By Paul Goble
A growing number of Muslims from the Russian Federation are now living in Turkey on a more or less permanent basis, and that community, whose size is estimated to be from a few thousand to some tens of thousands, is prepared to defend Turkey against Russia but is not closely connected with ISIS.
Diana Aliyeva of Kavkazsky Uzel and Olga Ivshina of the BBC spoke with some of the leaders of this new diaspora as well as with experts who have been trying to keep track of it (bbc.com/russian/international/2015/12/151218_muhajirs_islam_russia_turkey?ocid=ssitocialflow_facebook).
Dmitry Chernomorchenko, who edits the Golos Islam site from Istanbul to which he emigrated it 2012, says that “now Muslims are not leaving Russia but are evacuating” because of the pressure put on Muslims of all kinds on that country given that Russians fail to distinguish between Muslims and terrorists.
Those Muslims who have come from Russia to Turkey call themselves “muhajirs,” which in Arabic means “resettlers.” They have left Russia for many reasons but mostly because of repression. A geologist, he faced constant questions about his religious faith because of his beard, but “geologists always have beards,” he says.
Unfortunately, the problems of Muslims from Russia have not ended when they arrive in Turkey. The FSB routinely sends lists of such people claiming that they have ties with extremists and under the terms of a bilateral agreement, Ankara extradites them, even though statistics show that few of them are attached to ISIS.
Gumer Isayev, director of Istanbul’s Institute for Russian Research, says that it is a big mistake to think that all or even a large fraction of Muslims from Russia in Turkey are interested in supporting ISIS. Some may be, but they constitute a very small share. Most simply want to live and practice their religion without being oppressed by anyone.
Akhmet Yarlykapov, a specialist on Islamic societies at the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, agrees. The main goal of the mujahirs, he says, “is to live in a Muslim country. Some consider Turkey the ideal model; some Egypt of the Mursi period; and some the part of Syria controlled by the opposition to Bashar Asad.”
“Even those people who now are fighting in Syria,” Yarlykapov says, “went there to live” in a Muslim society. That they are fighting simply means that the one now requires the other not that they necessarily went to fight in the first place.
Aliyeva and Ishina say that “certain ‘mujahirs’ who have immigrated into Turkey continue to participate in Russian-language Islamic sites, to take up human rights questions, and to speak at conferences,” although most simply try to live their lives in a quiet way.
One of the activists, Salman Sever, tells them that in addition to cooperating with each other, many of the muhajirs also have “fruitful contacts with Ukrainian colleagues” because “the general attitude of the muhajirs now is that “we are ready to defend Turkey from Russia” and to use the military experience they gained in the Russian army or fighting Moscow for Turkey.
Exactly how many Muslims from Russia are now in Turkey is difficult to say. There are no precise statistics and estimates range from a few thousand to “tens of thousands.” Most have come only recently, with the largest spike occurring between 2011 and 2012. Among them are Tatars, Bashkirs, people from the Caucasus and ethnic Russian converts to islam.
Salman notes that “in Russia many jamaats are banned, even if they have no connection to ISIS or the theological platform on which ISIS stands. The siloviki continue to tighten the screws and to suppress any Islamic activity.” That is generating dissatisfaction and there “the flow of mujahirs will intensify.”