Muslims in Russia’s Middle Volga region have taken to the streets to protest what they say is a rising tide of xenophobia and official brutality directed against them. On March 13, there were demonstrations in Kazan and Ufa, the capitals of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, respectively, as well as in the Bashkir city of Tuymazy and the Udmurt town of Sarapul.
The demonstrations were small, 30 to 40 people, and peaceful. The protestors carried signs reading, “Freedom for Repressed Muslims,” “We Demand Observance of the Constitutional Rights of Muslims,” “Is Every Muslim a Terrorist?” and “The Mass Media Promotes Islamophobia” (regnum, March 13). But police broke up the Ufa protest because the demonstrators did not have a permit.
This wave of protests was triggered by the arrest and reported mistreatment of Muslims from the region, who had been accused of being members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. More than a year ago the Russian Supreme Court banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir and 14 other groups accused of being terrorist organizations (Islam.ru, March 13).
According to the demonstrators, “The legislative and executive branches and the judicial system of Russia do not uphold the rights of Muslims.” They accused the authorities of fabricating or planting evidence. “And that is in addition to the moral harm that they bring not only to those under arrest but also to their wives, children, and relatives by slandering Muslims so thoroughly.” The hatred toward Muslims is so strong, they claim, that the special services allowed the rape of one Muslim in a detention facility in Ufa and the beating of another Muslim there with an iron rod while he was hanging upside down by his legs (regnum, March 13).
Even if such statements seem a bit exaggerated, there are signs that the Russian authorities have begun a large-scale attack on independent Muslim organizations. In the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy last September, the Kremlin decided to establish a new policy towards Russia’s Muslim community. On October 10 President Vladimir Putin met with religious leaders and expressed his support of “traditional Islam” (NTV, October 10, 2004). In Russian, this term refers to the religious infrastructure of Islam (mosques, media, and public organizations) under the control of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Russia, an official Islamic organization, and the authorities.
“Official support” by the Spiritual Directorate means repressions against Islamic organizations that act independently of the official structures. This includes local Muslim communities (jamaats), regional branches of non-violent international fundamentalist organizations like Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and others. Seeing no difference between non-violent Muslim civic NGOs and real terrorists, Russian authorities have declared a “holy war” on all independent Muslim communities in Russia.
The Muslim communities linked to immigrants from Central Asia were the first hit. Immigrants from poor Central Asian states like Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan come to Russia to earn money. They often stick together with religious kin just to survive. However, such activity seems very suspicious to the security officials. Despite the fact that there are many real members of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir group among the Muslim immigrants, most members came to Russia to escape from repression in Uzbekistan or other Asian countries, and they seek Russia for political asylum rather than as a target for terrorist activities.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir is famous for its nonviolent methods, but the Russian authorities simply ignore this fact. Last year they initiated a campaign of massive arrests of Muslims all over the country, first immigrants, then Muslim Russian citizens. As of January 1, 2005, court proceedings were underway in 11 regions of Russia (Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Udmurtiya, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, and Tyumen) against more than 100 alleged members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Islam.ru, March 13).
Some imams independent of the Spiritual Directorate and their supporters have also been arrested in Southern Russia. Batyrbek Bakiev, an imam in the village of Nephtekumsk, was given a long prison sentence despite witnesses who confirmed that he had not left Nephtekumsk in seven years and thus could not have trained in a terrorist camp in Chechnya (ATV Stavropol, October 27, 2003). On February 10, Yermak Tegaev, director of an Islamic cultural center, was arrested near his home in Vladikavkaz. Police said they found Islamic literature, teaching materials, and extremist videos in his home (Caucasus Times, February 10). Tegaev denied these allegations, saying that the authorities just wanted to get rid of him (yufo.ru, February 14).
Preachers from some Islamic schools and representatives from international organizations have been deported from Russia. On March 17, three members of a group called Tablig (Islamic call) were deported to Kyrgyzstan (regions.ru, March 17). The Spiritual Directorate of Tatarstan has begun to censor Islamic literature published in the region, based on a suggestion from Valery Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration (Islam.ru, March 22).
Russian authorities are evidently very worried about Muslim organizations and communities operating beyond the control of the Spiritual Directorate. The Kremlin believes that such activity could invite international terrorism into the country. However, it is the harsh measures of the Kremlin siloviki, not Islamic organizations, that provoke Muslims to turn to violence to fight for their rights. The Chechen rebels and insurgents in the North Caucasus dream of thousands of Muslims coming from various regions of Russia to join their ranks.
Law-enforcement brutality plays into the hands of Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev. Also, last year the rebel Kavkazcenter website published an open letter from Amir Supyan (aka Supyan Abdulaev, a Chechen field commander and Basaev’s right hand) to Muslims of the Volga region. In his letter, Supyan called upon the Muslims to forget about the judicial system and pick up arms to kill the policemen in the region who had fought in Chechnya. Russia’s Muslims may heed Supyan’s call if the Kremlin continues to repress them.