Shackles Off, Russia's Muslims Are Still Chafing

November 9, 2001
Shackles Off, Russia's Muslims Are Still Chafing

AZAN, Russia, Nov. 5  Summoned by a familiar,
plaintive call, young men dazed from studying stumble
from their dorm rooms with slippers on their feet and
prayer on their minds.

From 20 regions of Russia and bordering nations, they
have made their way to an institution whose very name
was unthinkable a decade ago: the Russian Islamic

Founded in 1998, the university already has 148
students in its newly refurbished building. It also
has the support of the former Communist who rules
Tatarstan, the semiautonomous republic centered around
this urbane city on the Volga River.

A decade after the fall of the Soviet Union ended
constraints on religious observance, the university
seems to suggest a state-sanctioned Islamic revival.
Though most Russian Muslims, numbering from 13 million
to 20 million, are secular after decades of religious
repression, young people are becoming more observant.

Now there are ever more places to pray: in Tatarstan,
where there were about 18 mosques under Soviet rule,
there are now more than 1,000, including one rising,
on a grand scale, inside the white walls of this
city's government fortress.

But in Russia, and even in tolerant Tatarstan, the
state reaction to Islam seems to depend very much on
what form of Islam it is.

Less than 200 miles from the Russian Islamic
University, another Islamic religious institution, the
Yoldyz madrassa, set in the bleak industrial city of
Naberezhnye Chelny, feels itself to be under state

After reports emerged of madrassa graduates going to
fight against Russia in Chechnya, the Tatarstan
government sent the school's Arab teachers back to
their home countries and revoked the school's license.
To seem less threatening, Yoldyz transformed itself
into a girls' madrassa. Still no license. The state
wants the school closed.

The rise in Islamic fundamentalism has concerned
Russian officials, many of whom are wary of any
religion that is not Russian Orthodoxy. The ongoing
battle in Chechnya, whose rebels increasingly identify
with Muslim extremists, has fueled anti-Islamic
attitudes. Much of the concern has focused on the
influence, in Chechnya and beyond, of money and
ideology from Islamic countries.

Islamic revivalism may pose no immediate threat to the
Russian federation, but it does present a challenge to
President Vladimir V. Putin and his successors.

In seven republics of Russia, including Chechnya and,
just barely, Tatarstan, Muslims are already a
majority. They are not immigrants whose visas can be
revoked. Their history here extends back more than a
thousand years.

The madrassa reflects a younger generation's view that
Russian Islam, shaped by accommodation to Czarist, and
later Soviet, rule, is not worth preserving. The
school's director, Malik Ibragimov, 36, who studied in
Saudi Arabia for four years, says fundamentalist Islam
is the only Islam. He calls the notion of a Russian
Islam "rubbish."

The university, by contrast, reflects an effort to
contain radical Islam by promoting Russian Islam 
defined as a centuries-old tradition of coexistence
with other faiths and deference to the state.

But that deference is sure to be tested, and indeed
already has been. Opposition is growing among Russia's
Muslims to the American bombing of Afghanistan, and
moderates say its continuation will radicalize their
ranks. Some religious leaders are openly critical not
only of America's policy but also of Russia's support
for it. One said this week that Russian Muslims could
justifiably take up arms to support the Taliban.

In the coming months, President Putin's favorable
reception in the West may be countered by rising
discontent at home among Muslims, not to mention
Russian nationalists.

The president has met with Muslim leaders, and speaks
about Russia's rich history of religious coexistence.
But Muslims say he has done too little to control
local authorities who, sometimes in collaboration with
the Russian Orthodox Church, have blocked the building
of new mosques.

They say that by feeding fears of Islamic terrorism,
Mr. Putin has encouraged antipathy toward Islam
itself. The government blamed a series of unsolved
bombings in 1999 that killed more than 300 people on
Chechen Muslim terrorists. The estimated one million
Muslims in Moscow, many dark-featured refugees from
Chechnya and other republics in the northern Caucasus,
are accustomed to police harassment.

Such measures are necessary, Russian leaders insist,
lest other separatists draw inspiration from Islamic

"If extremist forces manage to get a hold in the
Caucasus," Mr. Putin said last year, "this infection
may spread up the Volga River, spread to other
republics, and we either face the full Islamization of
Russia, or we will have to agree to Russia's division
into several independent states."

Wahhabism, the puritanical Islamic sect that is strong
in Saudi Arabia and is followed by Osama bin Laden,
has long been an obsession of the Russian state and
news media. Some Caucasus rebels studied in Saudi
Arabia and identify with the Wahhabi branch.
"Wahhabism" is now a Russian code word for extremism,
and is banned by several republics.

But some believe that repressive measures aimed at
Islamic fundamentalism will only help it spread. At
Friday Prayers, the mosques are packed with young
people who say that feeling persecuted by their own
government only drives them deeper into Islam's

"When you go out from the mosque, you feel yourself
stronger," said Rasim Zagirov, 25, a student from
Dagestan living in Moscow.

Young Muslims are picking up where their grandparents
left off when Communists executed thousands of Islamic
teachers and closed most of the country's mosques and
religious schools. Unable to look to parents for
instruction on anything but the most basic rituals,
some young people have turned to preachers and
teachers who studied in Arab countries beginning in
the 1980's.

Their education abroad, coupled with an influx of Arab
emissaries offering spiritual guidance and financial
support after the Soviet collapse, helped forge a
generation of ardent believers.

Orkhan Djemal, the press secretary for the Eurazes
Party, a Muslim-led group that controls a small
faction in Parliament, said that for Russians like
him, in their 20's or 30's, Islam is "not just some
cultural code," not folklore. "It's a certain system
of justice, freedom, honest life." He says that in
majority Muslim areas, Islamic law should apply. 

Fearful that young radicals could help fill the
growing need for Islamic teachers, conservative Muslim
leaders have encouraged President Putin to pay more
attention to Islamic education. So has Tatarstan's
president, Mintimer Shaimiyev.

Mr. Shaimiyev, a wily politician who survived the
Soviet Union's fall, has formed strong economic
relations with Arab and Muslim countries. But when it
comes to religious education, even his prized Islamic
university, President Shaimiyev no longer wants the
help of Islamic countries. "We think it's better to
render that support ourselves," he said.

A few years ago, concerned that Arab teachers were
spreading Wahhabism, President Shaimiyev engineered
the election of a moderate, Gousman G. Iskhakov, to
head Tatarstan's Muslim Spiritual Board. Mr. Iskhakov,
who is also rector of the Islamic university, quickly
took religious schools in hand.

Those who advocate an Islamic state in Russia, or
preach intolerance for other faiths, he said, threaten
to disrupt the harmony between Muslims and Christians
that has held for centuries in Tatarstan.

"The ideas proclaimed in Saudi Arabia don't fit here,"
he said.

Mr. Ibragimov, of the Yoldyz madrassa, hardly seems
hopeful that his fellow Tatars, who he said prefer
drinking to scripture, are ready for Islamic rule.
Rather, he says he believes that the state fears that
observant Muslims will start applying Islamic notions
of justice to the corruption they see around them.

Indeed, the madrassa's message seems as much at odds
with the go- go capitalism that now governs Russia as
the Communism that once did. A drawing on a wall shows
an unhealthy heart infected by the trappings of
Western success  a car, a cell phone, a bag of money.

During his four years in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Ibragimov
noted, "there were no drug addicts, no theft, no
alcoholism, no killings like in Russia, and if they
call that Wahhabism, then I am for Wahhabism like


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