In the interview with ONLINE.UA, Said Ismagilov, the mufti of the Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine "Ummah" had a talk about freedom of conscience in Ukraine; relations between the state and the religious organisations; about Muslims’ life in our country; about the absence of conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Ukraine; about Al-Ahbash; Muslims life in annexed Crimea and occupied Donets Basin; about Russian influence on these regions and the future of Kremlin appointed imams after Russian decontrol; about the religious life in Russia under Vladimir Putin presidency and so on. Journalist Alexander Kurylenko has achieved an opportunity to be an interviewer.
How many Muslims are in the occupied territories of Donbas region and the Crimea?
— We do not dispose the exact figures. There are about 400 thousand Muslims, 350 thousand Crimean Tatars in the Crimea. Donbas was the second region after the Crimea according to the number of followers of Islam that was 200 thousand people. The vast majority of them lived in the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which are currently occupied. Although, there are communities of Meskhetian Turks in Slavyansk, Severodonetsk, Mariupol, Kostiantynivka. About 170 thousand Muslims have stayed in the occupied territory of the Donbas region. In total, approximately one million followers of Islam are living in Ukraine. Thus, more than half of them are on the territories occupied by Russia.
What problems do Crimean Muslims have as well as Muslims from the occupied territory of Donbas?
— Russian legislation, police and judicial structures currently are valid in the Crimea. It sounds paradoxical, but there the situation is worse than in the Donbas. The fact is that the most repressed religious structures in the Donbas are Ukrainian Christian Protestant churches, and in the Crimea these are the Muslim communities, mainly the Crimean Tartars. The only reason of that is the mass support of Ukraine. The religious life of the Crimea was quickly brought under Russian control. All official Muslim structures are forced to cooperate with the authorities. Muslim or non-governmental organisations, which do not want to re-register according the Russian law, have become outlawed. The main part of educational institutions is closed. The accidents of searches, raids, arrests, murders, rapes and kidnappings happen there. The substantial flow of migrants is a result of that. About 20 thousand Crimean Tatars have migrated to the mainland.
And what can you say about the uncontrolled part of the Donbas region?
— The Russian legislation is not valid in the Donbas region. This region is simply being used and robbed. The local "authorities" are even trying to make advances to various religious institutions, so they let Muslims to function freely as a religious community. Meanwhile, the re-registration of communities is not required, but carefully controlled: the special men are observing the services, and periodically the representatives of the so-called Ministry of State Security of the NKVD come to have a talk with imams. For example, at the very beginning of the occupation, they claimed to exclude the Ukrainian symbols and prayers for Ukraine. It was a condition for live and work. These prayers are not mentioned aloud now.
Is it possible that Russia will appoint its Imams in the Donbas, but will not validate them according to its legislation?
— There are already three organisations in the Donetsk region that claim themselves independent from the Ukraine. There is also a man who calls himself "the mufti of DNR". The "Muftiyat of Donbas" also exists. They even compete with each other in order to become the main structure in the Donbas region. All of them appeal to Moscow. The situation is different in Lugansk region, as the self-appointed leaders have not appeared there. I think Russia will not add the occupied part of Donbas to its own structures, but will put its agents of influence at the head of the Muslim organisations. This already happens.
No doubt that Islam is the same for all, but can you describe the difference between the Russian and the Ukrainian versions?
— The differences exist. In Russia, the religious life has been cleaned up during the presidency of Putin. I do not know, how the matters of other confessions and religious organizations go on, but I know about the Muslims. All religious figures, who refused to work under the dictates of Russian security forces, have been dismissed. Those, who have agreed with the rules, have been integrated into the Russian politics. They support the Kremlin, no matter what happens. According to the order, the string of Mufties went to the peninsula and urged the Crimean Tatars to accept the Russian conditions.
The religious life of Russia is subjected to the Russian imperial idea. There is no religious freedom, even though it is declared. There are lists of banned literature, the 70 per cent of which are Muslim literature. Along with the really extremist literature, these lists also include the classical works. For example, a popular Russian-language translation of the Koran was banned a year ago, the prayer book "Fortress of the Muslim", as well as popular and authoritative collection of hadiths "Riyadh as-Saaliheen", has been recently banned.
There is much more religious freedom in Ukraine, the State does not oppress the religious organisations and does not make believers work under the dictate of controlling units. Muslims feel free therefore. We decide by ourselves the way to develop, choose programs and educational institutions. In Russia, the mosque could be easily removed, but there were no such cases in Ukraine. In addition, the Russian Federation has significant level of Islamophobia in everyday life, but in Ukraine, the situation is much better.
I agree, but Russia is largely a country, where autochthonous Muslims live. It means that Russia is a Muslim country to a considerable extent.
— Do you call it a Muslim country? The majority of Russian Muslims are people with a Soviet upbringing, religiousness of whom is limited to funeral repasts. A lot of efforts were made to deprive Russian Muslims of the support of the national movements, like it has been done in Tatarstan. Russian security forces have suppressed the movement of Tatars’ self-determination. They repress all religious and national activists. So it is impossible to call Russia the country, where Muslims mean something and have an influence.
There is also the North Caucasus, which is largely populated by Muslims.
— The life in this area, if it can be called like this, forces so many people to move to other countries. You have the choice — to agree with Russia's policy, or to disappear or to be killed under the pretext of counter-terrorism. The manifestations of religious and national identities are oppressed. In Ukraine, it is not necessary to suppress anyone, Muslims are integrated into the community, we are a minority, there is no repression, and people have wide rights and opportunities. Our aim is to be a part of the Ukrainian political nation, which has various ethnic origins, and we are moving in this direction.
The question is about ethnic origin of Ukrainian Muslims. There are the Crimean Tatars, but they are not the only Muslims in Ukraine, aren’t they?
— The Crimean Tatars always stand apart, even from other Muslims of Ukraine. This is their mechanism of self-preservation. Even in the days when the Crimea was a part of Ukraine, the Crimean Tatars have decided that preaching in mosques should be exclusively in the Crimean Tatar language. This fact has caused some questions on behalf of other Muslims, who do not understand the language. All others are integrated with each other. It is an interesting process that allows us to predict the future of Muslims of Ukraine. I think, in Ukraine will be Muslims, who will become a part of the Ukrainian society, and Crimean Tatar Muslims, who will stand apart. Crimean Tatars want to have separate mosques, individual communities and associations, if possible. The leaders of the Crimean Tatar people say that it is required to establish the Religious Administration in Ukraine especially for Crimean Tatar Muslims. The rest of Muslims belong to different ethnic groups. The first group includes Tatar settlers from the Volga-Ural region. The second one is Muslims of Turkish origin: Meskhetian Turks or Turks, who have moved to Ukraine. The third group consists of Muslims of Arab origin. The fourth group represents Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Now this community is undergoing the integration process. Ethnic Ukrainians, who have adopted Islam, play an increasing role. These groups communicate more with each other. Often mixed marriages become a reason of that. I think, in one or two generations, Muslims of Ukraine will act as a kind of integral fraction of the Ukrainian society.
We know that there is a confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East. Does this opposition exist among the Muslims of Ukraine?
- No, it doesn’t. There is no conflict between Sunnis and Shiites inside the Ukrainian Ummah. A small number of Shiites lives in Ukraine. The communities of Shiites live in Kyiv and Kharkiv. Shiites are mostly Azerbaijanians. Unfortunately, the majority of Azeris are not religious enough. Officially, Azerbaijan also remains neutral in this conflict. Such confrontation is hardly felt in Ukraine, due to the fact that there are very few Shiites, they are not very religious, and Azeris do not participate politically in the conflict.
There is a polarization between Sunnis and Al-Ahbash. Al-Ahbash is the latest religious movement, which was founded in the twentieth century. Its founder was born in Ethiopia, but he has spread his doctrine in Lebanon. Then, along with the Arab students, this doctrine has got to Ukraine. We have the Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine, where, in fact, the doctrine of Al-Ahbash movement is preached and cultivated in the believers. They are not friendly enough to traditional Sunni Muslims. They consider themselves true Muslims, and believe other Muslims to be not faithful enough. It is imperceptibly at the national level, but within the Muslim Ummah everybody knows about not friendly relations between Sunnis and Al –Ahbash in Ukraine.
We have heard about the recent terrorist attacks in Muslim countries: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iraq. What is going on and why does it happen during Ramadan?
— The followers of radical organisations believe that Muslims, who do not help them, are sinners. They believe that if they were fighting for some of their ideas, using the terror, all Muslims should support them. All hits do not aim ordinary Muslims, who, nevertheless, become accidental victims, but they aim particular countries. The "Islamic state" uses terrorism in order to force Turkish and the Saudi Arabian authorities to ignore the spreading of its influence.
What to do with the "Islamic state" in Syria and Iraq? When the secular-Christian country fights against ISIL, it could be easily presented as a "Crusade".
— I think we should knock the ideological base out. The "Islamic State" can only fight, using the "cannon fodder." When people stop supporting it and dying for its ideas, it will come to the end. Muslims must deal with it by themselves.
Is it possible that the Kremlin will create, for example, radical organisations in the Crimea, which will attract the youth, and then deal with them?
— Russia does not act like this. The Russian authorities quickly suppress any activity of the organisations that went out of their control. At home, they do not support that, but outside of the Russian Federation they do. They also support certain movements in Ukraine by investing money. But if followers of such movements will go to the Russia with the same ideas, they will be sent to prison or deported. In Russia, the Kremlin is trying to train easily manipulated Muslims. They were said to go to Donbas and to fight with “Bandеrivtsi”, and they did that. I have seen those people.
There were also Muslim units, fighting on the side of Ukraine. Who are these people, what nations do they represent?
— These were volunteer units. They preferred to stay separately as Muslims in the military structure. There were battalion "Krym", Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion and others. All of them did not receive support from the government, the military were scattered over other military units. As far as I know, Dzhokhar Dudayev military battalion is the part of "Kyiv-2" battalion, the "Krym" battalion, which took part in the battles of Savur-Mohyla in 2014, was disbanded. The state policy doesn’t allow separate Muslim troops.
Representatives of what Muslim nations are fighting on the side of Ukraine?
— I keep it touch with chaplains of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, they talk about different people. There are Tatars, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Azerbaijanis and Ukrainian Muslims in the units, I even know a Muslim, who is an Uighur. All of them are really different.