Friday, March 21, 2008

Window on Eurasia: More Religious Tatars Likely to Be More Nationalist, Poll Finds

Paul Goble

Baku, March 21 – Kazan Tatars who are observant Muslims are more likely to support a nationalist agenda for their republic than are their co-ethnics who are not, a pattern that could under certain conditions, one scholar argues, open the way for the politicization of Islam and the Islamization of politics in that Middle Volga land.
That is the conclusion Kazan-based historian E.D. Ponarin offers in the latest issue of Zvezda Povolzh’ya on the basis of a recent poll of 400 Kazan Tatars and his review of the interaction of religion and nationalism across the Middle Volga since 1991 (
The Kazan Institute of the History of Tatarstan recently surveyed 400 Kazan Tatars concerning the level of their religious activity and their attitudes on certain policies. According to Ponarin, it found that “those Tatars who pray regularly to a greater degree identify themselves with their republic and to a lesser degree with Russia.”
“In particular,” he said, the poll showed that the more religiously active Tatars are “more inclined to support the right of their republic to have its own constitution, whose provisions would be different from those in the federal document” and, in another indication of nationalist attitudes, are less supportive of inter-ethnic marriages.
These findings are intriguing enough, but Ponarin provides them as part of a broader investigation into the question of whether the people of Tatarstan and other Muslim republics in the Middle Volga might at some point in the future turn to radical Islam in order to advance their political agendas.
Because the Middle Volga region has been among the most stable in the Russian Federation and because both traditional Islam there and the “Euro-Islam” some Kazan officials have promoted is among the most moderate form of the faith, most observers, in Ponarin’s words, view that development as “highly unlikely.”
He agrees that the traditional causes of Islamist radicalism are not present now and are unlikely to be, but he suggests, in the course of a detailed survey of the interaction of politics and religion in Tatarstan and its neighbors over the past 20 years that there are other factors which could come into play and lead to that outcome.
Among the most important of these factors, he says, is the impact of economic inequality on the population, “the dissemination of radical ideas coming from the Middle East,” competition between various Muslim leaders over “access to power and money,” and “the policy of the leadership” of the republics there.
Ponarin’s comments on each of these are instructive, but his observations about the last point are particularly important. He argues that both the Tatar nationalist movement in the past and the Tatar government now have sought to use Islam as an ally rather than be informed by it and allow it to play a stabilizing role.
As result of that instrumentalist approach, he says, both these groups have opened the way to the politicization and hence ultimate radicalization of Islam much as did Sultan Galiyev and the so-called “Muslim national communists” nearly a century ago at the start of the Soviet period.
And he concludes, in a passage worthy of being quoted at length, that “the union of opposition nationalists and religious radicals at the level of the elites is coming reality in Tatarstan.” More seriously, “this union has the potential to attract popular support” as well as the backing from ostensibly “loyal” figures in Kazan.
If economic conditions deteriorate, Ponarin says, “then the situation on the local political scene could change in significant ways,” pushing the Middle Volga in a direction like that of the North Caucasus where “religious fundamentalism” has replaced “civic nationalism” because of poverty.
This danger, the possibility that “the single alternative ideology of mobilization is Islamic fundamentalism,” leaves the current government of Mintimir Shaimiyev with little choice but to support “the general line of President Putin,” Ponarin says.
But “the political vacuum” Shaimiyev and his associates have created, the Kazan historian says, may very well mean that his successors will either fall victim to such fundamentalism or more likely seek to exploit it in ways that will constitute an even more serious challenge to Moscow’s rule.

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