Praying for Peace, Struggling for Freedom. An analysis from a Muslim viewpoint by Prof Dr Mykhaylo Yakubovych
The tragedy of MH17 flight, when 298 innocent people where killed, opened a new cruel page in Ukrainian conflict. A recent sanctions against Russian economy, introduced by EU and USA, shows that the conflict is going to be even more internationally contextualized, than it has been considered before. Unfortunately, some of the Western politicians and political experts still argue that not only Russia is the reason of Ukrainian problems, because US government also has its interest in Ukraine (especially, this partially true).
Nevertheless, it is only Russia who occupied the Crimea and it is only Russian weapon which penetrates Ukrainian frontiers to help pro-Russian separatists in Donbass. One of this missiles was the Buk missile system which is supposedly destroyed Malasian aircraft. Despite the official international commissions still work on their final reports, many proofs argue this terrible fact.
It is really hard to make any of political forecasts for the situation. Too many question must be answered to determine this: do the parties stop in Donbass, or other parts of Ukraine (and not only Ukraine) may be turbulent in the near future as well? Will the sanction really work to stop Russia? Does anyone, both West and East, really wants peace in Ukraine?
One of the groups of Ukrainian people, who, like the followers of other religions, want to live in a prosperous and peaceful country, is Muslims. Nowadays, there are around 600.000 Muslims in Ukraine, including annexe
d Crimea (where around half of them, 280.000 – 300.000 are live). The second of the “Islamic areas” is Donbass, one of the most populous parts of Ukraine (around 4.300.000 in Donets’k and 2.300.000 on Luhans’k region). Here more than 50.000 of Muslims live, mainly in Donets’k, Luhans’k, Krasnyi Luch, Konstantinovka, Torez, Snizhne, Stakhaniv and other cities. Most of the local Muslims are Volga Tatars, who live on th
ese territories since the end of 19th century. There is also a significant number of inhabitants from other regions of ex-USSR (Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan), Ukrainian/Russian converts as well as students from Arabic countries and Meskheti Turks. The later mostly lived in the city of Slov’yans’k, leaving it when the city was in the hands of Pro-Russian separatists. Most of the Muslims with foreign citizenship already left both Donets’k and Luhans’k regions.
During the protests against the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yakukovych, many Ukrainian Muslims participated in democratic manifestations. First of all, it were Crimean Tatars. Their leaders as well as religious authorities presented their speeches in Kyiv’s central square (Maydan Nezaleznosti), the most important spot of the protests. However, after the annexation of Crimea by the Russian authorities, many of the Crimean activists were pressured to leave their homeland. Mustafa Jemilev, a worldly recognized leader of Crimean Tatars and Refat Chubarov, the head of the Council of Crimean Tatarian People (Mejlis) already refused to return to Crimea. Unsurprisinlgy, new authorities are trying to dislodge Mejlis from the public life. Many Muslim activists, such as Walid Abu Yusuf (Ivan Selentsov), who is know for his performances on distribution of the translation of the Qur’an among non-Muslims, has also left Crimea after being arrested by so-called “Crimean Self-Defense Troops” (in reality, pro-Russian militia).
The same is applicable to many active believers, who moved to other parts of Ukraine and Turkey. It is assumed now, that around 10.000 of Crimean Tatars left their homeland after the annexation of Crimea. Despite the fact that during these few month Islamic activity in Crimea continued its development (a few new mosques has been opened), Muslim communities fall into control of Russian security services. Recently, many Muslims were searched and questioned by police. Moreover, few times armed men ransacked Islamic schools (for example, in Kolchugino near Simferopol’). They confiscated mostly personal computers as well as some Islamic literature. It must be remembered that Russia has its own “index” of the “extremist literature”, where many really neutral Islamic books are listed to be prohibited in distribution. In general, the situation in Crimea remains tense. It seems that Russian authorities wish to have a Crimea model of “state-controlled” religion, like in other regions of the country.
Another state of affairs could be observed in Donbass. In the beginning of April, the civil protest against new Ukrainian authorities converted into real terrorism. Thousands of armed militants, including mercenaries from Russia, started their struggle in order to make a kind of new “state” in Ukraine, Novorossiya (“New Russia”). Recently it became clear that this project, written in the cabinets of the Kremlin, has little support among the population of the Eastern Ukraine. Only in Donbass, where the level of sympathies to Pro-Russian ideas reached 25-30 percents (Ukrainian officials said that around 30 percents of Donbass population participated in the illegal referendum for independence of May, 11), separatism started to be a great problem.
Four months of the war (officially called “Counter-Terror Operation”) took hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers, more than thousand of the civilian population and, finally, at least two thousands of Pro-Russian separatists. Up to the beginning of August the area of battlefields has been reduced in twice: now Pro-Russian separatists control the center of Donets’k region (around the city of Donets’k) and the middle part of Luhans’k region.
In the beginning of this war, Muslim leaders of Donbass area made their statements to prevent separatists activities. Said Ismagilov, Mufti of Islamic Religious Administration of Ukraine “Ummah”, published his claim to Russian Muslims. In this document, he asked them not to go to Ukraine to fight against Ukrainian army, since many armed Chechen mercenaries came to Donets’k. Seyfulla Rashidov of Dagestanian origin, a head of “Salam” Islamic community in Luhans’k, said in his interview that Muslims of Luhans’k region does not want to be a part of Russia in any case. He also argued that the problem of Ukraine is corruption and absence of true patriotic upbringing, and for this reason many people supported ideas of separatism.
Nevertheless, some categories of Donets’k and Crimean Muslims does not managed to evaluate the situation and became a passive or active followers of Pro-Russian separatism. The reason was also that many Russian Islamic organizations (mostly the official ones, loyal to government) welcomed not only the annexation of Crimea, but also separatism in Donbass. Unfortunately, there a just a few voices from Russian Muslims which really blame Russia for this terrible war in Ukraine. Russian medias also made their best efforts to persuade many people in the Eastern Ukraine that other parts of Ukraine are “occupied by Nazi groups and US forces”.
Moreover, for a year before this, former president Yanukovych, who represented Donets’k political elite, declared that Donbass as a region which “feeds all other parts” of Ukraine (in reality, Donbass itself is a subsidized district). Despite the fact that some of the Muslims from the old generation (among those, who still have great sympathy to the USSR) supported separatist ideas, their role in conflict is extremely small. Most of the Muslims from the youth generation in Donbass, however, have a neutral or pro-Ukrainian position. Nowadays, however, when many people of Donbass witnessed violence under the banners of Pro-Russian separatists, they became more loyal to pro-Ukrainian ideas.
Many of Muslims from Crimea and other parts of Ukraine become the members of Ukrainian regular armed forces and the voluntary troops (“Donbass”, “Kyiv”, “Aydar”). Dozens of Muslims receive halal food in the first lines of defense, and some of the troops have significant numbers of Muslims. Recently, the military unit “Crimea”, where some Muslims from the peninsula and other parts of Ukraine are present, started its training. “Every day the “Crimea” unit accepts new members which came to resist Russian intervention. To make our land free, to make our people future better and for the justice we are ready to have a battle with every enemy”, says Ali, one of the soldiers from “Crimea”. Now this military unit is preparing for active operation in the East of Ukraine. “Our second goal is Crimea”, adds Ali.
Since the beginning of Pro-Russian protests, many Muslims of Donbass live in the atmosphere of fear. Prayer of Eid al-Fitr, for example, was less visited by Muslims then before. In Donets’k, according to the local Islamic center, only two hundreds of Muslims (out of the thousands living here) visited this event. Other mosques experienced the same outflow of the people. Another reason for this is the exodus of the local population from Donbass. It is said officially, that around 100.000 people left their homes for other parts of Ukraine. Many of them also moved to Russia.
It is really hard to make any of predictions now, because the real powers behind this war seems to be unknown. It is not clear, will Putin start a large-scale invasion or merely continue to support his separatists. The real position of the West (is there any possibility of the real military help to Ukraine?) is also unknown, but the recent sanctions shows a level of unity between EU members in this issue. Especially, EU still hopes that Russia will stop and the economical ties will remain beneficial for both sides.
What can international Muslim community to do now? First of all, monitoring the issue of Muslim rights in Crimea and those parts of Ukraine which are controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Muslim world need to know the truth. That is about Ukraine, Palestine, Syria and other regions, really dramatic to Islam and Muslims. Furthermore, the rise of ultra-right parties in some EU states (France, Netherlands, Hungary), which demonstratively support Russian politics in Ukraine, is a real challenge for European Muslims as well. This is the historical moment, where both the Islamophobia and pro-Russian position stand very close to each other. After Syria and Ukraine, world Muslim community must understand, that Eastern superpowers are not better than Western ones in their double-standard politics. The sooner this will be understood the better it will be for global Islamic community.