Thursday, May 3, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Rift Deepens Between Tatars, North Caucasus Muslims

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 3 – A new article by Tatarstan’s official representative in Moscow, one in which he talks about “the forcible Islamization of the Tatars,” challenges the use of Arabic in Islamic services, and rejects any equation of Tatars and Muslims, has outraged Muslim groups from the North Caucasus.
Nazif Mirikhanov, the Plenipotentiary Representative of the Republic of Tatarstan to Moscow, recently prepared an article entitled “The Tatars and the Mongols.” It has since appeared in numerous newspapers throughout his native Tatarstan and now has been published in the Moscow newspaper, “Tatarskiye novosti.”
In this essay, Mirikhanov speaks of “the forcible Islamization” of the Tatars who, he suggests, were thereby “tethered to the religion” in ways that have held them back as a people and limited their ability to form alliances with other parts of the Turkic world of which they are a part.
Moreover, in remarkably direct language, he denounces the continued use of Arabic in Islamic services, something that has thrown the Tatar and Russian-speaking Tatars “into the clutches of Arabization,” a culture not only different from but entirely alien to their own national traditions.
Not surprisingly, many Muslims in the Russian Federation view such ideas as heretical or worse. And those from the North Caucasus, as represented in the Chechen (but pro-Moscow) NGO, “Russian Islamic Inheritance” have denounced Mirikhanov and called on others to do the same (
To that end, the group’s president, Shavkat Avyasov, has distributed his organization’s critique of Mirikhanov’s essay to “all Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) of the country and to the 48 regional divisions” of the Russian Islamic Inheritance Organization.
(Avyazov told that Russian Islamic Inheritance will publish the responses to its appeal as well as other commentaries on Mirikhanov’s article on the organization’s extensive and, at least among Russia’s Muslims, frequently consulted webpage,
This back and forth between a secularist Tatar leader and a more religious North Caucasus group may seem relatively unimportant to many outside observers, but there are some important reasons for thinking that Mirikhanov’s article right or wrong is likely to have a major impact on the development of Islam in the Russian Federation.
First, because Mirikhanov is Kazan’s “ambassador,” many in Tatarstan and especially elsewhere will assume that his article reflects not just his views but those of his government. And regardless whether that assumption is correct, it will drive another wedge between the Muslims of the Middle Volga and those of the North Caucasus.
Second, that divide by itself will have some important consequences not all of which Moscow or Kazan are likely to be happy with. On the one hand, it will likely weaken the Muslim community of the Russia Federation by exacerbating a split that has long been percolating just below the surface.
But on the other hand – and this may prove the more significant result – it will reduce the influence of the Kazan moderates in the North Caucasus, thereby opening the way for radicals elsewhere and perhaps even within communities in Tatarstan itself who disagree with Mirikhanov’s modernist course.
And third – and perhaps explains why such an article is appearing now – Mirikhanov’s essay almost certainly undermines the position of Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev within the Muslim umma of the Russian Federation -- even as it increases the longtime Tatar leader’s standing in Moscow and his home republic.
By doing both of these things at the same time, the stakes for Moscow, for Tatarstan, and for Russia’s more than 25 million Muslims in any Kremlin decision about who should replace Shaimiyev and when such a generational change should occur just become a great deal larger.

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