Monday, February 18, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Advocate of Liberal Tatar Islam Attacked for Receiving Foreign Grants

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 18 – Rafael Khakimov, advisor to former Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaymiyev and one of the most prominent and academically distinguished advocates in the Russian Federation of a liberal and Europeanized Islam has been attacked for taking money from Western sources by someone who has gained prominence for attacking Islamic extremism.

            On the one hand, this represents yet another way in which the Russian law requiring anyone who receives money from abroad to declare himself an “agent” is playing out, with individuals of all sorts -- and especially those inclined to view opponents as objectionable sectarians -- using it to discredit their opponents or exclude them from public life.

            But on the other, this case is more disturbing because it suggests that at least some Russian officials and analysts are ready to recapitulate what the Soviets did in the 1920s when they attacked Muslim modernists sometimes even more than they did reactionaries in order to reduce the attraction of Islam as such.

            That 1920s approach did geld the Islamic community in the Russian Federation because it cut the umma off from the modernist trends that had emerged in Tatarstan before 1917 and were attracting the young, but it had the effect of depriving the Muslims of the post-Soviet states of the kind of knowledge that could have immunized them against the extremists.

            Consequently, those, be they researchers or government officials, who think they are fighting extremism by attacking modernist Muslims are likely to discover that it is they and not those they are criticizing who are laying the groundwork for a new growth of Islamist extremism in the future.
            The specifics of this case are suggestive.  On Friday, the news agency published an article by Rais Suleymanov, the head of Kazan’s Volga Center of Regional and Ethno-Religious Research which is part of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (

            Over the last year, both in articles posted on his own institution’s web page and in other places, Suleymanov has attracted attention by his argument that Tatarstan and the Middle Volga more generally are going the way of the North Caucasus, with Islamists growing in strength and often enjoying at least some support from the republic governments.

            But in his Friday comment, Suleymanov focuses on Khakimov, a scholar who heads the Kazan Institute of History and a prominent advocate not of extremist Islamist groups but rather of the revival of Jadidist or liberal Tatar Islam. Indeed, for works like “Where is Our Mecca?” which advocate hat, Khakimov has been sharply criticized by many other Muslims.

            Suleymanov begins his article by calling attention to a recent interview Khakimov gave to the Tatar-Bashkir Service of Radio Liberty. In it, the Kazan scholar was asked for his views on who is behind the “incitement” of ethnic Russians in his Middle Volga republic, a question Suleymanov says “was not asked by chance.”

            Discussing the problems of the Russian community in Tatarstan in this way has been a hallmark of Tatar nationalists, Suleymanov says, because in this way, they “now explain the growing anger of [ethnic] Russian and the Russian-language society which is leading to protests against ethnic discrimination in the republic.”

            Like many other Tatars, the writer continues, Khakimov suggests that several Tatar oligarchs, interested in protecting their property and angry at the government in Kazan, have provided subsidies to the leaders of various Russian groups allowing them to operate without the need for any personal sacrifices.

            Such “a thesis” is “not new,” Suleymanov says; one often hears “this accusation” from Tatars.  But he continues, it is “quite strange” to hear it from “someone who himself regularly receives grants” from abroad, including the American MacArthur Foundation, which provided his Center for Federalism and Public Policy several hundred thousand dollars in the past.

            Given that, Suleymanov says, one is compelled to ask “who is working for whom in Tatarstan.”

            Is it “the theoretician of Tatarstan sovereignty and the ideologue of national separatism whose views are propagandized among the Tatars by an American radio station”? Or is it the republic’s Russian community whose organization … on an invented pretext was excluded from the Assembly of the Peoples of Tatarstan”?

            The question “answers itself,” Suleymanov says, but the issues his attack raises are far larger and more important than he appears to suspect.

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