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Islamic Organizations and Challenges in Crimea:
An Interview with Dr. Alexander Bogomolov

By Laryssa Chomiak and Waleed Ziad

The interview with Dr. Bogomolov, President of the Association of Middle East Studies in Kyiv, Ukraine, was conducted as part of a larger research project on Ukraine's Crimean Tatars and their relations with the Ukrainian government. Dr. Bogomolov recently published a study on political Islam in Ukraine and is a leading scholar on Muslim minorities in Ukraine. His expertise on the history of Ukrainian Muslims as well as current developments in both Ukraine and Crimea provided crucial background information for our research project on conflict prevention and political inclusion.

Question: Can you provide us with a brief overview of trends in political activity among Muslim populations in Ukraine?

Alexander Bogomolov (AB): Political activism amongst Muslim populations in Ukraine is growing via umbrella and large political organizations, primarily in Kyiv, the autonomous republic of Crimea, and the Donbass region. The Crimean Tatar Mejlis is the most organized and large-scale ethnic-nationalist political association. Other less institutionalized groups taking hold in Ukraine are Hizb al-Tahrir (est. 2003) and Salafi (Wahhabi) groups, which are based mainly in Crimea, and a nation-wide Arab-sponsored Islamic network of Al-Raid (est. 1997). The estimated number of Muslims in Ukraine is approximately 439,000 according to our most recent survey, and includes both Ukrainian citizens and non-citizens. This number is a more realistic count compared to the commonly cited estimate of 2 million. Our survey also included measurements of religiosity (measured via mosque attendance) to gain a better understanding of the Muslim population of Ukraine.

Question: Can you tell us more about the Crimean Tatar Mejlis-associated Muftiyat or DUMK?

AB: The Crimean Tatar Muftiyat is an umbrella organization associated with the Mejlis, which was set up by Crimean Tatars to direct Tatar Muslim affairs at an official level under the sponsorship of the OKND (National Movement of Crimean Tatars). The Muftiyat (like its associated body, the Mejlis) is the only Muslim organization in Ukraine which functions according to a democratic structure, while others, such as the institution of the Mufti of Ukraine in Kyiv, are pseudo-democratic institutions. The Tatar Muftiyat system includes grassroots mosque communities and regional imams. The Mufti (the highest authority) is elected every four years by religious assemblies. The role of the Muftiyat vis--vis the every-day functioning of Crimean Tatars is primarily devotional and socio-cultural. Activities include assistance in organizing social associations for the elderly, performing weddings and funerals, and reviving religious practices within communities. At one point, the question of Sharia (interpretation of Muslim law based on divergent schools of thought) courts was at the forefront; however, that debate has died and very few are seriously interested in pursuing the implantation of such a legal system.

The central administration in Kyiv and the Crimean regional government formally recognize the Muftiyat as a Muslim religious authority. The Department of Religious Affairs under the Minister of Justice at the national level and a similar entity under the Crimean Council of Ministers legalize Muslim communities, which allow for official organizational status and activities such as building mosques, and establishing funding and other financial activities.

Question: Did the Muftiyat play a mediating role in the August 2006 Bakhchisaray conflicts?

AB: Crimean Tatars maintain a list of places over which they claim historical, cultural and religious ownership, including the Aziz in Bakhchisaray, an important historic cemetery and a pilgrimage site. Under the Soviet Union, most of the cemetery was demolished and a commercial market was built on top of the holy site, which continues to be a deep-seated source of conflict between Crimean Tatars and ethnic Russians.

When Russian nationalists first appeared on the scene and the conflict began, local administration and a security officer attempted to mediate. The Russian nationalist response was: "We came to fight." The response was emblematic of people searching for opportunities for conflict. It was clear that the so-called Russian "Cossacks" were the main culprits.

While the Muftiyat is the official Islamic authority and plays a significant role in identifying cultural and holy sites, the Mejlis was primarily involved in mediating the conflict, along with security forces and armored cars sent by Kyiv. Few blank shots were fired and the crowd went still. The Muftiyat's primary agenda is to prevent foreign influences from infiltrating the minds and hearts of Crimean Tatars, especially by newly emerging Muslim splinter groups (e.g. Hizb al-Tahrir and Wahhabis). In fact, the Muftiyat regards this development as a threat to historical Crimean Tatar unity.

Question: Can you tell us more about these newly emerging Islamic movements and the possible rise of Wahhabism in Crimea?

AB: In Crimea, Wahhabism is stereotypically associated with those who look more "Arab," meaning those individuals who grow facial hair and follow a special 'Islamic' dress code. Obviously, this is a misunderstanding of the concept of Wahhabism as well as a misperception of what constitutes a Wahhabi. The small numbers of self-proclaimed Wahhabis in Crimea are loosely connected with each other and the Saudi based groups. They have formed at least two distinct local communities. The Crimean Hizb al-Tahrir is claiming ties to the global Tahrir network. By providing various services to local Muslim communities, the Arab-sponsored Al-Raid has developed a large clientele and a network of regional branches, the most active of which include those in Kyiv, Crimea, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Odessa. Hizb probably has only a few dozen active members as opposed to the often-cited 500. While these groups do receive funding from the Gulf states and global Islamic networks, their activities are limited to local Muslim communities. While striving to gain more authority in the Crimean Tatar community, the most radical of them, Hizb al-Tahrir, has attempted disruptions at mosques (like arriving late during prayer times), which often fail.

There has been very little research conducted on the Crimean Hizb al-Tahrir. The group adopted a general anti-US, pro-Iraq stance. It remains unclear how and whether the Crimean Hizb al-Tahrir is connected to the large London and Jordan-based organizations or Hizb strongholds in Central Asia. As has been documented in other studies of Hizb, ambiguity continues to exist with respect to the connections and working relationships between the various factions of Hizb across the globe. Global Hizb is primarily aspiring for the establishment of a "caliphate" and the creation of a unified Islamic state. Interestingly, some believe that the ethnic-Russian majority in Crimea endorses these developments, while others have charged that the Russians assist with the funding of such groups to weaken the Mejlis. As a result, there have been significant disagreements between the Mejlis/Muftiyat and the Wahhabis, as they presumably pose a threat to Crimean Tatar ethno-religious and national unity by infusing new and foreign religious ideologies and ways of life.

Another development that has received attention is the emergence of the Islamic Party of Ukraine. However, the name itself seems to draw more attention than actual public activity, which has been largely non-existent. Hizb al-Tahrir, in comparison, is more organized and active, and has put more efforts into outreach.

Question: Could you describe the relationship between the Mejlis and the Ukrainian government?

AB: The Mejlis has received de facto acknowledgement from the Ukrainian government, a status which is continuously disputed by Russian nationalists. The relationship between the government and the Mejlis was solidified with the establishment of a Crimean Tatar advisory board under President Kuchma, called the "Council of Crimean Tatars." After being appointed prime minister, Yanukovich likewise requested his own Crimean Tatar advisory body. This is very interesting, as the relationship between Crimean Tatars and the Orange Block/Our Ukraine is much stronger than the relationship with the Party of Regions, which now holds the majority of seats in Parliament.

The relationship between the Mejlis and the Rukh Party is a long-standing historical connection based on communications that were established by dissident Ukrainian nationalists (i.e. Chernovil) and Crimean Tatars (especially Mustafa Jemilev) in Soviet prisons. Both were focused on preserving ethnic nationalism, under threat of absorption into the Soviet Union. Under Chernovil, the Rukh Party helped Crimean Tatars to establish a voice within the national Ukrainian political landscape during the early years of Ukrainian independence. Early on the Rukh Party viewed Crimean Tatars as natural allies in a Russian- dominated Crimea. Nadir Bekirov (former Head of the Political-Legal Department of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis and President of the Fund for Research and Support of Indigenous Peoples of Crimea) was somewhat of a "master-mind" behind the establishment of legal protections for indigenous peoples. Bekirov successfully employed international instruments (i.e. UN language; International Human Rights) to benefit Crimean Tatars.

Question: The Russian media often compares ethnic tensions in Crimea to those in the Caucasus. How accurate is this portrayal?

AB: The situations are barely comparable and comparisons are drawn from superficial observations. In the Caucasus, tensions are primarily between the central Russian administration in Moscow and local communities. In the Crimean case, tensions exist among ethnic groups, mainly between an ethnic majority (ethnic Russians) and a minority (Crimean Tatars), rather than between a government and a specific population. These ethnic tensions are compounded by disagreements about the redistribution of resources and land. Thus, tensions in Crimea only take on a front of religion.

Conflicts in Crimea are periodically used by Russian nationalists for political means, in portraying a weak Ukrainian government incapable of managing the Crimean situation. I think that Russians nationalists would not necessarily mind a deteriorating situation in Crimea if it in fact de-legitimizes Kyiv. The situation in Crimea is an opportunity for Russian nationalists to instigate conflict. Even though Russian nationalists represent the fringe among ethnic Russians in Crimea, the question remains whether they are indeed on the margins. Why, for instance, is there not a more wide-spread, popular disapproval among mainstream ethnic Russians?

The interview was conducted in Kyiv, Ukraine, in August 2006. Dr. Bogomolov updated his remarks in April 2008.

Laryssa Chomiak is a doctoral candidate in political science, studying North Africa and Eastern Europe at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD. Waleed Ziad is an economic consultant in Montreal, QC, and has degrees in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations as well as Economics from Yale University.

Posted: 18 April 2008


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