paganism, it never absorbed blatantly non-Islamic elements which could be subject to demands for reform by radicals, such as worship at grave sites: "We don't fight for the purity of Islam like the Arabs." Faizov also cited tolerance as a Tatar national trait. Indicating to Keston the limit of the area of Kazan historically reserved for Russians - "there were signs at the gates saying: 'No entry to Tatars or dogs'" - he maintained that Tatars today did not remember such things. "We are not a vengeful people."

A former actor who hosts an Islamic programme on local radio, Faizov is himself key to promoting this moderate stance, since his ideas are broadcast throughout Tatarstan. "Extremists want to unite society by force under one idea, which they put higher than Islam," he told Keston. "But we have to put our understanding to Islam, not our own ideas above it. When the people themselves accept Islam an Islamic state will appear by itself." While the Taliban had not departed from Islam, in his view, "you can't do anything by force - not even get a drug addict to give up drugs. The communists also wanted to force their ideas onto people - and that was also stupid."

Mukhametshin commented to Keston that, while the Tatar authorities insisted that there was no Islamic extremism in the republic, it nevertheless maintains a low-level "conspiratorial" existence. However, he pointed out, "if you want to find it, you can do so anywhere in the world." Faizov agreed, "Bin Laden is after all a product of America," he told Keston. (END)