Tatarstan, a Muslim oasis of calm in Russia

Despite some signs of foreign attempts to radicalize them, and some internal tensions, many Tatars support a philosophy of tolerance known as 'Euro-Islam.'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Almira Adiatullina is set quietly, but stubbornly, on a collision course with the Russian state.

She is one of a group of religious activists in Tatarstan, Russia's largest Muslim region, who are challenging a government order to remove their Islamic headscarves for passport and other identification photos.

Though the issue may appear minor, it has struck a nerve in this semi-autonomous republic, where more than half the 5.5-million population are ethnic Tatars - many still struggling to rediscover their thousand-year-old Muslim traditions after decades of communist suppression.

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The dispute with Moscow is notable, because Tatarstan is widely seen as the leader in an emerging new liberal brand of Islamic thought - dubbed "Euro-Islam" by its supporters - that preaches democracy, tolerance and acceptance of secular social values and government.

By most accounts, Tatarstan and a few neighboring Muslim regions are islands of calm among the Islamic zones of the former USSR.

"There are two types of Islam in the former Soviet Union," says Alexander Umnov, an expert at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "Middle East-style Islam, which is confrontational and intolerant, dominates in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The trend of Euro-Islam, which predominates in Tatarstan, Bashkortistan and the Volga region, is a version that fits well into Russian civilization," he says, adding, "It requires only that Russians be tolerant, democratic and stick to secular values, and peaceful coexistence is assured."

There are signs of attempts to radicalize the Tatars, however.

A Taliban link

Experts acknowledge that money from Persian Gulf countries flowed into Tatarstan in the 1990s to fund religious schools, some of which are still operating. While the amounts have fallen since Sept. 11 and crackdowns by Russian security services, some Tatars fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. Of three Russian citizens held in Guantánamo Bay, two are Tatars, according to the Russian government.

Recently, Russia's head mufti, Ravil Gainuddin, said that Russian Muslims would help defend Iraq against the US attack.

But for many Tatars, radical action is not their way.

Valiulla Iakoupov, Tatarstan's first deputy mufti says the headscarf issue can be solved through negotiation. "This tough position of Russian officials over the headscarves surprises us very much," she says."We fear that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin's experts have not properly explained to him the significance of the headscarves to our people."

"Islamic Sharia law says a woman must cover her entire body, except for her face and hands," explains Ms. Adiatullina. "To take the headscarf off in the presence of a man is a terrible sin which violates my deepest convictions."

The women's challenge was rejected earlier this month by Russia's Supreme Court on the grounds that security officials cannot make proper identifications unless ears, neck and hair are visible.

For Adiatullina and others like her, a refusal to remove the headscarf could make it impossible to obtain an internal passport, the essential document a Russian citizen needs to receive social services, pass routine police checks or enter any government building.

"I pray there will be a reasonable solution," Adiatullina says. "There are 20 million Muslims in Russia, and their interests ought to be taken into account."

Long coexistence

Russians and Tatars have lived side-by-side since Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan in 1552.

Though Moscow's rule was often brutal, and included forced Russification and the persecution of Islam, experts say that centuries of coexistence has taught both local Russians and Tatars the importance of mutual respect and tolerance.

"Tatars have a lot of experience in adapting to existing conditions," says Rafik Moukhamentshin, a historian with the Islamic University in Kazan. "We have learned to see Islam as an inner state of the individual, which is quite compatible with modern, secular civilization. Tatar Islam includes liberal values that are typical of Europe, and hence some are labeling it Euro-Islam."

After the breakup of the USSR, Tatarstan declared "limited sovereignty" and began to promote Tatar cultural and religious revival in the Volga River republic, which is roughly the size of Maine. The government has funded the construction of about 1,000 mosques and dozens of Islamic schools, but has carefully avoided the kind of confrontational policies that have produced two wars between Moscow and the breakaway Caucasus republic of Chechnya in the past decade.

"Our government has shown a lot of wisdom in managing relations with Moscow," says Rosalinda Musina, head ethnologist at Tatarstan's official Institute of History. "In some places they talk of a 'clash of civilizations' between Islam and Christianity, but there are no grounds for it here."

Deputy Mufti Iakoupov agrees that Middle East-style politicized Islam has little appeal among Tatars. "Islam is facing major changes in the coming period, and this is very much needed," he says. "Some parts of the Muslim world look like reservations for dictators and totalitarian ways. We hope for a different future."

Trouble spots

Nevertheless, there are frictions with Moscow. Some Tatars have complained that the country's laws are geared for the convenience of a Christian society. The generally accepted day off is Sunday, and Muslims need special permission to leave workplaces to attend their Friday religious celebrations. Also, in what some see as an affront to Islam, alcoholic beverages are generally available, widely advertised and consumed in public places.

Sometimes the tensions spillover, as they did in the city of Naberezhnye Chelnye last summer, when a group of angry Muslim women vandalized a construction site for an Orthodox church they said was being erected illegally in a local park.

The Kremlin's intimate relations with the Orthodox Church are viewed with irritation by some.

"Putin is our president, too, so he should at least conceal his Orthodoxy," while performing his state duties, says Mr. Moukhametshin. "This is a secular state, but it leans toward the Orthodox majority. Different faiths should be treated equally."

The biggest complaints involve the Army. All 18-year-old males are obliged to serve for two years. Human rights workers say Tatar recruits are often subjected to insults and abuse on the basis of religion and are given no alternative to consuming pork and foods cooked in pork grease. Although Orthodox chapels and priests are allowed on army bases, Islamic services are banned, and Muslim conscripts not given time to say daily prayers as required by their faith.

Rashit Vagizov, Tatarstan's human rights ombudsman, who is elected by the republic's parliament, says many Tatar youths have deserted the Army rather than be sent to Chechnya to fight fellow Muslims.

"We have raised these issues over and over again with the Defense Ministry, but the Army is a state within a state that seems beyond normal laws," he says. "We think the best solution would be to let local boys do their military service here in Tatarstan, where we can better observe the situation and work to create the right conditions. But we are not listened to."

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