Thursday, September 30, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Tatarstan’s New State Holidays Highlight Kazan’s Tilt toward Islam

Paul Goble

Staunton, September 30 – With the Tatarstan State Council’s decision last week to make both the Day of the Acceptance of Islam and Uraza-Bayram official holidays, the number of republic holidays linked to Islam now exceeds secular ones there three to two, a measure of the growing importance of Islam in that Middle Volga republic.
In a comment on this trend, A.Yu. Khabutdinov, a professor of the Kazan branch of the Russian Academy of Jurisprudence, provides details on how this remarkable development came about and about what it means and equally doesn’t mean for the Muslims of Tatarstan and of the Russian Federation more generally (
On September 23, he notes, the Tatarstan State council approved two new holidays for the republic which will be days off for most residents: the Day of the Official Adoption of Islam by Volga Bulgaria in 922 and the Muslim Uraza-Bayram holiday. Kurban Bayram had already been a state holiday since the 1990s.
But now that there are three Muslim-related republic holidays, the Kazan scholar continues, they outnumber the two “secular” ones – the Day of the Republic which is also celebrated in Kazan as the Day of the City and the Day of the Constitution of the Republic of Tatarstan.
In the 1990s, Khabutdinov recalls, Tatar leaders sought to declare the day of the Russian occupation of Kazan in October 1552 a state holiday, a holiday that would have commemorated a national defeat in much the say way that the Soviet calendar included such “black dates” as the fall of the Paris commune in 1871.
But the supporters of this idea failed. They were not even able to erect a monument to the defenders of Kazan in 1552 under that city’s Kremlin or, an equally passionate cause among Kazan Tatar nationalists at the time, a monument to the founder of the Kazan khanate, Olug Muhammad.
Thus, Khabutdinov says, in the 1990s, the Tatars focused on national symbols. But “in the first decade of the 2000s, the basic accent was shifted to the religious component,” with the opening of the Kul-Sharif mosque in the Kazan Kremlin and the celebration of Russia’s entrance into the Organization of the Islamic Conference as an observer.
The next shift came the spring of 2010 when, already under the current Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov, the question was raised about how Tatarstan should respond to the new federal holiday, the Day of the Baptism of Rus, and many Tatars argued that Kazan should adopt the Day of the Adoption of Islam.
Up until that time, religious organizations like the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Tatarstan had been the chief advocates of such a move. “However,” Khabutdinov notes, “none of these institutions has the right to propose legislation.” That came from the Tatarstan State Council which on June 9 proposed that the Russian Duma take that step.
At that time, Mintimir Shaymiyev, the former president of the republic and current state advisor, said that “if the State Duma rejects the initiative of the State council then the parliament of Tatarstan can establish this day as a memorial day in the republic,” a prescient description of what in fact happened.
The problem Moscow faced in this regard was two-fold. On the one hand, many Russians objected to the idea that there should be any but an Orthodox holiday of this kind. And on the other, the Muslim communities of the country are divided as to when a holiday commemorating the adoption of Islam should take place.
Daghestani scholars and officials insisted that Islam arrived in their republic in 642, much earlier than in the arrival of Islam in the Middle Volga. Intriguingly, Khabutdinov says, the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) backed the Tatars, arguing that the Muslims in the Caucasus did not have a state at the time but “the Bulgars did.”
Other Muslims in the Russian Federation don’t agree with the SMR’s logic and continue to present “their own particular history” separately in contrast to what the Tatar leadership had hoped for. But that is far from the most important consequence of what the Tatarstan State Council did last week, Khabutdinov says.
“From the end of the 1980s” until last week, he writes, “the Kazan khanate was considered the symbol of the unity of the Tatar nation” -- even though many Tatar nationalists of a century ago had extremely negative views about that political institution. But now, the nation’s “golden age” is the epoch of the Volga or Volga-Kama Bulgaria and its adoption of Islam.
That change in the understanding of the past both reflects and is certain to have an impact on the nature of Tatar national identity and nationalism in the future, a fact far more important than the appearance of yet another “religious” rather than “secular” “red day” on the calendars of the people of that Middle Volga republic.

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