A lesson in stifling violent extremism

The effort to help Muslim moderates and democratic reformers, President Bush insists, is a primary bulwark against ethnoreligious conflict and the terrorism it breeds. Yet, five years into the war on terror, real-world examples to support that contention are scarce. There is, however, a conflict zone that has developed a strong model of stifling violent extremism – one that could be replicated in hot spots around the world: Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.

Last month in picturesque Crimea, minority Muslim Tatars clashed violently with ethnic Russians who make up the majority of the region's population. This was the worst in a string of incendiary events that began in August 2006: pro-Moscow paramilitary gangs assaulted Tatars at their holiest site, a building housing their parliament was bombed, and a Tatar journalist was assassinated.

Meanwhile, foreign-sponsored Wahhabi Muslim extremist groups appeared on the scene, urging violent retaliation. Most anywhere else in the world, this would have been the trigger for a major ethnoreligious war. But thanks to the Tatars' locally developed democracy, their leadership was able to avert full-scale hostilities.

The Tatars of Crimea were victims of ethnic cleansing and deportation policies under Russian czars and later under Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. In 1944, Stalin deported all Tatars to Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia. Throughout their exile, Tatars maintained a strong national identity, and, post-Stalin, they formed a celebrated nonviolent resistance movement.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Crimea became an autonomous republic in Ukraine, and the resistance movement collaborated with the newly independent Ukrainian government to secure Tatars' right of return. However, Crimea continues to be dominated by its Russian majority and a pro-Moscow party.

The new repatriates faced oppression as ethnic Russian authorities in Crimea prevented the restitution of land and job opportunities. Rather than be marginalized, the Tatar leadership's unique solution was the 1991 creation of the Mejlis, or "assembly" system, to establish their legitimacy in the Ukrainian political milieu.

Leaders adopted the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as their political model, with democracy and nonviolence as guiding doctrines. Early on, Mejlis members appealed to the UN and the international community for recognition of their rights, which has resulted in close working ties between the Mejlis and various international aid organizations. The Mejlis was eventually recognized as a legitimate political player by Ukraine's government. Mustafa Jemilev, the father of the resistance movement, now holds a seat in the Ukrainian parliament. Indeed, he is part of the Orange bloc coalition, which has been a symbol for democracy in the region and worldwide.

An elected religious institution, the Muftiyat, was established alongside the Mejlis system to prevent the inpouring of religious extremism and preserve Tatar Islamic folk traditions. Amid the ethnic tensions, small-scale Wahhabist groups sponsored by Arab Gulf states have emerged, including the banned Hizb-i-Tehrir, which castigated the Mejlis for its "soft" policies. But the Muftiyat, allied with the Mejlis, denounced these ideologies as "false teachings and objectives rejected by Islam," and swiftly silenced the radicals with popular tolerance and education campaigns at local mosques.

The overwhelming success of the Mejlis in preventing the spread of violence rests on its exclusive reliance on negotiations, international support, and nonviolent public protests. When Tatar rights are denied or provocation occurs, Mejlis leaders step in to mediate. And the Mejlis actively preventsthe formation of independent militias, recognizing their detriment to any negotiation process.

Despite many roadblocks, peaceful Tatar activism has achieved what was previously inconceivable: repatriation and citizenship for 250,000 Tatars, quasi- recognition of the Mejlis by the central government, and seats within Ukrainian and Crimean legislatures.

The Crimean Tatar experience proves that there is indeed a nonviolent prophylactic for ethnoreligious conflict. Giving official recognition to the political aspirations of indigenous minorities helps address popular grievances through peaceful negotiation instead of street violence. That's the lesson of the Mejlis and Muftiyat in Crimea. And it's the lesson that should be applied to other conflict zones, from Muslim minority populations across the former Soviet Union, to the Kurds in Syria and the Moros in the Philippines.

Fostering local participatory movements isn't just about keeping democracy healthy. In the global war on terror, it's one of the best defenses against transnational fundamentalism.

Waleed Ziad, an economic consultant and a principal at the Truman National Security Project, writes extensively on Islamic fundamentalist movements. Laryssa Chomiak, a Department of Homeland Security fellow, covered the Crimean Tatar minority for the University of Maryland's Minorities at Risk Project. They recently returned from Crimea, where they interviewed Tatar leaders.

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