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Ukraine: Crimea's Tatars -- Clearing The Way For Islamic Extremism? (Part 4)

  • Askold Krushelnycky --> Crimean Tatars traditionally practice a moderate form of Islam. But there are fears that ethnic tensions between Tatars and Russians in Crimea could provide fertile ground for fundamentalism to take root. RFE/RL looks at how the Crimean Tatars have tried to stop that from happening.

Sinferopol, Ukraine; 26 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Crimean Tatars' main mosque on the peninsula is right in the heart of the old part of the Crimean capital, Simferopol.

It is the poorest section of the city. The houses are dilapidated and most of the area does not have a proper sewage system. Cars drive warily through streets riddled with potholes. Above the noise, the call to Friday prayer rings out through loudspeakers on the mosque's minaret.

In centuries past, when the peninsula was ruled by a Crimean Tatar khan loosely allied with the Turkish sultan, there were 21,000 mosques. After the Russian empire invaded and annexed Crimea in the 18th century, the number of mosques began to decline. By 1944 -- the year Stalin ordered the deportation of all Crimean Tatars to Central Asia -- the number of mosques had dropped to just 1,700.

Since then, under the influence of first the Soviet Union and then post-Soviet Ukraine, many of those remaining buildings have also been destroyed, or converted for other purposes, such as storage depots. Adzi Ablaev says only about 160 mosques are now functioning and many of those are in poor condition.

Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, around 260,000 survivors of the deportation and their descendants have returned from exile, mostly in Uzbekistan. The Ukrainian government pledged the returnees land, financial help and the return of cultural sites such as mosques. But local authorities, many of whom are ethnic Russians, have been slow to deliver on the promises.

Many ethnic Russians and their political leaders openly resent the return of the Tatars and accuse them of wanting more than their fair share. They also accuse the Tatars of seeking to eventually form an independent Islamic Crimean state. Brawls between Russian and Tatar youths are frequent. There have been tense standoffs between crowds of Tatar protesters and police. Earlier this year police opened fire above the heads of one such crowd.

Most of the Tatar men are officially unemployed. Among the younger men, there is a smoldering anger that has often been barely controlled by their elders.

Many of the ingredients here seem dangerously similar to the volatile cocktail of frustration and prejudice that turned into violence and civil war in former Yugoslavia or the Middle East.

And Muslim missionaries preaching a stricter form of Islam than the more liberal version traditionally practiced by Crimean Tatars have been visiting Crimea in the hope of winning converts. The missionaries, usually from rich Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, have ragged full beards and their wives and daughters are covered and veiled from head to toe. It is a distinct contrast to the Western look of most Crimean Tatar men and women.

Mustafa Dzhemilev heads the largest Crimean Tatar organization, the Mejlis. He said Crimean Tatar Islam is similar to the moderate brand practiced in Turkey where there is a separation between religion and the secular state. But he said that stricter forms, notably the Wahabbism of Saudi Arabia, is being preached by missionaries from the Middle East who have plenty of money to build mosques and set up religious education establishments.

Dzhemilev said such efforts have had only limited success in convincing Tatars to convert to a stricter form of Islam which, among other things, teaches adherence to Koranic law. "Concerning radical Islamic organizations, there have certainly been people appearing here who we would not call radicals, but who we would say are practicing a form of Islam that is not traditional for Crimean Tatars," he said.

A few years ago, around 30 small Tatar settlements that had received financial aid from Wahabbis accepted clergymen preaching the more radical form of Islam. Dzhemilev said the Mejlis was able to persuade many of the settlements to return to a more moderate form of Islam. But he warns that the longer young Crimean Tatars feel frustrated by their poverty, the more attractive radical Islam -- and possibly extremist violence -- will look.

"Brochures of a provocative nature have appeared which say things like Muslims don't have to obey laws if the head of the state is not a Muslim. So what does that mean? That I should not obey Ukrainian law? That is provocation designed to spark a conflict. Fortunately, we are able to keep such things under control for the moment," Dzhemilev said.

Mufti Emirali Adzi Ablaev, Crimea's senior Muslim clergyman, also said the Wahabbis have failed to make a significant impact in Crimea. He said he is confident that more extremist strains of Islam will not take root on the peninsula. "It [Wahabbism] was artificial. Our nation, our ancestors never had those trends, those sects and they won't have them now," he said. "I'm 100 percent certain that they will not take hold here. And if they do exist here, then we have the state and law-enforcement bodies whose task is to take care of such things. But in our system, among our people, such ideologies and ideas have never been present and never will be. That's why I'm not worried."

He said that the only effect the Wahabbis had was to cause temporary splits among Muslims in Crimea, and he blamed that for causing divisions in the broader Muslim world.

The mufti said Crimean Tatars have opened nine madrasahs, or religious schools, on the peninsula and their curriculum is open to inspection by the authorities to show there is no radical content.

(This is Part 4 of a five-part series. See also:

Crimea's Tatars -- A Return To A Homeland Burdened By Ethnic Divisions (Part 1)

Crimea's Tatars -- For Russian Settlers, Resentment And Anger (Part 2)

Crimea's Tatars -- Mustafa Dzhemilev: Hero, Leader, Statesman (Part 3)

Crimea's Tatars -- Uneasy Relations With Russian Cossacks (Part 5))