For centuries Muslims have been an integral part of Ukrainian society, but they also remained a quiet, little-noticed part until the momentous events of the EuroMaidan Revolution and Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2014-15.
Many Muslims were active participants in the EuroMaidan Revolution, and many also remain active supporters of Ukraine in the war with Russia. But Ukraine’s Muslims have probably suffered the most for their active, pro-Ukrainian position, of all the religious communities in Ukraine, due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s war in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine has around 1 million Muslims, most living in Russia-occupied Crimea and separatist-controlled areas of Donbas. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the hostilities in eastern Ukraine have kept some 750,000 of them, including a half-million Crimean Tatars, trapped in the occupied territories and unable to maintain ties with others who share their faith in Ukraine.
“Because of the Russian occupation we’ve lost contact with co-religionists in these territories. We’ve lost control over places of worship (there). Mosques, madrasahs, libraries – everything that provides for a full religious life for the community,” Said Ismagilov, the mufti of Ummah, the center of spiritual administration of Muslims in Ukraine, told the Kyiv Post at his office in the Islamic Cultural Center in Kyiv. “We cannot even protect people there.”
Crimean Tatars pressured at home
Crimean Tatars were among the most vocal protesters against Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in March of 2014, and have suffered for it since.
More than 20 Crimean Tatars have gone missing since the Russian invasion of Crimea, according to Mustafa Dzhemilev, a Ukrainian lawmaker and a prominent Crimea Tatar leader. People face intimidation, harassment - such being forbidden to hold a memorial service on Deportation Day on May 18, the day when in 1944 the Tatars were deported en masse from Crimea to Central Asia on the orders of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Those who do not recognize Crimea as part of Russia are kidnapped, tortured and killed, Dzhemilev told Radio Liberty on Dec. 24.
“In Russia there is no freedom of speech and thought - every religious community, including Muslims, is controlled by the state and serves Kremlin’s policy. In Ukraine, Crimean Tatars had freedom. They were not told which books to read. They were in charge of choosing their own religious leaders. Everything was democratic,” Ismagilov says.
Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, the head of the Crimean Tatar national assembly, the Mejlis, called on Tatars to boycott the sham referendum Russia organized to legitimize Crimea’s accession to Russia on March 16, 2014. The occupying authorities then banned both Dzhemilev and Chubarov from the peninsula after the Kremlin formally took control of the Ukrainian territory.
Chubarov says he was told by the new Crimean prosecutor Natalia Poklonskaya that he had been banned from entering Crimea because he advocates policies that “demonstrate an unfavorable attitude towards Russia” and because the Mejlis was “improperly organizing holidays in Crimea.”
Moreover, the new Crimean authorities threatened to declare the Mejlis a terrorist organization. On Feb. 4, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the unprecedented level of human rights abuses perpetrated against Crimean Tatars and restrictions of the Tatar community’s liberties in Crimea since Russia’s annexation.
At the same time, Muslims on Ukrainian territory enjoy all freedoms, as Islamic cultural centers are being opened around Ukraine. The newest one opened its doors in Dnipropetrovsk last month.
Numerous religious leaders from Islamic countries have also repeatedly condemned Russian repression of Crimean Tatars, but to little avail. “Russia has the following position: you can condemn us if you want, but we’ll do whatever we want,” Mufti Ismagilov says. “Crimea remains completely cut off. All we can do is to inform the public about violations there.”
Muslims in occupied Donbas lead quiet life
Compared to Crimea, the lives of the nearly 250,000 Muslims residing in occupied areas of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts are easier – at least Muslims there are not persecuted, the mufti says. The pseudo-republics still recognize Muslim religious communities that were registered under Ukrainian rule. “Separatists leaders imitate the situation in Russia, where Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim communities are officially recognized,” Ismagilov says. “In Donbas they formally recognize the Russian Orthodox Church and tolerate Muslims.” Muslims living on Ukrainian territory still have possibility to help their relatives and friends financially. They send money to the occupied territories to buy food there, which is handed out to the needy in mosques.
Still, there is no trace of the active worship that used to be practiced by Muslims before the war, and the fate of two Muslim spiritual administrations located in the occupied territories remains unclear, Ismagilov notes. Most Islamic educational institutions on the occupied territories are not operating, because they did not receive permission from the separatists’ authorities to resume their educational programs. Muslims have often been intimidated into recognizing the separatist authorities as well. “In the middle of 2014 we saw armed men visiting the mosques and demanding that the Muslim communities officially recognize the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic,” the mufti says. As a result, most Muslims went underground and don’t participate in public life.
When separatist movements started in Donbas in 2014 many Muslims, including imams, the heads of mosques, and local Muslim communities for Sunni Muslims, took part in pro-Ukrainian rallies in the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. After separatists took over the territory, most imams were forced to leave. As a result, Muslims in Donbas occupied territories are left without the heads of their religious communities.
Ismagilov, a native of Donetsk, was one of those who fled his native hometown in 2014. In the spring of 2014 he regularly took part in pro-Ukrainian rallies, which was not safe then as “titushki (hired thugs) and Russians from (Russia’s) Rostov shot activists with guns and threw Molotov cocktails at us,” he recalls. Later, when the situation escalated in summer, Muslims and Christians gathered together for common prayers for peace in Ukraine. “Our praying marathons were regularly attacked. Priests were kidnapped and tortured,” Ismagilov recalls. “One day Christian priests warned me that I would be next, and I fled to Kyiv in September 2014. A few days later the separatists came to my house in Donetsk, but no one was there.” He hasn’t returned to Donetsk since. And for his patriotic, pro-Ukraine position, the Russia-backed armed groups in control of Donetsk now consider Ismagilov an enemy.
Mufti breaks stereotypes
Said Ismagilov, the mufti of Ummah, the center of spiritual administration of Muslims in Ukraine, ruins stereotypes of a closed and conservative Muslim spiritual leader.
Ismagilov seems to have little time for rest, working around the clock in Islamic Cultural Center in Kyiv, as many Muslim refugees from the occupied that come to Kyiv are in need of both moral and financial support. He is also watching events in war zone closely.
Nearly 100 Muslims are fighting in the Ukrainian army in the Donbas against separatists, he says. For them, Ismagilov provided Islamic chaplains in 2014, selecting “four elderly men who are physiologically resistant to war time horrors,” he says.
Muslims at the Islamic Cultural Center help Ukrainian army soldiers by donating food and money to those at the front, and by donating blood to the wounded.
Ismagilov, 37, smashes the stereotype of a closed and conservative Muslim spiritual leader. Having studied philosophy and religion in Donetsk and theological studies at the Islamic Institute in Moscow, he is broadminded and erudite, speaking Tatar, Arabic and English on top of Russian and Ukrainian.
The mufti was among first Ukrainian public figures to condemn the terrorist attack in Paris on Jan. 7, 2015 against journalists of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, expressing his condolences to the families of the victims.
Ismagilov is also a supporter of the idea that Muslims should integrate in the society they live in, and he criticizes Muslims who come to Europe to live in closed communities. Such behavior limits social ambitions, and as a result some young people are easy targets for various terrorist groups, who lure them by promising money and better social prospects, Ismagilov says. They could have had that if they had been well integrated in the societies of their host countries, the mufti says.
Given the growing Islamophobia in Europe, Ukraine, where Muslims and Christians have been living side by side since 9th century, might serve as a good example of mutual religious tolerance, Ismagilov believes. “Ukrainians don’t treat as enemies those who respect their culture and traditions,” he says, adding that Muslims are fully integrated in Ukrainian society and consider Ukraine their motherland. Ummah publishes its religious press in Ukrainian, encouraging Muslims to learn and master Ukrainian. “I call us Muslim Ukrainians,” the mufti adds.
Ismagilov is active on social networks, with nearly 5,000 friends and nearly 10,000 followers on Facebook. But he is frequently bulled by aggressive Kremlin trolls, many of whom are Russian Muslims. Everyday Ismagilov receives offensive messages in which he is called a Banderivets - a supporter of the Ukrainian post-World War II nationalist leader Stepan Bandera - for his pro-Ukraine views.
He is a frequent target for pro-Kremlin media too. In a story entitled “The Double Games of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine” published on Nov. 27, 2014 by Russian online news site Krym Segodnya (Crimea Today), Ismagilov was called a “russophobe” and “the mufti of Maidan” alluding to his support for EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014.
Ismagilov, who sometimes appears on public in a vyshyvanka - a Ukrainian traditional embroidered shirt - has also earned the nickname of “the vyshyvatny mufti” from Kremlin supporters. Ismagilov smiles and takes it as a compliment. “Wearing a vyshyvanka shows you belong to Ukrainian society,” he adds.
Ismagilov bought his first vyshyvanka in Yevpatoriya in Crimea in the summer of 2014. “Among the stalls full of T-shirts with Putin, Medvedev and (Russian military officer running separatists in eastern Ukraine Igor) Girkin, I happened to see a tiny stand with Ukrainian vyshyvankas. It was so exotic and astonishing to see them that I just had to buy one,” he says. Now he has four of them. Two vyshyvankas are hanging in his wardrobe in the office - just in case. Ismagilov is also fond of Ukrainian cuisine, saying varenyky with cherries and borshch are his favorite Ukrainian dishes.
“A new national identity (in Ukraine) is developing now. A Ukrainian is a person who loves and respects Ukraine, its language, culture, history and traditions, regardless of one’s ethnic origin and religion,” Ismagilov says.