Staunton, June 25 – Radical Islamist groups as part of their drive to create a single, united Muslim community are behind a current push for the use of the Russian language in mosques, a drive that is weakening the role of Tatar in the life of Tatarstan, according to a controversial specialist on Islam in the Middle Volga.
On the one hand, as Rais Suleymanov argues today in an article entitled “Wahhabism is Leading the Tatars to Assimilation,” what the Islamist groups are doing works to promote outcomes Moscow favors, a decline in the role of the mosque as a supporter of Tatar national identity and the linguistic assimilation of the Tatars (apn.ru/publications/article29442.htm).
But on the other, as the head of the Volga Center for Regional and Ethno-Religious Research does not mention, there are numerous examples where such linguistic changes may have just the opposite political consequences, with a community becoming more nationalistic after it loses its historic language, as was the case classically with the Irish.
Moreover, although Suleymanov’s clear intent is to mobilize Tatars against the Islamist groups, he ignores the possibility that the use of Russian rather than Tatar in the mosques of Kazan – a shift that has already happened in Moscow – may create a more powerful Muslim community that will represent a greater threat to Russia even if that movement speaks Russian.
Nonetheless, Suleymanov’s article is worth paying attention to because it calls attention to the paradoxical relationships among religion, language and national identity and to the difficulties Moscow has in countering one of these without sparking anti-Russian consequences in the other two.
As he has in numerous recent articles, Suleymanov says that in recent times, there has been a dramatic growth in the number and size of radical Islamist groups in Tatarstan. “Not infrequently,” he says, “these divisions are called ‘non-traditional trends in Islam.’” But in fact they are “anti-Islamic organizations who discredit the Muslim religion and Muslims in the eyes of other residents of Tatarstan and Russia.”
Young Tatars who join these groups talk about “a universal Islamic khalifate” and reject any attachment to the Tatar people because in their words, “’in Islam there is no nationality and one must not divide the Muslim umma.” To that end, they reject the use of Tatar in the mosques and support the use of Russian instead because it broadens the Muslim community.
In this, the young Tatars are following the Islamist ideologists who present themselves as “internationalists” who “reject any ethnic uniqueness” and who struggle with Tatar customs and the Tatar language in the mosques.” But in fact, Suleymanov says, they are not internationalists but cosmopolitans.
The Kazan analyst cites the words of one Wahhabi from Samara who argued that “today we need the Russian language in order to bring to true Islam an ever greater number of Russians and also those who come to us from Central Asia for work.” Once the khalifate is established, however, the radical continued, “Russian won’t be needed and all Muslims will employ Arabic.”
Such Islamists, Suleymanov says, openly criticize the Tatars for their interest in their national history, and according to him, “Tatar nationalists are beginning to understand the essence of Islamist cosmopolitanism” and to oppose it lest it lead to the inclusion of Tatarstan as “’vilayat’ within the ‘Caucasus Imamate.’”
Suleymanov, who is himself a Tatar, argues that “for the preservation of the unique Tatar culture, the mobilization of all our people is needed to repel the attack of the radical Islamists and to oppose the cosmopolitan universalism of the radical Islamists” because that notion “is leading the Tatars to the loss of their ethnic identity and assimilation.”
According to the Kazan scholar, “the chief danger of linguistic Russianization for the Tatar people now emanates [not as many Tatars believe from Moscow but rather] from the sectarian Islamist organizations which do not want to recognize the existence of the Tatar people as an ethnos with its own national traditions.”
And he concludes that “the Russian-language mosque in the hands of the Wahhabis is leading Tatar youth to linguistic assimilation. And if earlier the mosque was the protector of traditions and helped preserve the Tatars as an ethnos, then today Islamist cosmopolitanism is leading the Tatars to degeneration” as a people.