Friday, May 8, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Policies Pushing Russia’s Muslims toward a United ‘Front,’ Tatar Activist Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 8 – Moscow’s plan to cut the regional component in most school programs this fall is likely to lead Muslim nations within the borders of the Russian Federation to come together in a united “front” to press for the reversal of that policy through international courts and via other means, according to a leading Kazan Tatar activist.
In an interview posted online yesterday, Damir Iskhakov, a leading theoretician of the Tatar national movement, warned that the Russian government’s “harsh” insistence on taking this step will thus have “negative consequences for the state interests of Russia” and present the center with a challenge it will find hard to counter (
“I would prefer a more democratic path in which all national groups would be given greater opportunities for development, but at present, I do not see such a possibility in Russia.” And he urged the central authorities to rethink their “harsh” position before it unintentionally generates an equally “harsh” response.
Already, Iskhakov said, “there are proposals to create a federal party which would have a clearly expressed national, regional and religious component. Yes, this is banned by existing laws, but there are many ways of getting around such prohibitions,” including establishing a “Eurasian” party whose goal would be to promote the interests of national groups.
One must adopt a patient approach to the consideration of the internal situation of Russia, Iskhakov said, noting that “it isn’t too glorious and at present is obviously getting worse.” Consequently, “the activization of the most varied political forces with which the Tatars might form a bloc is possible.”
Indeed, Iskhakov argued, “the appearance of a so-called parliament and government of Tatarstan in exile is a signal which means that abroad there are sufficiently powerful forces interested in the establishment of such groups. [And] Moscow circles need to think how they will defend their state interests” in this new environment.
Given his willingness to form a “front” on a Muslim basis, Iskhakov was asked what future political Islam has in Tatarstan. He noted that “Islam is part of [Tatar] national consciousness, closely connected with identity. Many [Tatars] who consider themselves Muslim by birth are trying to give this word content,” something that he said is no quick or easy task.
But over time, he suggested, Tatars become Muslims “qualitatively different from the present-day one, and there will emerge a real Islamic umma which will recognize its own interests and rally around them. But [at the same time], the ethnic factor will not disappear. For Tatars, it exists in close relation to a religious foundation.”
Iskhakov continued by observing that as a result, “the religious foundation will acquire ever greater importance.” That will not necessarily lead to “confrontations with non-Muslims, but almost certainly it will mean that “the number of mixed marriages will be less,” because a Muslim parent will insist that children be raised in the faith.
Iskhakov’s warning is interesting for three reasons. First, it highlights just how angry many non-Russians are about the central government’s decision to reduce many of the hours devoted to local culture, history, and language in the regional school programs. Many people have complained; this is the first time someone prominent has made such a serious threat.
Second, Iskhakov’s comments suggest that the Kazan Tatars are already in close touch with other non-Russian groups, the neighboring Bashkirs and other peoples of the Middle Volga in the first instance but also with Muslim nationalities in the North Caucasus, with whom they have not had the same kind of relationship in the past.
And third, although the Kazan Tatars have long dominated Islamic institutions in what is now the Russian Federation, they have generally been extremely careful about playing any Islamic card since the 1920s when one of their co-ethnics, Sultan Galiyev, was denounced for attempting to organize what Stalin denounced as “Muslim national communism.”
Iskhakov’s argument clearly show not only that ever more Kazan Tatars are becoming more Islamic but also that they are once again prepared to use Islam as the basis for the formation of a broader political alliance, something few would have predicted as recently as a decade ago but a development that Moscow’s own heavy-handedness has helped to bring about.

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