Saturday, February 2, 2013

Window on Eurasia: More than 90 Percent of Tatars under 30 Now Identify as Muslims, Sociologist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 2 – More than 90 percent of Tatars under the age of 30 identify themselves as Muslims with a large share of them taking part in one or more religious activities, according to a leading Kazan sociologist. But she says that this pattern in no way has undermined the stability of the republic as some observers have claimed.

            Guzel Guzelbayeva, a sociologist at the Kazan Federal University, bases those conclusions on polls of more than 1500 Tatars that she conducted in 2008 and 2011 (She plans to do another this year.) and on in-depth interviews with more than 70 young Tatars about their attitudes toward and experience with Islam (

            Since the end of communism, she notes, there has been a rebirth in interest in Islam, particularly among Tatars over 60 and those under 30. If the increase among the older group was not unexpected, that among the young is “an interesting, unexpected and new phenomenon,” Gulzebayeva suggests.

            Young Tatars turn to religion as part of their search for spiritual direction given what they see as the failings of contemporary mass culture, she says. But they also do so because religious practice and belief has become “fashionable” rather than being steps that put an individual at odds with his cohort and society as a whole.

            “The new generation in Tatarstan lives in different circumstances” than those in the past “It is possible to watch TV programs about Islam every Friday, part of the population observes fasts, many mark religious holidays. and the secular media and ordinary citizens show a lively interest in religion,” she says, adding that “to believe in God is now something normal.”

            As a result, she continues, “it is becoming unfashionable and something of an oddity to say of oneself that ‘I am an atheist.’”
            This increase in religious interest among the young sets them apart from those in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, Guzelbayeva says, with many of the latter, who grew up in Soviet times, expressing incomprehension about why young people now are turning to religion. They form part of the 15 percent of Tatarstan residents who oppose the use of the hijab.

            Young women have told her, the sociologist says, that they have encountered “excessive attention to their dress” when they wear the hijab and “even open condemnation.” But they have also indicated that this opposition to Muslim dress has been dissipating over the last several years.

            One of the most interesting developments among this younger generation of religious Tatars is that they are forming groups on their own to address social problems or even, in one case, that of the Altyn Urta organization, to combat the influence of Muslims who criticize “traditional” Tatar Islam.

            Religiosity among the young has grown most rapidly in Kazan rather than in other cities or in rural areas. And its growth, the sociologist says, has had an important consequence: “Unlike the Russians, most of whose believers are women, among the religious Tatars, there are roughly equal numbers of men and women.” 

            While some have sought to present Tatarstan as a hotbed of Islamist extremism, the data do not support that conclusion. People there are more concerned about social problems than about Islam. “They do not see a threat from Islam and Muslims.” Thus, “Tatarstan remains a stable region, one in which the probability of conflicts on a religious basis are extremely small.”

            And Guzelbayev concludes her comments with data that may help to explain why: While Tatars as a whole overwhelmingly identify as Muslims, only about six percent of them are what the sociologist calls “deeply religious,” roughly the same share in the republic’s population as those who say they are “non-believers.” 

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