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.'
Almira Adiatullina is set quietly, but stubbornly, on a collision course with the Russian state.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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."
Russians and Tatars have lived side-by-side since Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan in 1552.