Thursday, January 10, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Muslims in Formerly Closed Russian City Increasingly Active

Paul Goble

Baku, January 10 – The 17,000-srong Islamic community in and around Ozersk, the formerly closed city known as Chelyabinsk-65 where Moscow produces nuclear weapons components and processes spent nuclear fuel, is increasingly active not only among the unfortunate of all faiths but also with Muslim troops stationed there.
In an interview posted online this week, Gabdulla Shaymardanov, who heads that community there, said that his group has stepped up its activities among Muslims and non-Muslims alike in both the civilian and military sectors of that defense industry center (
The community was set up three years ago and registered last summer but now boasts a social fund, a women’s group, a military outreach program, and ties with three Russia-wide organizations: the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the European Russia, the MSD of the Asiatic Russia, and the Russia Islamic Inheritance group.
But it is his community’s specific activities that Shaymardanov is particularly proud of. Some of the faithful routinely visit to the two local orphanages, one for invalids and the other for those who have no one in the world. And the community, even though it does not yet have a mosque, provides funds for the older children.
Under Russian law, when a resident of an orphanage reaches 16, he is given housing and then simply told to live on his own, the mullah said. “But to a certain degree, these children are not ready for independent life. We help them through this transition, provide them with legal assistance and so on.”
Another area in which the Ozersk Muslims are active is working with Muslim soldiers. Their number is increasing, and in one unit that arrived last December, Shaymardanov said, 30 percent of the draftees were at least ethnic Muslims – Tatars, Bashkirs, and North Caucasus nationalities.
He noted that he had succeeded in getting commanders to agree to allow Muslim soldiers time off to come to the prayer hall during Muslim holidays and even for daily prayers. While many of these ethnic Muslims are not active believers, Shaymardanov said that he hoped contact with other Muslims would help them become so.
The Muslim leader said that his parishioners concern themselves not just with the problems of Muslim soldiers but with soldiers of other faiths. Two years ago, one soldier, a Christian, was suffering because his parents’ house burned down. The Ozersk community provided him and them with “both material and moral support.”
What is more, the Islamic leader said, members of his congregation conduct regular meetings with soldiers of all faiths to discuss their problems and how those problems might be resolved. “The basic problem during the first stages of service,” he noted, “is psychological.” And “we cannot leave these young men on their own.”
Yet another area where the Ozersk Muslim community is active is among Muslims behind bars. Since last year, penal officials have allowed his fellow Muslims to send Muslim prisoners Islamic literature, visit them and answer their questions about the faith and life more generally.
Local officials apparently are not put off by this activity; indeed, some clearly welcome what the Muslims are doing. They have allotted a room for the Muslims to pray in and given the community a plot of land on which to build a mosque, Shaymardanov said, and the community plans to begin construction in the spring.
(One indication of the positive attitude that the leaders of Ozersk have toward the Muslims and their activities is that the city’s website ( this week features a specific reference to the Muslim new year, something rarely found on the sites of other predominantly Russian and Orthodox cities and towns.)
The Muslim leader said proudly that “the Muslim community of the town is growing from day to day. There are .now about17,000 Muslims in the Ozersk city district and many more in nearby villages. And they have some political clout: Shaymardanov was elected last year to the district Social Chamber.
In that body, the Muslim activist continued, he worries about social questions and the continuing impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Indeed, he sees his Chamber work and his parish activities as coinciding in their concerns for the “social defense of the population, the spiritual-moral education of youth and so on.”
Asked what he planned to do next in this formerly closed city, Shaymardanov said that he wanted to reach out to Muslims living in distant villages. In many of them, he said, “there are no Muslim organizations, mosques, and medrassas.” And people there need information about the faith just as much as those in Ozersk do.

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