In Russia, how one mainly Muslim region beat back radicalism
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Tatarstan has had a problem with Islamic extremism. But the Russian republic has avoided the violence that consumed Chechnya, by both resisting Wahabbism and promoting its own native Muslim traditions.
KAZAN, Russia — For many outside Russia, the first thing that comes to mind when they think about Islam and Russia is the country's turbulent north Caucasus region.
Poverty, war, and slow-burn insurrection have left large areas there under the sway of religious authorities who advocate tough sharia law, polygamy, and even female circumcision. Chechnya, where local nationalist-minded separatists were gradually supplanted by militant Islamists, has been pacified after two brutal Kremlin-ordered wars. But now it is ironically under control of a pro-Moscow strongman who is reportedly imposing elements of sharia law in violation of the Russian constitution.
About a thousand miles north, the mainly Muslim republic of Tatarstan has also seen a good deal of turmoil since the USSR's breakup a quarter century ago. Both Tatarstan and Chechnya tried to separate from Russia amid the Soviet twilight and sought national independence. But since then their paths have subsequently diverged radically.
Unlike the Chechens, the Tatars never took up arms, and their leaders quietly shelved notions of independence when Vladimir Putin came to power espousing tough top-down central power. Islamist extremists, who abound in Tatarstan, never got a foothold in power, says Irina Zyagelskaya, an expert with the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.
Instead, the Tatars have been gradually winning their fight to craft a tolerant and moderate strain of Islam that would enable believers to navigate the complexities of modern secular society – and comfortably coexist with Christian neighbors and co-workers.
"We have two completely different examples of how regions with Islamic identities emerged from the Soviet Union and related to being part of Russia," she says. "Of course this is far from settled in either region, and we are only beginning to understand the lessons of these experiences."
A Wahabbi problem
Russia has about 20 million Muslims, 15 percent of the population, mostly concentrated in "ethnic republics" like these. All these regions lived under 70 years of enforced Soviet secularism, until the implosion of communism left an ideological vacuum which religious authorities rushed to fill. In most of Russia the Orthodox Church was quick to revive and claim its rights over Slavic populations.
But here in Tatarstan, and in most of Russia's mostly Sunni Muslim regions, local scholars were few, religious organization was weak, and funding was scarce. The new, nationalist-minded Tatar government turned to benefactors in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf to help fill the gap.
"Hundreds of students were sent abroad in the 1990s, mainly to Saudi Arabia, where they were offered free education. When they came back, they became our first wave of religious authorities," says Eleonora Rilova, a correspondent who covers religious affairs for Evening Kazan, a leading Tatar newspaper. "We just didn't know in those days that there were very different strains of Islam. When these students returned, and became imams in all the new Saudi-financed mosques, they preached what they'd learned. And that was Wahabbism," the uncompromising, intolerant fundamentalist version of Islam that prevails in Saudi Arabia.
Tatar leaders realized they had a Wahabbi problem a few years ago, after it was revealed that a large contingent of Tatar militants had gone to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, says Rais Suleimanov, an expert with the security service-linked Institute of National Strategy and author of an upcoming book about terrorism in Russia. Arguably the turning point came when Islamist extremists struck here in Kazan, killing a leading Muslim scholar and badly injuring Tatarstan's chief mufti, Ildus Faizov, the republic's Muslim spiritual head.
A tough police crackdown since the attempted assassination of the mufti has driven Wahabbi ideas underground. The republic's religious authorities have vigorously purged radical imams from Tatarstan's 1,500 mosques.
"Some Tatars ended up in Guantanamo. One prominent Tatar radical, Irek Khamidullin, was convicted of terrorism in a US court last year," Mr. Suleimanov says. "We've had several terrorist acts here, which the authorities try to hush up. And we know that Wahabbi ideas are popular in prisons, and have even penetrated into the security services. But now our authorities are wide awake. They do see the danger, and are taking firm steps to combat radical influences."
"In theory we have separation of church and state, but not in reality," says Mr. Garipov, the imam. "You cannot openly propagate anything outside of the religious establishment, and that is closely linked with the authorities. We used to struggle openly with Wahabbis in the mosques, now we only do so on the internet. It cannot be denied that many have just gone underground, but the good thing is that we no longer have open calls to radical action, as we did in the past."
Another factor, according to Suleimanov, is that most Tatar militants who would be willing to take up arms have decamped to Syria. "Altogether about 3,000 Russians have gone to fight with Islamic State in Syria. Most of those are from the north Caucasus, but we estimate maybe 300 Tatars are among them."
Tatarstan's Muslim heritage
Tatarstan, and the neighboring, mainly Muslim Urals republic of Bashkortostan, differs from the north Caucasus in other key respects.
The Caucasus territories that are today so unstable were conquered by the Russian Empire in the 19th century, and they remain the poorest and most backward Russian regions to this day.
Tatars have been part of Russia and coexisted – if not always easily – with Russian neighbors for almost 500 years. Oil-rich Tatarstan, with an educated population, is one of the most prosperous parts of Russia. Although the republic tried to declare independence from Moscow in the 1990s, as did Chechnya, it crucially avoided the military conflicts that have turned some of Russia's mainly Muslim southern regions into no-go zones for law enforcement and active incubators of terrorism.
Perhaps more importantly, Tatarstan has its own thousand-year-old indigenous brand of Islam, which experts say presents the strongest barrier to extremist ideas.
"The Arab countries that exported their ideas to Tatarstan are mono-religious states, whereas here we have a long history of living alongside people of other faiths. We have a lot of mixed marriages," says Nail Khazrat Garipov, an imam at Kazan's central Apanayevskaya mosque. "We have a Sufi heritage here, plus our own ways. Women have much more freedom, for instance, they sit at the same table with men. They wear headscarves, but not veils. The Wahabbis assail us for these things, but most Tatar people prefer their own traditions."
Investment, not Islamism
More than a decade ago scholars at Tatarstan's Islamic University at first tried to create a fully secular ideology, dubbed "Euro-Islam," to counter the Wahabbi influence. By most accounts, that has fallen flat. But experts say traditional Tatar religious practice has proven resilient.
The republic's leaders are investing heavily in ways to accentuate the local brand of Islam, including a lavish historical reconstruction of the Tatars' ancient capital of Bulgar, where they were converted to Islam a millennium ago. The project will feature a huge mosque and an Islamic Academy, to better steer local religious beliefs. Tatarstan's former president, Mintimer Shaimiyev, is also sponsoring the revival of a 500-year-old Russian Orthodox center near Kazan, Sviyazhsk, to stress the republic's present-day commitment to religious tolerance and diversity.
"Our authorities now prioritize business and investment, and they are doing everything to suppress any discussion of Islamist radicalism because they could undermine Tatarstan's economic attractiveness," says Sergei Sergeyev, a political scientist at Kazan's National Research University. "They are sincerely promoting civic and religious tolerance. They don't need any nationalism or religious radicalism, they need investment."
But Garipov, the imam, says he is not sure things are normalizing. "A lot of people have stopped exhibiting their [radical] views as openly as they did in the past. Maybe quite a few of them have gone to Syria. But I feel the threat is still there. It's possible we just have a false feeling of calm these days."