Non-ex­is­tent Is­lamism:

How the Krem­lin pro­pa­ganda is af­fect­ing Ukrainian Mus­lims

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Mykhailo Yakubovych

How the Krem­lin pro­pa­ganda is af­fect­ing Ukrainian Mus­lims

"Is­lam is a very dif­fi­cult line of work," said the KGB agent in a 1990s com­edy. Strangely, th­ese words from an al­ready for­got­ten Rus­sian film turned out to be al­most prophetic for Is­lam through­out the post-Soviet space. It is no se­cret that Mus­lims are per­ceived to be some­what dif­fer­ent to fol­low­ers of other re­li­gions: the at­ti­tude to­wards them is much more sus­pi­cious and this is a trend that has been around for many years. More lib­eral Mus­lims will ar­gue that all this is the re­sult of false stereo­types and bi­ases: "Is­lam is not like that", "Is­lam means salam, which is peace". Those more rad­i­cal will quote the Ko­ranic "And never will the Jews or the Chris­tians ap­prove of you un­til you fol­low their re­li­gion" (Qur'an 2:120). Re­gard­less of who is right, a woman in a hi­jab (or es­pe­cially in a niqab) will be per­ceived dif­fer­ently to how she would be with­out this gar­ment, while a bearded man with an "east­ern ac­cent" will be looked at dif­fer­ently to any typ­i­cal Euro­pean. This is the re­al­ity of the mod­ern Western world that has been formed over many years. I re­mem­ber when I was in a small town in Bavaria in May, I was


once asked if I was scared to walk the streets at night, be­cause, as they say, it is full of im­mi­grants. I jok­ingly replied in the neg­a­tive, be­cause the gangs in dark al­leys speak ex­clu­sively in Ara­bic, which I know well.


In Ukraine, the topic of the Is­lamic threat has ac­quired some­what new mean­ings. How­ever, al­beit sur­pris­ingly, they are not re­lated so much to global trends (we, like all Euro­peans, are hor­ri­fied by ISIS), as they are to our, post-Soviet ones. We have cer­tain ul­tra-right forces that like to pro­mote a pho­bia of mi­grants. Telling of that were the protests against the con­struc­tion of a shel­ter for il­le­gal im­mi­grants in Ya­ho­tyn, Kyiv Oblast. How­ever, this seems funny more than any­thing be­cause it is prob­a­bly not worth be­ing afraid of mi­grants in a coun­try that mil­lions of cit­i­zens leave to work abroad (in­ci­den­tally, the pres­ence of Mus­lims on the streets of Euro­pean cities does not stop them).

We can also look back on our his­tory: 10 years ago, in the still Ukrainian Crimea, the prob­lem of Is­lamists was also hyped up. Then, lo­cal com­mu­nists, rep­re­sented by Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment Leonid Hrach, talked about "Wah­habi bases", the press was hor­ri­fied about how "the Tatars will slaugh­ter the Slavs" and news about land taken over by Crimean Tatars were reg­u­larly sen­sa­tion­alised. In Ukraine, al­most ev­ery city has land that some­one has il­le­gally seized, taken over or "snatched", but this was only men­tioned from time to time. How­ever, the Crimean Tatars were spo­ken about con­stantly. In 2009, there was even a high-pro­file case on the penin­sula that ex­posed an al­leged or­gan­i­sa­tion un­der the scary name Tak­fir wal-Hi­jra (Anath­ema and Ex­ile). Para­dox­i­cally, mem­bers of the move­ment Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Is­lami (Is­lamic Party of Lib­er­a­tion), re­pres­sions against which in Rus­sia are of­ten talked about to­day in our me­dia, came un­der pres­sure from Ukrainian in­tel­li­gence ser­vices. Few know this, but in Ukraine there are two Is­lamic books that one of our courts recog­nised as "ex­trem­ist" a few years ago. Of course, com­par­ing the level of at­ten­tion our law-en­force­ment bod­ies pay to Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties with that in Rus­sia or other coun­tries of the for­mer USSR is point­less, be­cause the level of re­li­gious free­dom in Ukraine is rel­a­tively high, all the more so be­cause in many cases the sever­ity of the law is off­set by its non-en­force­ment.

Af­ter 2014, when Vik­tor Yushchenko's al­most-for­got­ten state­ment that "Crimean Tatars are the only true Ukraini­ans in Crimea" took on a new mean­ing with their crit­i­cal po­si­tion re­gard­ing Rus­sia’s oc­cu­pa­tion of the penin­sula, a cer­tain "pro-Is­lamic sen­ti­ment" came to light. Re­cently, the Day of Re­mem­brance for the De­por­ta­tion of the Crimean Tatar Peo­ple has be­gun to be widely com­mem­o­rated, var­i­ous me­dia lament the crimes com­mit­ted on the penin­sula by the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion, much is writ­ten about the Crimean Tatars and in gen­eral con­sid­er­able in­ter­est in this sub­ject is shown. Above all, this is the po­si­tion of the gov­ern­ment.

The anal­y­sis of the 2014 de­vel­op­ments show clearly who and for what rea­son main­tained a "level of ten­sion" in Crimea and who wanted the de­mon­i­sa­tion of the Crimean Tatars. The Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion played the anti-Tatar card to mo­bilise the pro-Rus­sian part of the penin­sula's pop­u­la­tion. Now, in the con­text of oc­cu­pa­tion, this move re­mains ef­fec­tive.

At the for­eign pol­icy level, Rus­sia has been keep­ing quiet about the con­flict, so that noth­ing, good or bad, would be said about Crimea at all ("the sta­tus of Crimea is not up for dis­cus­sion"). Mean­while, mes­sages for in­ter­nal au­di­ences are broad­cast on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. From the very be­gin­ning of the ag­gres­sion, Rus­sia di­rected ef­forts to­wards dis­cred­it­ing the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar peo­ple, their high­est rep­re­sen­ta­tive body, as well

as all groups that could not find a place in the new Crimean re­al­ity. Rus­sian me­dia ac­cused mi­grants who left for the Ukrainian main­land for re­li­gious rea­sons of ex­trem­ism, ter­ror­ism, aid­ing ISIS and so on. The En­ergy Block­ade of 2015-2016 is an­other in­ter­est­ing topic: the Rus­sian press wrote ev­ery­thing un­der the sun about Asker group of Lenur Is­lamov, Crimean Tatar busi­ness­man (the group was ac­tively in­volved in the or­ga­ni­za­tion of the block­ade) try­ing to drill it into the minds of or­di­nary Rus­sians that "on the other side" – the Ukrainian one, that is – "Is­lamic ex­trem­ists" are fight­ing along­side Amer­i­can mer­ce­nar­ies in the Don­bas.


Re­cently a new trend has emerged. When, the "Don­estk Peo­ple’s Repub­lic” au­thor­i­ties ar­rested well­known Ukrainian re­li­gious scholar Ihor Ko­zlovskyi in 2016 (he is still in de­ten­tion), one of the ex­pla­na­tions pro­vided by "Sec­re­tary of the DPR Se­cu­rity Coun­cil" Olek­siy Kho­dakovskyi was Ko­zlovskyi's alledged at­tempt to in­spire a "rad­i­cal Mus­lim up­ris­ing" in the "DPR".

Over the past two years, sev­eral Is­lamic com­mu­ni­ties linked to the so-called Habashites (a Neo-Sufi group) and Mad­hal­ists (a kind of Salafism), have had their op­er­a­tions sus­pended in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries. Mean­while, some con­tro­ver­sial char­ac­ters ap­peared, such as the "Mufti of the Donetsk Peo­ple's Repub­lic" Ri­nat Aisin, or the "War Mufti of the Don­bas" (self-ti­tled), Tanai Kholkhanov. Over the past few months, a se­ries of ar­ti­cles was pub­lished in the pa­tri­otic (read, na­tional-chau­vin­is­tic) Rus­sian press on the "crim­i­nal plan" of Turkey and the Kyiv au­thor­i­ties to unite Ukrainian Mus­lims against the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion. Some of th­ese texts even "mi­grated" to the fairly lib­eral pub­li­ca­tions such as No­vaya Gazeta. For ex­am­ple, a July piece en­ti­tled "The Mejlis In­tends to Unify Mus­lims" talks about how, with the sup­port of Turkey, the Ukrainian "Mus­lim Broth­er­hood" is plan­ning to build a mosque in or­der to "neu­tralise" the in­flu­ence of the Spir­i­tual Direc­torate of Mus­lims of Ukraine, which con­trols the Ar-Rahma mosque lo­cated in Kyiv. This mosque – as was cov­ered more openly in other ar­ti­cles – is de­scribed as a fu­ture "breed­ing ground for ex­trem­ism". The fact that a sim­i­lar Mus­lim tem­ple was con­structed with the same sup­port from Turkey and cer­e­mo­ni­ously opened in Au­gust 2015 in Moscow and in De­cem­ber 2016 in Minsk ("Ortho­dox athe­ist" Lukashenko even took part in Mus­lim prayer) does not bother Rus­sian pro­pa­gan­dists. The Ukrainian Mus­lims are not al­lowed to do this, es­pe­cially those be­long­ing to or­ga­ni­za­tions with an ac­tive pro-Ukrainian po­si­tion or those who left Crimea be­cause of their mem­ber­ship in po­lit­i­cal move­ments that do not agree with the pres­ence of the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion on the penin­sula.

The mufti of the Ummah Spir­i­tual Direc­torate of Mus­lims of Ukraine, Said Is­mahilov (forced to leave his na­tive Donetsk and move to Kyiv in Septem­ber 2014), also came un­der a bar­rage of Rus­sian crit­i­cism, as did other ac­tivists in the Crimean Tatar move­ment, par­tic­i­pants in the Euro­Maidan and ATO, as well as the

Mus­lims from Rus­sia who bade farewell to their home­land and found refuge in Ukraine. Un­for­tu­nately, some Ukrainian me­dia that con­tinue to be held in the grip of the Rus­sian me­dia scene of­ten re­lay th­ese pho­bias. In the per­cep­tion of the Crimean Tatars, even to­day Is­lam­o­pho­bic trends are still far from ex­tinct in the press of cer­tain oblasts (for ex­am­ple, Kher­son in South­ern Ukraine). There is a good rea­son why a poll re­cently con­ducted by the Razumkov Cen­tre, a na­tion­wide so­ci­ol­ogy group, shows that al­most one in five res­i­dents of the south of Ukraine neg­a­tively per­ceives Mus­lims and Is­lam as a whole.

As the mod­ern Crimean Tatar move­ment re­mains lib­eral na­tion­al­ism (mainly of a sec­u­lar type), Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda about it is also based on a cer­tain level of ethno­pho­bia. Mean­while, the Ukrainian For­eign Min­istry and other state bod­ies make state­ments about the per­se­cu­tion of Crimean Tatars by the oc­cu­py­ing au­thor­i­ties in Crimea. Yet, they have to keep in mind that a po­ten­tial con­flict is quite pos­si­ble in Ukraine: its so­ci­ety can be vul­ner­a­ble to scan­dals stirred up out of noth­ing, es­pe­cially in the con­text of fu­ture pres­i­den­tial and par­lia­men­tary elec­tion cam­paigns.


Some­what strange sit­u­a­tions are aris­ing around the re­li­gious lead­er­ship of Crimean Tatars. The spir­i­tual ad­min­is­tra­tion of the Mus­lims of Crimea has long been re-reg­is­tered un­der Rus­sian law and in ef­fect op­er­ates as a typ­i­cal re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tion of the Rus­sian Fed­era- tion (also com­ing out with anti-Ukrainian state­ments). But just as with the Crimean com­mu­ni­ties of the Ukrainian Ortho­dox Church, Moscow Pa­tri­ar­chate, no­body in Ukraine has ini­ti­ated a law­suit to re­move the sep­a­ratists' reg­is­tra­tion. The mo­tive is clear: Rus­sia will im­me­di­ately use this in its favour and state­ments will be is­sued (in­clud­ing on the in­ter­na­tional level) that Ukraine is re­fus­ing to sup­port the Crimean Tatars and even per­se­cutes those who wel­come "re­uni­fi­ca­tion with Rus­sia". But there is an­other path for Ukraine – to form an al­ter­na­tive. Such an al­ter­na­tive, namely, the Spir­i­tual Ad­min­is­tra­tion of the Mus­lims of Crimea, based in Kyiv, is about to be reg­is­tered with the Min­istry of Cul­ture of Ukraine. This process has been de­layed for var­i­ous rea­sons.

The same ap­plies to the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Pres­i­dent of Ukraine in the Crimea, which is lo­cated in Kher­son: ac­cord­ing to the Crimean Tatar ac­tivists who have been protest­ing for a month next to its premises, this in­sti­tu­tion has not jus­ti­fied it­self over three years of op­er­a­tion and demon­strated com­plete in­ac­tion, there­fore it they de­mand an im­me­di­ate change of its lead­er­ship. In re­sponse, the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Pres­i­dent ac­cused the ac­tivists of at­tempt­ing to seize the premises by force, so the con­flict is con­tin­u­ing. No mat­ter who is right, this sit­u­a­tion re­quires some sort of so­lu­tion. Like many other de­oc­cu­pa­tion strate­gies con­nected with Crimea and Crimean Tatars.

In the past few months (this in­for­ma­tion was al­ready in the press, although it did not draw a wide­spread re­sponse), at least two mosques in Ukraine, namely in Sumy and Zhy­to­myr, have been searched by law en­force­ment agen­cies. In the first case, they were look­ing for lit­er­a­ture, the sec­ond was linked to crim­i­nal pro­ceed­ings al­leg­ing that an "uniden­ti­fied per­son is prop­a­gat­ing ha­tred in the mosque". Weapons were not found, but some Is­lamic books were seized for ex­am­i­na­tion (who did this and whether it was done at all is un­clear). Among the seized lit­er­a­ture (in­ci­den­tally, files on the search were pro­vided to the imam of the mosque) were com­pletely neu­tral pub­li­ca­tions, in­clud­ing a par­tial trans­la­tion of the Qur'an into Ukrainian, ac­com­pa­nied by in­ter­pre­ta­tions. Ban­ning lit­er­a­ture in the in­ter­net era may seem anachro­nis­tic to some of our read­ers, but this is pos­si­ble in the post-Soviet space. For ex­am­ple, in Rus­sia pro­hib­ited books can be planted in a "dis­loyal" mosque and be used to start a crim­i­nal case for ex­trem­ism. This is ex­actly what is done – in par­tic­u­lar, in the oc­cu­pied Crimea. Will a sim­i­lar thing hap­pen here too? We hope not, although some Mus­lim groups in Ukraine have long been try­ing to brand their op­po­nents as ex­trem­ists. It is good that the au­thor­i­ties do not pay too much at­ten­tion to this.

On the one hand, it is a purely in­ter­nal af­fair for Is­lam, where some re­li­gious move­ments crit­i­cise oth­ers. How­ever, un­for­tu­nately, this ul­ti­mately af­fects all Mus­lims with­out ex­cep­tion, be­cause an av­er­age cit­i­zen will not un­der­stand who is part of which com­mu­nity. Be­cause if some­one in a tur­ban said that al­most ev­ery­one here is an ex­trem­ist, then maybe that is the truth, many will think. In re­la­tion to Is­lam, there is no­tice­able se­lec­tiv­ity: what is al­lowed to be said from the Ortho­dox church pul­pit can­not be said in a mosque.

When cer­tain Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties spread lit­er­a­ture that states in no un­cer­tain terms that Ukraine does not ex­ist, only a "united Rus­sia" with its cen­tre in Moscow, this does not stoke such re­sent­ment as it would in Mus­lim lit­er­a­ture. An av­er­age cit­i­zen per­ceives ag­gres­sion in canon­i­cal-ortho­dox lit­er­a­ture as an ex­cep­tion, whereas in Is­lamic writ­ing, it is al­most seen as a rule. Vig­i­lance to­wards em­i­grants or peo­ple who may be truly af­fil­i­ated with ISIS is nec­es­sary, but, as prac­tice shows, they are of­ten not looked for in the right place.

One other fact is that af­ter the loss of op­por­tu­ni­ties to ac­tively trade with Rus­sia, many of Ukrainian en­ter­prises have re­ori­ented to­wards the Mid­dle East and are al­most queu­ing up in or­der to get "ha­lal" sta­tus (cer­ti­fy­ing that prod­ucts are suit­able for con­sump­tion ac­cord­ing to the re­quire­ments of Is­lam), which is ba­si­cally equal to per­mis­sion to ex­port goods to Mus­lim coun­tries. As Larysa Pol­ishchuk, vice-pres­i­dent of Ukrha­lal, the Ukrainian Ha­lal In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion, re­ports, a Ukrainian state stan­dard in this area is be­ing de­vel­oped. Mid­dle East­ern in­vestors are also in­ter­ested in Ukraine, and if Is­lam­o­pho­bic sen­ti­ments sud­denly be­come a trend, our busi­nesses will not re­ceive their in­vest­ments.

When Ukrainian of­fi­cials say that the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion is pri­ori­tis­ing "rock­ing the boat" over full-on ag­gres­sion to un­der­mine Ukraine, they are very close to the truth: in this way, we will never be able to form a more or less clear and con­sis­tent view on the "East­ern" top­ics that are ex­tremely rel­e­vant to us.


A wave of re­pres­sion. Crimean Tatar re­li­gious ac­tors are fac­ing tough pres­sure from the oc­cu­pa­tion au­thor­i­ties in Crimea

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