Republic of Tatarstan: The Islamic Community and Related Developments

The public in Tatarstan and elsewhere, Russian and foreign media and official authorities habitually regarded the local inter-faith situation and relations between the state and the Islamic community as a model of harmony. Tolerance characterizing all parties to this relationship became the republic’s trademark and brand.

Not so long ago, President Rustam Minnikhanov of Tatarstan led an official delegation of his republic on an umrah (“minor pilgrimage”) to Saudi Arabia, following an invitation from Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a longtime friend of Tatarstan’s leaders. It was on Ihsanoglu’s suggestion that the King Faisal International Prize was awarded to Tatarstan’s first President, Mintimer Shaimiev, in 2007. Following the appointment of former Mayor of Kazan Kamil Iskhakov as Russian ambassador to the OIC, Mr. Shaimiev said: “It was no coincidence that Tartars were consuls and ambassadors to Jeddah both under the Czars and after the [1917] revolution! I think history goes on.”

Almost at the same time, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Tatarstan (SAM) held a plenary meeting and set the date for the 6th Extraordinary Congress of Muslims of Tatarstan (April 17, 2013). The plenum approved three official candidates for the post of Mufti, which remained vacant after Ildus Faizov’s voluntary resignation: Haris Salikhzianov, 85, imam khatib of the Khater (Memory) Mosque in Kazan and a retired police colonel; Fareed Salman, 43, head of the Ulema Council of the Russian Association of Islamic Accord; and Kamil Samigullin, 27, acting Chairman of the SAM of Tatarstan and imam of the Tynychlyk (Tranquility) Mosque in Kazan. The latter is seen as the favorite by the majority of analysts, given President Minnikhanov’s open support for his candidacy.

Both events have pragmatic and symbolic importance, particularly if we consider their short prehistory.

The public in Tatarstan and elsewhere, Russian and foreign media and official authorities habitually regarded the local inter-faith situation and relations between the state and the Islamic community as a model of harmony. Tolerance characterizing all parties to this relationship became the republic’s trademark and brand.

The republican authorities helped the Muslim community by involving themselves in the settlement of intricate squabbles among the clergy. The existing differences and frictions are a complex issue, which needs separate consideration. Clashes and disputes are caused by inner rivalry for influence on some or other Spiritual Administrations of Muslims (in Kazan, Moscow or Ufa) or for the control of mosques and parishes. What is presented to the public as threats and challenges associated with the Islamic factor, or whatever is branded as Wahhabism and Salafism, are nothing more than offshoots of this inner rivalry.

For understandable reasons, in the 2000s the public was not alerted to the real potential of radical underground Islamic resistance, even though the media periodically ran stories on the subject. The official authorities in the republic were mostly focused on relations inside the top echelons of the Muslim clergy. Mufti Ildus Faizov was elected in April 2011. Shortly before his election, he announced that Tatarstan’s SAM had always been independent and had never been a member of either the Russian Council of Muftis (RCM) or the Central Muslim Spiritual Board of Russia (CMSB). Thus, the SAM of Tatarstan, an umbrella for almost a third of Russia’s Islamic communities, came to be described as an “integral player on the Muslim field.”

For their part, the regional secular authorities, pragmatically, did their best to exploit the Islamic factor for promoting the republic’s international economic ties. President Shaimiev led the Russian delegation to the Russia – Islamic World Strategic Vision Group. Addressing a meeting of the Administrative Council of the Organization of Islamic Capitals and Cities in June 2009, Kamil Iskhakov, Russian ambassador to the OIC, even suggested that Kazan should be named “the Islamic capital of Russia.”

Kazan has regularly hosted International Summits of Islamic Business and Finance, while Tatarstan’s second president, Rustam Minnikhanov, can be often heard praising Islamic precepts as highly promising for business. Apart from using its Islamic element to attract investors, Kazan seeks to become a halal hub on the national scale and the biggest distributor of halal goods and services in the country.

The tragedy of July 19, 2012, when terrorists assassinated Valiulla Yakupov, a leading member of the local Islamic elite and department head at Tatarstan’s SAM, and attempted to kill Mufti Ildus Faizov, caused unprecedented repercussions in the republic, Russia as a whole, and the world.

“Up till now we have focused on interfaith peace and accord, but problems sprung up within just one denomination, the Muslim ummah,” Head of the State Council of Tatarstan Farid Mukhametshin said.

The Interior Minister of Tatarstan, Artyom Khokhorin, followed up with a sensational statement that further eroded the habitual discourse on the ethno-political and interfaith situation in Tatarstan. “An undeclared war has been in progress for over 13 years in Tatarstan, despite its posing as a haven of tolerance and stability. It’s a real battle, with terrorist explosions at industrial enterprises, assassinations, turf wars, and rivalry for human resources,” he said, adding that he was not talking about isolated followers of banned extremist organizations. “We are up against life-sized jamaats, and a significant number of them. It is clear that a strong structure lies behind their actions.” He also quoted sociological polls, indicating that the threat of interethnic conflicts increased by 300% and interfaith conflicts by 45%.

Khokhorin’s words shone a light on the central problem in the area. Are interethnic relations in Tatarstan and the existing ethno-political and ethno-religious situation merely a product of “discourse” and branding, or the real state of society, which has resulted from the strategic policies of former and current administrations?

The myths about the “hand of Moscow” and propertied interests fanning the crisis for their own advantage were dispelled during Vladimir Putin’s brief working visit to the republic.

The July terrorist attacks were followed by political protests organized by young nationalists from Azatlyk, a radical youth organization, and the congregation of Kazan’s Al-Islah Mosque, whose imam had earlier been put on trial for his affiliation with the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami party (Islamic Party of Liberation).

The question, therefore, is whether the Islamists and separatists are going to form a united ethno-political opposition and launch another spiral of political confrontation in the republic?

Presumably, this merger, even if attempted, will run against insurmountable difficulties. To quote Nail Nabiullin, the charismatic leader of Azatlyk for whom the nationalists have high hopes, “I was struck by all this talk about a caliphate… I think we made a huge mistake by taking up with them. If we had known that the Al-Islah Mosque was attracting Hizb-Tahrir supporters, we’d never have joined them in their plans. We will no longer work with people who are against our nation, language, traditions and statehood.”

Some conclusions are in order, in light of the new developments in Tatarstan. By using organizational and political technologies, the republican leadership has, on the whole, managed to block an escalation of ethno-religious strife. The suspected perpetrators of the July attacks were destroyed in the course of a special police operation. The Al-Islah Mosque was closed under the pretext that it had failed to settle ownership issues with the municipal authorities. But no reprisals followed against the radical Islamic circles. The authorities used adaptive tactics, avoiding both a massive use of force and an open public dialogue with the opponents.

The visit to Saudi Arabia, the umrah, and contacts with figures influential in the ummah are not only international political moves, but also a symbolic gesture addressed to the public at home. Another symbolic gesture is the choice of conservative candidates for the new Mufti with a poor view of both Jadidism and Euro-Islam.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.