Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Popular Arab Islamic Preacher Leaves Kazan after Spending 20

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 29 – Kamal el-Zant, who came to Tatarstan in 1992 to study medicine and who remained as an oncologist and a popular, if supposedly “non-traditional” Islamic preacher, has left the Russian Federation together with his family, apparently out of fears that the authorities will link him to the attacks on the Tatarstan muftiate last July.

            Today, Kazan’s “Biznes-Online” portal describes him as having become “the informal leader of part of the Muslim youth of the Republic of Tatarstan” and recounts something about his activities there over the last two decades and the reactions of other Muslim leaders there to his departure (www.business-gazeta.ru/article/74043/).  

At the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s, the portal continues, Kamal el-Zant attracted many Tatar young people by his sermons, his books, DVDs, CDs, and via his website, www.kamlzan.ru/. Initially he read sermons at the city’s Burnay mosque and then moved to the Eniler mosque attached to the Russian Islamic University.  

From the latter he was removed in the case of a scandal involving the mosque’s imam, Shavkyat Abubekerov, but Kamal el-Zant sued in an unsuccessful effort to recover his position but with greater success in distancing himself from Abubekerov and the latter’s activities in that mosque.

            More controversy followed when his book, “Tell Me about the Faith,” which had been approved by the former Tatarstan Mufti Iskhakov, was put on a black list by Iskhakov’s successor and when the social center he moved to after leaving the Eniler mosque was ordered closed by the authorities after the attacks on the muftiate last July 19.

            Those close to Kamal el-Zant say that he has left Russia “forever,” but others note that he left before about a decade ago but then returned and speculate that he may do so again.  The latter suggest that he left because certain radicals were upset that he was not radical enough and officials in the government and MSD felt he was too radical and insubordinate and thus a threat.

            Rafik Mukhametshin, the rector of the Russian Islamic University, told the portal that people like Kamal al-Zant were absolutely necessary in the first years after the collapse of the communist system. He could give sermons in Russian, something absolutely necessary if young people who did not speak Tatar well were to be attracted to Islam.

            Now, times have changed, he said. There are “already local cadres prepared” to work in the same area he did. “Thus one can say that Kamal fulfilled his mission, and the results of this were varied and not only positive. “One could not call them classically hanafi” although that is how Kamal described them.  And the now-departed preacher had largely “ignored the many centuries of the traditions of the Tatar people and the theological inheritance of the Tatars.”

            Azat Akhunov, an instructor at the Institute of Oriental Studies and International Releations of the Kazan Federal University, provided another perspective.  He said that it was “difficult to believe” that Kamal had left Russia. He was a masterful preacher and won many people, especially the young, for Islam.

            It is true that many “accused him of extremism and Wahhabism,” especially after the change at the top of the Tatarstan MSD. But he was within the Hanafi rite by and large, although there may have been things that “do not correspond to ‘traditional’ Islam.” And it is certainly the case that after 20 years, he had mastered “the rules of the game” in Kazan.

            In comments reported by Russia’s Interfax news agency, Rais Suleymanov, the head of theVolga Center for Regional and Ethno-Religious Research, was more pointed in his criticism. He suggested that Kamal was a “missionary” for the Muslim Brotherhood and that he had left once he saw where things are now heading (www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=49811).

            “He conducted propaganda in Russia which found a response among the urban youth of Tatarstan who speak Tatar poorly,” a real advantage to hi because “the majority of Tatar imams use Tatar as the language of their sermons, Suleymanov said. But he lacked theological training, having obtained a degree in Lebanon only in 2008 and promoted “pan-Islamic unity.”

            And Suleymanov added with the clear implication that there were grounds for more general suspicions about the Lebanese preacher that “after the attack on the Islamic leaders of Tatarstan on July 19, 2012, in Kazan, al-Zant ‘went to ground’ and ceased to read sermons, having adopted a wait and see position.”

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