RUSSIA: Tatar Authorities Harness Islam.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 8 July 2002

While radicals intent upon the forceful establishment of a sharia state appear to be few in Tatarstan (see separate KNS article), Islam remains a powerful political weapon in the republic. According to the head of Kazan's Christian Legal Centre Anatoli Pagasi, Tatar nationalists "use the Islamic card in their fight for a free Tatarstan." However, while there were individual voices calling for a sharia state in Tatarstan in the early 1990s, he told Keston on 27 May, Tatarstan's president Mintimer Shaimiyev had since suppressed the nationalist movement while simultaneously projecting himself as "the model and symbol of it". In this way, thought Pagasi, Shaimiyev had shrewdly managed to strike a balance between regional and federal demands.

The Tatar authorities indeed appear to be using Islam as a symbol of nationhood and apartness from Russia. A prominent example is the construction (or, according to the head of Tatarstan's Council for Religious Affairs, Renat Nabiyev, "re-creation") of the huge Kul Sharif mosque in Kazan's medieval Kremlin, which was included, despite this new building, in UNESCO's world heritage list in 2000. A billboard alongside proclaims that the mosque - whose minarets reach slightly above the Kremlin's sixteenth-century Orthodox cathedral - "allows us to look at our history in a new way, more intently and objectively". The mosque is being built by order of a 1995 Tatar presidential decree.

In an interview with Keston on 28 May, Nabiyev claimed that Kul Sharif is being financed by public donations, with nothing coming from the state budget. When Keston asked Ildus Faizov of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Tatarstan (SDMT) on 29 May who the donors were, however, he cited the Saudi-based Islamic Development Bank and "rich sponsors", adding that the Tatar authorities had given "a certain amount to finish it off".Support from the Tatar authorities is serving to consolidate the local Islamic community not only as a distinct national body, but also as a buffer against potentially destabilising Islamic influences from outside Tatarstan. In an interview on ORT national television news on 26 March 2001, President Shaimiyev remarked: "Educating the [Muslim] clergy is our problem number one. We have opened the Russian Islamic University." On 29 May senior teacher Marsel Sabirov showed Keston the university's extensive four-storey campus building, where there are currently 140 students. The local authorities, he said, had given it to the Islamic community. One department viewed by Keston works on new editions of specifically Tatar Muslim texts produced in the years prior to 1917. Before the revolution, according to Faizov, Tatar Islam had developed a "finely honed" system of scholarship which had made Tatar Muslims less susceptible to foreign influence. The Russian Islamic University evidently hopes that it can do so again.

While local Muslims receive support, there are limitations on the number of foreigners allowed to teach Islam in Tatarstan, especially from Saudi Arabia, according to a Kazan-based specialist in Islamic studies Rafik Mukhametshin. "Formally they find something wrong with visas so that it is difficult to argue. They don't say 'Get out of here!'" Faizov told Keston that while earlier in the 1990s it was usual for 14- to 16-year-old Tatars to study in Saudi Arabia - "they were easier to zombify" - scholars must now begin their studies in Tatarstan before travelling abroad to continue them. Currently, he said, there were four scholars studying in Egypt, several in Jordan and two or three in Saudi Arabia. "But they are all adults. If you studied abroad initially you can't preach within our directorate now, only unofficially."

There was disagreement among Keston's interviewees as to how far "unofficial" Islam extends in Tatarstan. Article 10, Part 5 of the republic's 1999 law on religion declares that Muslim religious organisations in the republic "are represented and directed by one centralised religious organisation - the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Tatarstan". While both Nabiyev and Pagasi told Keston that this provision was struck down by Tatarstan's public prosecutor last year, Faizov, Mukhametshin and the mufti in the neighbouring republic of Mari-El, Fanus Salimgareyev, were all convinced that SDMT was the only legal Muslim organisation in the republic. None maintained that this state of affairs was discriminatory, however.

Quite the opposite, according to Faizov: "Muslims here are united with one head so that politicians can't play with Islam." Muslim communities were subordinate to SDMT only formally, he maintained, since "Islam isn't like Christianity where there is a pope or bishop to whom the people are subordinate - the imams are independent." While Mukhametshin admitted that the existence of one spiritual directorate in Tatarstan was a way of controlling the Muslim community, he did not think this harmed the religious practice of the Muslims themselves. "It is only a higher organ - why would you need more than one head mufti?" The existence of multiple organisations in any case did not accord with the canons of Islam, he maintained, which is a confession with no need for any structures: "Muslims pray directly to Allah, they only need a representative organ because the state is secular."

According to Mukhametshin, those Muslims who now find themselves to be "unofficial" are reconciled to their fate. While, as he pointed out, they were "unstructuralised" and so extremely difficult to locate, they certainly include representatives of one of the two major Muslim organisations registered in Russia on the federal level - the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims. Speaking to Keston in Ioshkar-Ola's main mosque on 31 May, however, Fanus Salimgareyev, who belongs to the Central Spiritual Directorate, refused to criticise the policy of allowing only SDMT to exist officially in Tatarstan: "I would not wish to offend my neighbour," he commented.

Faizov is strongly opposed to Islam serving Tatar nationalism in any way, since "nationalism is Satan himself". However, he has no concern about working with the Tatar authorities. "We work openly with the security organs. We take care of official Islam - if a problem occurs there, they say 'Your people have done something, sort it out.'" And unofficial Islam? "Unofficial Islam is the work of the FSB," he told Keston. (END)