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Tolerance and education: Euro-Islam in Russia

Reporter: Emma Griffiths

PETER CAVE: Those hoping for a calmer, brighter future for Iraq may care to look at the Russian region of Tatarstan.

It's widely seen as the centre of an emerging liberal brand of Islamic thought, dubbed "Euro-Islam".

Supporters say it preaches democracy and tolerance and this has helped this half-Muslim, half-Orthodox region become one of Russia's most prosperous.

Our Moscow Correspondent Emma Griffiths filed this report from the capital, Kazan.

(sound of call to prayers)

EMMA GRIFFITHS: In the streets of Kazan, mosques push up against casinos, Muslim women wearing the hijab stroll next to non-Muslims wearing stilettos, and Arabic is almost as common as Cyrillic text.

For the most part, there's peaceful co-existence in the city. Muslim leaders put it down to their particular take on Islam: democratic, tolerant and in favour of a secular society. It's called "Euro-Islam" and has been touted as a model for more troubled Islamic communities.

One point of pride is that every Muslim in Tatarstan has a say in who leads them, as explained by Valivalla Yuggovbov, from the Muslims of Russia Organisation.

VALIVALLA YUGGOVBOV (translated): On the lowest level simple Muslims elect their own imam. And in the regions all these imams they elect or elect a mufsharib (phonetic), that's his name, and all together sooner or later they appoint a mufti.

EMMA GRIFFITHS: He also points to another difference. According to Valivalla Yuggovbov, Muslim women in Tatarstan have more power than women in many Middle Eastern countries.

VALIVALLA YUGGOVBOV (translated): These Muslim ladies they have their own hierarchy, the well-educated ladies are called podisteys (phonetic) and they teach all the people to the special features of Islam, and thanks to that, due to that, by the beginning of the 20th century all Tatar people were well-educated. That was the result.

EMMA GRIFFITHS: But during the 70 years of Soviet rule, Islamic teachings – along with all religious thought – foundered. Only in the past decade has there been a revival, and Islam has come back to Tatarstan apace.

In that time, more than a thousand mosques have been built in the region and an Islamic university has flourished. The Muslim-dominated Government has embraced commerce, and Orthodox and Muslim residents have both felt the benefits.

But in the midst of this harmony, there are sources of discord. Money from the Persian Gulf countries flooded Tatarstan in the '90s to fund religious schools. And Tatars were found fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. Some Orthodox Russians draw on these examples of radicalism to fuel anti-Muslim sentiment.

For most Muslims here the discord arises from the day-to-day frustrations of being a minority in Russia.

Two years ago the Federal Government ordered Muslim women to remove their headscarves for their passport photos. Activists in Tatarstan successfully had order that overturned.

Still, many Muslims can't pray in their workplace nor leave on Fridays to go to mosque; and the Islamic university is only allowed to teach religious subjects.

Assistant Deputy Mufti at the university is Gabarashid Zakirov. He insists these are minor problems in a generally peaceful community. His biggest gripe is the misunderstanding about the clothing worn by Muslim women.

GABARASHID ZAKIROV (translated): Sometimes there is a certain misunderstanding. Because as you see for example our ladies should cover their body and they cannot show any part of their body except for their face and hands. But it is difficult for people to see the ladies who wear miniskirts and sometimes not cover their bodies at all.

And there are people who do not understand that Muslim women when they wear clothes that cover the whole of their body and they say that it's not normal. But as long as we live in a democratic country, if women can walk naked, so it means she can wear something else except that.

EMMA GRIFFITHS: Gabarashid Zakirov believes these problems will be overcome with a little bit of tolerance and education – the trademarks of Tatarstan's "Euro-Islam" its proponents say can work right around the world.

This is Emma Griffiths in Kazan, central Russia, for PM.

PM - Tuesday, 2 August , 2005