Muslims of Ukraine: history of solidarity

Sheikh Said ISMAGILOV, Mufti of the Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine “Ummah”
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Sheikh Said Ismagilov: “Defending the Fatherland is the only way to preserve our dignity”

Thanks to their active civic stand and patriotism, Ukrainian Muslims have managed to win the respect of the rest of society in the past two years of the ordeal that has befallen this country and to arouse interest in their history and way of life. We discussed the past and the future of Islam in Ukraine as well as the causes and the likely effects of the horrible terrorist attack in Paris with one of Ukraine’s most brilliant and progressive religious leaders – Sheikh Said ISMAGILOV, Mufti of the Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine “Ummah”.

Sheikh Said, why do you think radical fundamentalist trends still manage today to find followers, including citizens of European countries? Who do you think is to respond to these challenges above all – the Muslim community or European society as a whole?

“The radical movements you are speaking of are a marginal phenomenon. They do not have a large number of followers. They are just a few groupings led by the so far unknown ringleaders who issue orders, supply weapons, etc. This is a place that attracts people disposed to radicalism and violence – they can be found in any society. These groupings usually resemble strictly secret sects that are closed to the surrounding world. I can’t remember any of them speaking publicly. These people do not attend mosques or mix with other Muslims. Nor do they live a full-fledged Muslim life. They only heed their leaders with whom they usually maintain distance contact via the Internet. They are mostly neophytes who have a very vague idea of Islam. Therefore, it is very easy to recruit them. For the same reason, there are a lot of people from Europe and post-Soviet countries among ISIS members. They are out of touch with the Muslim tradition and often live in a milieu that is hostile to Muslims. It is easier to influence this kind of people. Incidentally, we know that a terrorist who blew herself up in Paris had not been religious at all a year ago. What forced her to turn into a fanatic in such a short time? We can only guess how her mind was ‘bended’ so that the girl sacrificed her own life and the life of the people around her for the ideas, which she had not known at all a year ago.

“Radical groupings often attract people who are in a certain crisis – those who are disappointed with their own way of life, have lost a relative, suffered financial losses, etc. Recruiters work very professionally – they notice such people and exert intense psychological pressure on them. At the same time, it is obvious that only a professional network, which receives adequate financial and other support, can organize crimes of the type of the Paris terrorist attack.

“To finish answering your question, I will tell you a Muslim joke. An armed ISIS terrorist stops a car that carries a family of Arab Christians. He says to them at gun point: ‘Quote something from the Koran, or else you will all die.’ The man at the wheel quotes the Bible in Arabic. They let the car go. A shocked wife asks a little later: ‘How could you take such a risk? He could have shot us dead.’ ‘If he knew what the Koran says, he wouldn’t be standing here with weapons in hand,’ the man answers. This is what we, Muslims, say when asked about terrorist acts. If these people knew what Islam teaches, they would not be committing these heinous crimes.”

What impact did the Paris attacks have on the attitude to Muslims in Ukraine?

“Thank God, we have seen no major changes. Yet, unfortunately, some mass media seem to be whipping up Islamophobic sentiments on purpose. We can often see temporary splashes of the grassroots-level Islamophobia after such horrible crimes. Fortunately, there are only some isolated instances of this. For example, somebody spat on the windows of a building that is used as a mosque the other day in Zhytomyr.”


Ukraine marked recently the second anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity. I know you were an active participant. What do you think about its consequences today?

“I am not disappointed, for, in my opinion, changing the leadership was not the main goal of the Revolution of Dignity. Most importantly, people felt free and understood that the country’s destiny depends on them. We have learned to overthrow the government that does not suit us but have not yet learned to elect a new one. Participants in the Revolution of Dignity managed to oust the most odious figures from the Olympus of power but failed to form, instead, a party of their own, a ‘Maidan party.’ This party could help us delegate new – professional, educated, responsible, and honest – people to the government. This new class was to have changed this country and ruined a corrupt system that creates an abyss between the poor and the rich.

“Today, we have a situation when the same people and parties (sometimes under other names) have in fact remained in power. This is why there is no real struggle against corruption, no lustration, and no trust in the leadership in Ukraine. The Revolution of Dignity was an important step for us because Ukrainian society had been deprived of almost all rights since the Russian Empire times. But now it is time to take the next steps. I am sure that the young people who carried out the Revolution of Dignity are entirely different now. And their children will be still more different.”

Can we say that the two years of Ukraine’s ordeal have brought various religious communities closer?

“We surely can. The revolution and the war helped Ukrainians discover Ukrainian Muslims. Most people did not even now up to now that there were Muslims in Ukraine – they simply did not notice us. It is active participation of Muslims in the dramatic events that showed, among other things, that the Ukrainian nation consists of the representatives of diverse religious and ethnic communities. Now Ukrainians trust the Muslims and know much more about them.”


A lot Ukrainian Muslims are taking part in eastern Ukraine hostilities as soldiers of the Armed Forces and other military formations. In what way do you offer them spiritual support?

“There had been no military chaplains in Ukraine before the war began. In the spring of 2014 we came across this problem, when a Muslim, who fought in the Aidar battalion, died in action. Somebody was to go to the front line and perform all the necessary Muslim rites.

“The Muslim military kept asking us if it was right to kill an enemy who is also a Muslim, for the Russians brought North Caucasus Muslims en masse into action. The Koran says that if two Muslims cross swords, both the killer and the killed will end up in hell. So, what is to be done – maybe, to refuse to serve in the army? Naturally, this is not the first time this question comes up. In the Caliphate era, Muslims happened to fight quite often. Even the Prophet’s closest associates fought each other on the battlefield after his death. The Koran says that a Muslim’s life, dignity, and property are inviolable – no one can come and take them away. The state is, incidentally, also a certain public property. For we drink water and eat the bread grown on this land, and our children are born and raised here. It is our duty to defend the Fatherland. Only in this way can we preserve our own dignity. We were not the first to attack – it is they who came to kill us and loot our property. For this reason, the Ukrainians, including Muslims, must defend themselves.

“When a necessity arose, the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine ‘Ummah’ began to help the military with food, medicaments, clothes, etc. We are now working to institute military chaplaincy. Three of our military chaplains already hold services at the front. As the Muslims are scattered over different military units, the chaplains are responsible for concrete sectors. Whenever a Muslim needs something, has been wounded or killed, our imam goes to the place and performs all the necessary rites.

“Yet we must admit, unfortunately, that the question of chaplaincy is still to be coordinated with the Ministry of Defense. A due law has been passed, but it is not quite clear how it will function and what the chaplain’s official status will be like. It is the problem for not only us, but also representatives of other religions.”

What is the situation of the Muslims on the occupied territories? Do you manage to maintain contact with them?

“Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian Muslims have found themselves on the occupied territories. Most of the problems were in Crimea, where there was an attempt to force Crimean Tatars ‘to love Russia.’ They were subjected to repressions – many of them were intimidated and kidnapped, and some were tortured to death. Religious organizations were also victimized. Intimidation is on the wane now, but a certain number of Muslims still remain missing. Some Mejlis leaders are behind bars. The Russians are ‘mopping up’ the ‘undesirable Muslims’ and the banned books. Those who refuse to ‘love Russia’ either disappear or have to run away.

“At the same time, the Donbas situation remains rather uncertain. Muslims are sometimes summoned for an ‘interview’ as part of an effort to find those who are ready to collaborate with the new ‘authorities.’ However, there have been no specific repressions on religious grounds so far.”


Ukraine recently marked Holodomor Remembrance Day. What does this date mean to Muslims?

“Ukraine’s Muslims know very well what genocide is because, as is known, the Crimean Tatar people lost almost a quarter of them during the deportation. Like all the Ukrainians, we traditionally take part in all the commemorative events. I am convinced that this kind of crimes have no statute of limitations. In the Holy Koran, the Almighty Allah orders Muslims to be just. The Almighty Allah says that He forbids believers to do injustices to themselves and their creatures. The Holodomor is a gross injustice, and every faithful person must condemn injustice and speak the truth. We must know and remember this horrible tragedy so that it never occurs again.”

(To be continued)

By Roman HRYVINSKY, The Day

№73, (2015)

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