By Paul Goble
A Russian news agency reports that “more than one million Slavs” in Ukraine have converted to Islam since 1991, a figure that almost certainly is an exaggeration but one that reflects both Kyiv’s relatively tolerant approach to Islamic activism and Russian and Ukrainian fears of the possible appearance of Slavic-appearing suicide bombers.
In her report on Rosbalt.ru about a recent Kyiv conference on the problems and prospects of Islam in Ukraine, journalist Anna Steshenko comes up with that number on the basis of a statement by Gennady Udovenko of Narodna Rukh that there are now some 1.5 milllion “Islamic neophytes” in Ukraine (www.rosbalt.ru/ukraina/2011/03/31/834517.html).
Because there are no more than 300,000 Crimean Tatars and migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia could not be counted as neophytes, Steshenko suggests that these figures means that “more than one million” of Ukraine’s Muslims must be either ethnic Russians or ethnic Ukrainians.
Her calculation is likely incorrect for two reasons. On the one hand, Udovenko likely was referring to almost all Muslims in Ukraine rather than only newly-minted ones. In that case, the number of Slavic converts would be perhaps only 500,000 or even less. And on the other, Steshenko’s article is clearly intended to spark fears, thus making an exaggeration here likely.
Nonetheless, even if the smaller figure for Muslim converts among Slavs is used, the overall number of 1.5 Muslims in Ukraine means that today approximately one in 30 Ukrainian residents is a follower of Islam, a share much smaller than the more than one in five Muslims in Russia but one far larger than at any time in recent history.
As Steshenko notes, the Ukrainian government has followed a very different and more permissive approach to Islamic institutions than has Moscow. The radical Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement, which is banned in Russia, operates freely in Ukraine, thereby contributing to “the Islamization of the Slavic population and the radicalization of the Crimean Tatars.
At the recent conference, Ismail Kadi, the head of the all-Ukrainian Muslim organization Alraid, said that “Ukraine is an example for neighboring countries.” And other participants, including the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Kuwait agreed, noting that “unlike Russia,” in Ukraine “conditions for the development of Islam have been put in place.
Yury Kochubey, a specialist at the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy, said Kyiv was pursuing “the correct policy toward Islamic organizations.” In the same speech, he sharply criticized Moscow’s approach of what he called “forced assimilation which has led to radicalization and extremism.
“In reality,” Steshenko continues, “at first glance, harmony rules in the relaztions of the [Ukrainian] state and all-possible Islamic organizations.” Alraid, for example, has seven centers in the largest cities, distributes a full-color twelve-page newspaper, and “teaches all who want the foundations of Islam.”
But she says, some of the Islamic propaganda in Ukraine bears an openly anti-Slavic and by implication anti-Russian character. According to Crimean media, she says, Muslims groups have distributed broadsides against smoking and drinking showing Slavs who are smoking or drunk and contrasting them with Muslims who are clearly flourishing and in good health.
Alraid itself, Steshenko says, which has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood abroad and the Party of Muslims of Ukraine, has special courses for young women who are paid 250 to 300 US dollars monthly to attend, money they lose if they do not wear the hijab and go to mosque regularly, an arrangement that the Rosbalt.ru journalist says is “the classic method of sects.”
The money for such activities, the journalist suggests, comes from religious ministries in Kuwait and Qatar. She says that “only government jurists and religious specialists are in a position to assert officially that the actions of Alraid are a threat to the state.” But Streshenko says that “Kyiv is behaving strangely.”
“Official Kyiv has never reacted” to statements by Tatar leaders that “their co-nationals are fighting against Russians in Chechnya,” she says, and the Ukrainian government “not once by word or deed has prevented Chechen militants from curing their wounds in Crimean and Odessa sanatoria” – despite a Russian-Ukrainian treaty banning this.
“Why does official Kyiv relate to Islamists” in this way, Steshenko asks rhetorically before suggesting that the answer “in general is simple.” Earlier Kyiv feared that Crimea might become part of Russia and so supported Islamic groups to block that, but now, with “the genie out of the bottle,” Ukraine has little choice but to continue to be deferential.
In Ukraine, Steshenko says, it is already widely recognized that “the influence of the Mejlis on the Tatar population is falling and that young people sympathize with the beared ones from Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other sects.” As a result, “radicals are driving the moderates out of Crimea’s mosques” – mosques that were build with “Saudi and Turkish money.”
Steshenko clearly shows her intentions when she concludes her article by quoting the message to the Kyiv conference of Deputy Culture Minsiter Yury Bogutsky to the effect that “Ukraine is creating all conditions necessary for the equality of ethnoses and religions” and then by asking “But what about the ethnic Russians, Mr. Minister?”