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Mother Russia's Islamic revival

Tatarstan has become a test case for Russia's policy of religious co-existence, and tolerance is likely to be strictly enforced

The symbolism is striking. More than 450 years after Ivan the Terrible captured Kazan and tore down the mosque in the city's citadel, a huge new mosque dominates the skyline of the Kremlin in Tatarstan's capital.

With a turquoise dome and eight marble minarets, the Kul Sharif mosque can accommodate 1,500 people and is the largest in Europe. It was built in only nine years on the foundations of the old Tatar mosque and opened in 2005 to celebrate the city's 1,000th anniversary. There could be no clearer message: in post-Soviet Russia, Islam is back in force.

Russia has 21 million Muslims, four times more than any other European country. For 80 years, during the communist era, Islam was suppressed and its followers persecuted, as were Christians and other religious groups. Mosques were destroyed and only four official Muslim directorates were allowed to function for the entire Soviet Union — which then included a further 40 million Muslims in Central Asia. Tatarstan, one of the two main Muslim areas peopled by the descendents of the Golden Horde who swept into Russia from the East centuries ago, had only a handful of mosques, and no official Muslim directorate.

Since the collapse of communism, religion has seen an extraordinary revival. There are now more than 1,200 mosques in the autonomous republic, with 50 in the city of Kazan. Ethnic Russians, who account for almost half the population, have also been building and restoring churches and monasteries: in the forests on the outskirts of Kazan, Raif monastery is now a thriving community of monks in a cluster of ancient churches and monastic buildings that Stalin filled with political prisoners and that later became a borstal for young offenders.

Tatarstan is also a test case for religious co-existence. Islam is resurgent, and the murmurings of nationalist sentiment are not far below the surface. On the collapse of communism, Tatar leaders, like those in Chechnya, pushed for independence, but were bought off with promises of greater autonomy and by the huge rise in oil revenue. The Kremlin now sees Tatarstan as an example to trumpet abroad of a moderate Muslim establishment that works in happy tandem with Russian Orthodoxy and with the secular government in Moscow.

Moderation, however, is still under threat. Under communism, there were no proper training schools for the hundreds of muftis, imams and religious officials needed to revive Islam, and so in the early 1990s many young Tatars were sent abroad — to Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — to study. The result was a disaster. They returned as young Savonarolas, denouncing local practices as unIslamic and demanding the kind of puritanical version of Islam they had encountered among jihadists in the Middle East.

“When they came back, they were not allowed to preach but were put into ‘quarantine',” Gusman Khazrat, chairman of the Muslim Board, recently told The Times and other Western correspondents. “When we saw they they were OK, they were allowed to become imams.”

More recently, danger has come from another quarter. The conflict in Chechnya and the extremist ideas now sweeping the southern Caucasus are reflected in dozens of radical websites that are increasingly influential among young Muslims in Russia. While admitting the spread of jihadist ideas, Mufti Khazrat said that Tatar Muslims are, by nature, more moderate, and that those who join sects soon leave. “These ideas are not welcome among Tatars,” he insisted. Nevertheless, to guard against subversion, he says that preachers coming from the south are requested to speak Russian so that everyone — including, presumably, the authorities — knows what they say in their sermons.

However much he and Archbishop Anastassy of Kazan and Tatarstan strove to demonstrate their harmony by appearing together at a press conference, Islam and Christianity have not always sat easily together in this part of Russia. And on one issue they are agreed that there can be no compromise: mixed marriages. Both deplored unions that posed problems for the couples' families, as each religion insists that any children should be brought up in its own faith. “This can be a painful process,” the Archbishop said. The mufti agreed, citing the dangers of hypocrisy when a mixed-marriage couple tried to satisfy the different religious requirements when visiting their parental families. “We have to be cautious, especially when missionaries come here. There was a case of one woman who changed her religion ten times”.

Women's rights are also an issue where Muslim moderation is being tested. There is growing pressureon Tatar women to wear the hijab. Mufti Khazrat said that women were better at transmitting Muslim values to the next generation than men, and were therefore doubly welcome back into the Muslim community. They were welcome, he said, to have separate cafés. But he avoided the issue of veils. “If a woman knows her rights in the Koran, she will feel stronger”.

The religious revival in Russia has strong encouragement from the top. President Putin, who makes much of his display of faith and reverence for the Russian Orthodox church, told correspondents that religion was an essential element to Russia's spiritual revival. “We have developed into a multi-faith country and for centuries we have co-existed in harmony,” he said. “In a proper way this interaction could be very useful to help solidify our country. If mistakes are made, it could very negative consequences”. Tolerance, he suggested, is not only welcome, it will be strictly enforced.

Michael Binyon

The Times, October 20, 2007