Friday, February 8, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Islamists in Tatarstan Few and Not Influential, Kazan Historian Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 8 – Rafael Khakimov, the head of the Kazan Institute of History and an advisor to former Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaymiyev, says there are few radical Muslims in Tatarstan, despite speculation to the contrary and that in Tatarstan, like other Muslim lands with high levels of education and economic development “they are not so influential”

In an interview coinciding with the six-month anniversary of the murder of a Muslim leader in Tatarstan that led to suggestions that the Islamic radicalism is spreading from the North Caucasus to the Middle Volga, Kahkimov says that scholars who have examined that notion are rejecting it out of hand (

It is generally known, he told “Kazanskiye Vedomosti” yesterday that “radical attitudes were brought in by those who studied abroad or grew up in a criminal milieu.” Many Tatars still respect those with such training, but one has to ask “what can they teach the people of Tatarstan?” with their tradition of tolerance and high levels of education and development.

Khakimov says that, especially in the six months since Valiulla Yakupov was killed, everyone in Tatarstan has focused on this question. “No one has remained in one place, not the force structures, not the government organs, and not scholars.” His institute has “an entire department on Islamic studies” which invites senior scholars from Moscow and abroad.

            The Tatar academician says that “it is very useful to compare the situation in Tatarstan with that in Daghestan,” as many have done.  There are some “similar tendencies which cause concern, “but there are also significant differences” which allow for greater optimism about developments in the Middle Volga.

            Tatars, Khakimov continues, “are going along a different path because our history and culture have been formed differently.  In Tatarstan, there are strong defensive points for opposition to extremism … and the level of education is high, which creates the basis for continuing the traditions of Jadidism, that is, reformed Islam.”

            He said that research points to “a positive dynamic” in the region in this regard, “including the strengthening of regional identity and mutual accord.” As a result, “the positions of [ethnic] Russians and Tatars on the territory of Tatarstan are not significantly different,” and that “while [a non-ethnic] Russian identity is not weakening, the regional one is strengthening.”

            “That is a very good sign,” the Tatar scholar said.

            What it means is that “Tatarstan residents are ready to live here together and to build a future on the basis of the conviction that this will be a stable region.” Moreover, in Tatarstan, “even the mentality of [ethnic] Russians is distinguished from the all-Russian situation where intolerance to other ethnic communities continues to grow.”

            According to Khakimov, sociological work in the republic shows that approximately three to four percent of the republic’s Muslims regularly go to mosque, about the same percentage as among Orthodox Russians.  “Atheists form no more than one percent,” And that “95 percent” are thus just like everyone else.
            “We work, we study, we teach. We raise children and we earn our living.  And that was always the way it has been,” the scholar sad.  “Who of us really believes is a separate question,” noting that he “considers himself a real Muslim but doesn’t go to mosque.” And he says he told a mufti who objected that “my mosque is my computer.”

            “If you serve the people” by scholarship or anything else, Khakimov suggests, “then that is your devotion to Allah.  The Prophet Muhammed said: the entire world is a mosque. Some may feel the need to pray collectively. That is their choice, but no one can force me to do the same thing.”
            In Tatarstan, the scholar points out, “traditional Islam means jadidism, which spread among the Tatars and Bashkirs beginning in 1804. By the beginning of the 20th century, jadidism dominated 95 percent of the mosques in that region. It passed into contemporary Tatar culture” and remains at the core of who and what Tatars are.

            Kadimism, which opposed the jadids, “did not make a contribution to Tatar culture,” but some of its followers did make a lot of money as informers for the police.

 Radicals within Islam, including the Salafites today, are distinguished by the fact that “they do not recognize any compromises. We say that we have liberal Islam and recognize differing opinions. But the radical says if you do not recognize my view, then you are an enemy and we can do with you as we like because you are outside the law.”

You can’t compromise with such people, Khakimov says, because they reject compromise as a matter of principle, but you can use public opinion to pull the ground out from under them.  Indeed, the mobilization of public opinion is “the best weapon” that can be deployed against the radicals.

Khakimov says that he “believes in the traditions of reformed Islam and that they have deeply penetrated into the mentality of the Tatars.  Changing them would be difficult.  Nevertheless, one needs to devote more attention to propagandizing these traditions.” Unfortunately, he adds, Islamic sites today on the Internet aren’t much help. 

That means Tatarstan must continue to rely on education. It is “key” to the future not only of Tatarstan but of all developed lands.  The Kazan leadership understands that but some in the population do not.  A 1996 poll found that the population believed that development of oil should be the top priority and education should be the last.

In fact, just the reverse should be the case.  Oil is “not a good thing; it is a test. “Where there is oil, there are wars and blood, the degradation of the nation and a parasitic way of life.  Development is nowhere to be found.” Shaymiyev understood that, and he unlike some others has pushed for developing education and a high tech economy rather than oil alone. 

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