Russia’s Knotty Policies On Islam, Mirrored In Trial

June 2, 2009

Author: Michael Schwirtz

Source: The New York Times

Almaz Khasanov stood up to a microphone in the green-painted cage where he and his co-defendants sit and made a statement that sent a wave of anxiety through the cramped courtroom here.

“I am a member of the political party, Hizbut Tahrir,” he said in prepared testimony. “The goal of this organization is the creation of an Islamic way of life, including the creation of an Islamic Caliphate.”

Mr. Khasanov is a self-styled religious revolutionary who has vowed to challenge the longstanding way of life here in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, an ancient Muslim region deep in Russia’s heartland.

He is on trial along with 11 others, accused of membership in a terrorist organization and of fomenting plots to violently overthrow the government. Most of the men deny belonging to the group, and their friends and human rights advocates say that the Russian police and intelligence agents used torture to extract false evidence in the case.

By contrast, Mr. Khasanov freely admits to being a member of Hizbut Tahrir and insists that it should be his right. While Hizbut Tahrir has been banned as a terrorist organization in Russia and most of the other countries of the former Soviet Union, it has sworn off violence as a means of achieving its goals. It is allowed to operate in the United States and most of the European Union, though typically under intense scrutiny.

Nevertheless, many people here, Muslim and Russian Orthodox alike, are unsettled by the unabashed fundamentalism of Hizbut Tahrir, which preaches a pre-modern theology that is generally incompatible with Western notions of civil society. In that sense, the trial has underscored the country’s broader ambivalence toward its Muslim minority.

Though historically Muslim, Kazan, a city on the Volga River about 500 miles east of Moscow, has been shaped more by its confluence of cultures than by any one social current. Crescent-topped minarets compete with gilt Orthodox cupolas and bland Soviet high-rises for prominence in the city’s skyline, though shopping malls, boutique hotels, bars and nightclubs also appear striking.

The Tatar Muslims here, who have lived under Moscow’s control since Ivan the Terrible wrested the region from the Mongol Empire in the 16th century, appear little different from their Russian neighbors in their secular dress and penchant for chilled vodka.

Yet an influx of conservative ideas from abroad, officials and religious leaders say, is beginning to undermine local traditions and could even threaten the stability of the region.

But all the defendants on trial, their relatives and many experts on Islam in Russia deny this.

It is still unclear what level of involvement, if any, each of the other men had in Hizbut Tahrir. Many of their relatives denied that they were members at all. Rather, they said the men, mostly students, were being persecuted for studying and proselytizing Islam outside official religious structures.

“These are educated people — some have two degrees — and they were interested in different currents of Islam,” said Gulnaza Faisulina, whose husband is on trial. “They are seeking philosophical thoughts, and not all the religious leaders are capable of providing this.”

Valiulla Yakupov, a deputy mufti of the government-backed Muslim Religious Board of the Republic of Tatarstan, agreed that the Muslim establishment had not responded to the interests and desires of young Muslims.

“These people have been jailed for their ideas, not for their actions,” he said. “If I and other religious figures worked with them more actively and explained things to them, this most likely would not have happened.”

Inevitably, the trial has reflected Russia’s often contradictory policies toward Muslims, who number between 15 million and 20 million out of an overall population of 140 million. The authorities have promoted the construction of mosques and religious schools, and Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, while president, lobbied the government of Saudi Arabia to increase quotas on Russian Muslims permitted to take part in the annual hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca.