Friday, May 15, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Ukraine’s Muslims are Part of ‘Muslim European Community’

Paul Goble

Baku, May 15 -- “Ukraine is a European country and the Muslims of Ukraine are part of the Muslim European community,” according to the head of the Federation of Islamic Organizations of Europe (FIOE) – yet another way in which the people of Ukraine are underscoring their attachment to Europe rather than Eurasia.
During a visit to the Islamic Cultural Center in Kyiv last week, Shakib Benmakhlyuf, FIOE president, not only stressed the Europeanness of Ukraine and of Ukraine’s Muslims but “positively assessed” both the speed of Islamic rebirth there and “the public activity” of Islamic community there (
In response, Mufti Said Ismagilov, the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Ukraine, said his community would like to expand its cooperation with FIOE and that he and the Muslims of Ukraine believe that the recent adoption of the Charter of Muslims of Europe can promote more active ties among European countries.
Convinced that religious attachments can underlie cultural and political ones, the Russian government and the Moscow Patriarchate have devoted a great deal of effort to block the formation of a single autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine and its absorption of the more than 12,000 Orthodox parishes there now subordinate to Moscow.
Indeed, Patriarch Kirill has made the maintenance of his patriarchate’s control of those churches in Ukraine a centerpiece of his policy, not only for the entirely selfish reason that the departure of these parishes would leave his Russian Orthodox Church much reduced in size and influence but also because of the contribution his church makes to Moscow’s political goals.
But both because of the relatively small size of the Muslim community in Ukraine and because there is no single MSD in the Russian Federation to which Muslims in Ukraine have subordinated themselves, no one in Moscow appears to have devoted much attention to the question of Russian influence over Muslims.
That may now change, because the integration of the Muslims of Ukraine into European institutions would lessen the influence of Muslims from other parts of the former Soviet Union but also serve as a precedent Kyiv may be quick to invoke in its effort to establish a single national Orthodox church.
This latest development in Kyiv may lead to a new round of calls not by Muslims but by Russian officials for the creation of a single MSD for the Russian Federation with pretentions to unite Muslim communities in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, especially those where Muslims are minorities.
At the same time, however, any move in that direction would likely generate a reaction not only within the Russian Muslim community, many of whose members have never been entirely comfortable with the entire MSD system, which has no religious basis for existing, but also among Muslims in the other former Soviet countries.
Recent polls in Western Europe, however, have shown that Muslims there tend to be more patriotic than other citizens, and given the Islamic injunction for the faithful to support the country in which they live, efforts by Moscow to subordinate the Islamic communities of the other former Soviet republics could generate an unintended backlash.
Moreover, this assertion of the Europeanness of Ukrainian Islam may prompt Moscow officials to try to divide the Muslims of Ukraine and the other countries by playing on existing tensions between Muslim migrants from Central Asia and the South Caucasus and historically indigenous Muslim communities like the Crimean Tatars.
And finally because of the welcome Ukraine’s Muslims gave to FIOE and its assertion of the European nature of their Islam, it is entirely possible that FIOE and other Euro-Islamic groups will seek to reach out to Muslims in the former Soviet West even more than they have up to now, setting the stage for a somewhat unexpected form of the clash of civilizations.

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