Saturday, February 23, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Tatar Students Call for Muslim-Only Units in Russian Army

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 22 – A group of students from Tatarstan’s state and Islamic universities have called for the creation of Muslim-only units within the Russian armed services, an appeal that Muslim leaders have rejected but one that says a great deal about the situation in the military that Muslim draftees now face.
Yesterday, the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Tatarstan held a roundtable to discuss the challenges the increasingly numerous Muslim soldiers confront in the Russian armed forces and the way in which the republic’s Muslim leaders are trying to make their service better (
The meeting was convened after the MSD had sent a letter to Tatarstan’s deputy prime minister Ravil’ Muratov asking him to intervene to assure that all Muslim soldiers would have the opportunity to pray five times a day and to avoid consuming pork and other non-halal foods.
Maj. Gen. Sergei Pogodin, the military commissar of Tatarstan, and Bulat Gimadeyev, who is in charge of the military draft there, told the meeting that military commanders are working to ensure that every Muslim soldier could pray and avoid non-halal foods as his faith requires.
Valiulla-khazrat Yakupov, the first deputy mufti of the republic, said that in his experience, commanders did make such arrangements but that many Muslim soldiers from the Middle Volga region have not taken advantage of them, in stark contrast to Muslims from the North Caucasus who routinely do so.
But at the same time, he suggested that Muslim soldiers should not expect too much. In particular, they should not assume that the army will provide them with halal foods while on maneuvers. And that is not a problem, he said, because Islam allows people, even those on the haj, to eat pork if there is no other food available.
But some of the students who had served in the military suggested that the situation is not as good as either the military officials or Yakupov claimed. One noted that officers who had served in Chechnya were openly hostile to Muslim soldiers and refused to let them pray as required.
Yakupov responded that Muslim soldiers “must show understanding to these people because they passed through hell and saw the deaths of friends.” The students responded that in their view, the military ought to ensure that the officers do not insult believers whatever their own personal experiences had been.
A human rights activist at the meeting suggested that the MSD should publish a pamphlet to be given to all Muslim soldiers specifying their rights and responsibilities while serving in the military. Yakupov said that he “supported that idea” and also calls for sending mullahs more often than now to military units where Muslims serve.
But the most interesting comment at the session came from another group of students. They proposed creating units within the military “where only Muslims would serve.” But both officers and the MSD officials said they oppose such a step because it would isolate Muslims, raise questions about their loyalty, and create more tensions.
That tensions are growing was suggested ten days ago by Sergey Fridinskiy, the chief military procurator, who said that many of the problems in the army spring from the increasing proclivity of students to organize themselves informally along ethnic, religious or regional lines (
Responding to Fridinskiy’s comment, Ravil’ Gainutdin, the head of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR), said that he was convinced that “Muslim soldiers do not have any problems in the [Russian] army,” that officers were allowing them to pray and to eat halal foods, and that the soldiers were increasingly well supplied.
On the one hand, Gainutdin’s comments simply are a defensive reaction to any suggestion that Muslims are at odds with the rest of society. But on the other, they reflect real improvements in military life, at least from the perspective of the public. (See the poll results on this at
Unfortunately, according to an article in the current issue of Nezavisimaya gazeta – Religii, Muslim soldiers do have some real problems, and Muslim leaders like Gainutdin have for a variety of reasons done relatively little to help them by intervening directly in military life on their behalf.
Unlike the arrangements the Russian defense ministry has with the Russian Orthodox Church, ties between the armed forces and Muslim groups are still on an ad hoc basis, varying from one unit to another depending on the attitudes of officers and the initiative of individual Muslim leaders.
Sergei Mel’kov, a leader of the Association of Military Political Scientists, told the paper that, as a result, “the influence of Islamic structures on state institutions and the Ministry of Defense in particular is much weaker than that of the Russian Orthodox Church.”
In the army, he continued, the Muslim leaders do not try to attach their own people to military units but rather attempt to convince officers that the latter should behave well toward Muslim troops, a reflection Mel’kov said of both their minority status and a shortage of Islamic cadres.
Indeed, the shortage of mullahs for Russian mosques is now sufficiently great that leaders of some MSDs complained after President Vladimir Putin on February 6th ended deferments for religious leaders that this would make it much harder for them to staff existing mosques let alone expand (
But as Muslims become an ever larger share of the draft pool, Muslim leaders almost certainly will have to do more to reach out to soldiers who share their faith or risk seeing more tensions and more demands for Muslim-only military units, demands that could tear the Russian army apart.

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