Thursday, March 7, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Departure of Tatarstan Mufti Reflects Tensions Within and Between Moscow and Kazan

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 7 – A change at the top of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Tatarstan yesterday represents a new effort by Moscow to limit foreign influences on the Russian umma and to restrict the ability of the republic authorites to use Islam as a political resource in their struggles with the central Russian government.

            At one level, of course, the resignation of the incumbent mufti may reflect nothing more than the result of injuries he received during an assassination attempt last summer, and the selection of his replacement, a 28-year-old mullah, may reflect official that his age will either allow him to reach out to younger Muslims or further reduce the influence of Islam in the region.

            But at another, more fundamental level, as numerous commentaries on this event suggest, this change in Kazan reflects but does not finally resolve three long-simmering tensions in the Muslim community of Tatarstan and the relationship of that community to the secular authorities in Kazan and in Moscow.

            First, they reflect a longstanding tension between the traditionalist trend in Tatar Islam, known as kadimism, which has usually sided with the state but only at the cost of influence among the Tatar faithful, and the modernist tradition, known as jadidism, which the tsarist, Soviet, Russian governments have all viewed as a greater threat to state power.

            Second, they reflect the conflict between Saudi and Turkish influences on the Muslim community of the Middle Volga, influences that both Moscow and Kazan would like to limit but that they have been forced over the last decade to tack between, supporting now one and then another in the hopes of limiting both.

            And third, these events reflect Moscow’s unhappiness with what it sees as the rise of Islamist extremism in Tatarstan, the inability of the republic’s Muslim Spiritual Directorate and the republic government to combat it, and the fear that both are promoting the growth of Islam even if that means the appearance of some radical elements.

            Ildus Faizov, who had been muft, resigned as did his first deputy Abdulla Adygamov. Faizov said he was leaving because the injuries he received in July 2012 had left him unable to perform his duties, but many have suggested he left because he was pushed, either by Moscow which is worried the rise of radicalism in Tatarstan or by Kazan which has been unhappy with his pro-Moscow positions.

            Faizov’s replacement, still on an acting basis but likely to be made a permanency, is Kamil Samigullin, imam-khatyb of the Tynychlyk mosque in azan and head of the Tatarstan MSD’s publications arm.  As of last year, he became a deputy mufti and so may have been groomed as a replacement even though few appear to have expected his rapid rise.

            But more interesting than his position and age is his background.In 2003, he studied at the North Caucasus Islamic University in Daghestan. From 2004- to 2007, he studied at an Istanbul medressah where he became a sufi. He then received his degree from the Russian Islamic University in Kazan. He speaks both Arabic and Turkish.

                Some of the comments about what Samigullin’s elevation means are fascinating even if it remains uncertain whether the new mufti will have the freedom of action to pursue any of them. suggested that his levation represented an attempt to elevate kadaism over jadidism and that it would fail as past attempts have (

            It noted that Samigullin has promoted the kadamist agenda of ultra-orthodox belief and subordination to the Russian state ( but suggested that past efforts in that direction had failed, including one by an earlier youthful mufti in 1915 who even went so far as to create a Tatar branch of the Russian blackhundreds before being ousted.

            The portal’s editors suggested that the new mufti might face the same fate because constant stress on his version of “traditional Islam” will undermine the MSD and because “no normal Russian Muslim will associate himself with the blackhundreds” because then he would lose his ability to work with other religions or with the republic government.

            Ruslan Aysin, a Kazan political scientist, suggested that the decision to elevate Samigullin was made by Kazan with the agreement of Moscow because “such are the rules: Tatarstan today is not in a position to decide such questions autonomously,” although he lie others implied that the choice was a compromise (

            What the new mufti will be able to do, Aysin continued, will be limited by “the strategic decisions” which will be made by “a special administration with a staff of 40” in the apparatus of the Tatarstan president. Being young, Samigullin may be able to reach out to younger Muslims, but for the same reason, he may lack authority with older Muslim leaders.

            What Samigullin may be able to do, the political scientist suggested, is to keep things quiet for a time, at least through the Universiad games later this year; and perhaps that requirement more than any other played a key element in the calculations of Moscow, Kazan and even Faizov himself.

                In a discussion of these possibilities in yesterday’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Gleb Postnov suggests that Samigullin’s elevation will “strengthen Turish influence on the Muslims of the republic” and thus limit that of the Arabs, who have been held responsible for the spread of Wahhabism in the Middle Volga and elsewhere (

            He quotes Rais Suleymanov, the head of the Volga Center for Regional and Ethno-Religious Research, on this point. Accordidng to Suleymanov, who is viewed as an Islamophobe by many, the Tatarstan government forced Faizov to resign but will soon recognize that this was “a major political mistake.”

            Faizov was an opponent of “any foreign religious influence” in Tatarstan, and he was ousted because of the influence of the Wahhabi “holding” in the republic government, Suleymanov says.  But now, as Kazan is going to learn. “the main thing is not to allow Turkey” and a Turkish-trained mufti to dominate “the religious space of Tatarstan.”

            But perhaps the most insightful comment was made by Damir Khazrat Mukhetdinov, rector of Moscow’s Islamic University.  He said that he doesn’t “think that the promotion of Samigullin … will promote the unity of the Tatarstan umma. Just the reverse.” Samigullin may be able to reach out to the young, but he lacs the standing to win many of the mullahs and imams (

            Samigullin’s youth may work against him and the Islamic community in the Middle Volga in another way: It may allow those behind the scenes either religious or secular to take control “of all its financial flows” and mean that the decisions of the new mufti will be “entirely under [their] control.”

            But such people have to know quite well, Muhetdinov continued, that “an ultra-orthodox kadammst will not become a consolidating figure but rather will generate a new wave” of conflict. “Evidently,” he continues, Samigullin’s elevation is the result of behind the scenes struggles “among different clans within the Tatarstan elites,” some of whom may want to “destabilize” the situation sooner or later.

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