Tatarstan: The Battle over Islam in Russia’s Heartland

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From the Summer Issue "Unchaining Labor"

By Ronan Keenan

KAZAN, Tatarstan—Shelves of vodka line a shop wall in Kazan, the capital of the Tatarstan republic. Just opposite, Islamic prayer beads sit in heaps on a rack. In this Russian-ruled region with a Muslim majority, bars and mosques exist side by side. A nearby store advertises clothing for Muslim women, and inside, Zulfia, one of the two female owners, helps customers with traditional headscarves and brightly colored skirts. Since she opened the store nine years ago, Zulfia says demand is increasing as women embrace Muslim traditions with a modern twist. Outside, the Kazan Kremlin, a citadel home to Tatarstan’s president, stands elevated on the banks of the Kazanka River where its Islamic minarets and Orthodox domes overlook the city.

A federal republic within Russia located 500 miles east of Moscow, Tatarstan has long been a model region for religious and ethnic tolerance. Half the republic’s four million inhabitants are Tatars, an indigenous non-Slavic people, while ethnic Russians account for another 40 percent and small ethnic groups make up the rest. In recent years, oil wealth has transformed Kazan into a vibrant, multi-cultural city. Today, high-rise office complexes and modern residential developments dwarf the narrow European-style streets and large Soviet-era tower blocks. Kazan also boasts a metro system, one of Europe’s top soccer teams, and plans for the creation of two satellite cities to attract high-tech companies from abroad.

But 1,000 miles away, deep in the North Caucasus, a disturbing online video emerged in March 2011. It was from Doku Umarov, the self-proclaimed Emir of the Caucasus Emirate, a network of groups that aspire to form a conservative Islamic state in Russia’s southwestern tip that includes the turbulent republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. In the video, Umarov, a long-time Chechen militant, stands in a snowy woodland, dressed in military fatigues and flanked by two comrades sporting machine guns. A long, brown beard frames his pale, lined face. With one finger pointing toward the sky, Umarov launches into his speech with a quote from the Prophet Muhammad, “He who dies and has not fought and had no intention to fight, dies in one of the forms of hypocrisy.” Speaking briskly but directly, his introduction and tone mimic al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.

In the message, Umarov announces his intention to expand the Caucasus Emirate’s operations from the North Caucasus into Russia’s heartland, calling on Muslims in Tatarstan to revolt against Russia. In the past, some anti-Moscow critics alleged that the Russian government exaggerated Umarov’s threats to boost the popularity of Vladimir Putin’s strong-armed tactics against Chechen rebels. But that attitude changed after Umarov claimed responsibility for the bombings of Moscow’s Metro in 2010 and its airport in 2011, killing 76 people and injuring hundreds more. Umarov’s words are now taken seriously. The organization’s al-Qaida links spurred the United States to offer a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture of the 49-year-old terrorist leader. Moscow and the West are acutely aware that Tatarstan could serve as a fertile breeding ground for radical Islam. The region is a popular destination for Muslim immigrants from the North Caucasus as well as Central Asian nations that share a porous border with Afghanistan.


Like al-Qaida and its affiliates, the Caucasus Emirate groups adhere to a Salafist brand of jihad, a fundamentalist Sunni ideology that prevails in Saudi Arabia. Salafism is an intellectual movement rather than an organization, preaching a return to the moral practices of the first Muslims, known as al-Salaf al-Salih. The vast majority of Salafists are peaceful, but there are elements that advocate a violent jihad.

Umarov founded the Caucasus Emirate in 2007 when he labelled Western nations the enemies of all Muslims and announced his intention to establish sharia law in the North Caucasus. It marked the first time a high profile Chechen figure had used radical Islamist rhetoric, changing the tone of the North Caucasus rebellion from one of Russian separation to Islamic jihad. Al-Qaida has established links with the Caucasus Emirate and organized training in the North Caucasus. The U.S. State Department also says Chechen fighters attended camps in Afghanistan.

In the March 2011 video, Umarov calls on followers to “intensify operations on elimination of the enemies of Allah.” He specifically cites the “Russian-occupied territory of Tatarstan,” something not mentioned in previous messages, and criticizes Russian Islamic figureheads, labelling them “corrupt puppets” who “sold their honor and Islam” for “Putin and other infidel leaders.” Umarov’s goal is to mobilize the 14 million Russian Muslims who live outside the North Caucasus for Islamic jihad.

Many North Caucasus citizens reject the influence of Moscow, which has led a few ethnic Russians in the region to convert to radical Islam and even participate in the Caucasus Emirate’s attacks in Moscow. Umarov’s group believes some Tatar Muslims may feel the similarly about the Russian government, providing the terrorist organization with a new and potent recruiting opportunity.

Recently, the global reach of the Caucasus Emirate has been growing. Some of its fighters are battling in the streets of Syria to take down the Assad regime, and evidence has emerged of European funding sources.

Bringing the turmoil that has plagued Chechnya and Dagestan to an oil producing region with a prosperous ethnic Russian population would be a major victory in Umarov’s unremitting battle against Moscow. Tatarstan’s central geographic location and global economic links make it difficult for Russian forces to isolate it in the same manner as the impoverished North Caucasus. Widespread conflict in the region would be a significant blow to Russian stability and further evidence of the growing global influence of Islamic militancy.


Burgeoning economic opportunities in Tatarstan have attracted immigrants from the North Caucasus and Central Asia. In the last few years, Tatarstan’s authorities have been concerned that this could lead a divergence in Islamic teachings. In 2011, Ildus Faizov was appointed chairman of Tatarstan’s Muslim Religious Board, becoming the chief mufti and the official Islamic leader of the republic. He began his agenda with an open campaign against “foreign-influenced” Islam, in particular Salafism, whose followers he believed harbored extremists in Tatarstan. Officials say there are 3,000 Salafists in the region, but local muftis claim the actual number is much higher. Rais Suleymanov, an ethnic Tatar and head of the Volga area Center of Regional and Ethnic-Religious Studies, says within the Salafist population there are over 100 radical militants prepared to launch a violent insurgency.

One year after assuming his chief mufti role, Faizov made a grave assessment of Islamic influences in the region. “There is a movement to impose an alien ideology on Tatarstan’s Muslims,” he said in May 2012. “Thousands of missionaries from various countries rushed into the country and started imposing their styles of Islam, destroying local traditions and a nationally coordinated system of religious rites. As a result in Russia, there even emerged groups of radical Muslims who were willing to slaughter the civilian population in order to achieve their aims.”

Faizov’s measures against Salafism took the form of a ban on textbooks from Saudi Arabia, the outright removal of imams that he deemed too radical, and the requirement of all other imams to undergo a course in traditional Hanafi, a moderate form of Islam practiced widely in Tatarstan. Several short-lived but vocal protests took place outside Salafist mosques, which Faizov claimed were products of foreign Islamic movements. The new rules were met by resentment on Kavkaz Center, a news portal of the Caucasus Emirate. One post on the Kavakaz Center website typified fundamentalists’ sentiment, declaring that the Tatarstan authorities were trying  to “destroy the roots of the correct understanding of Islam [and] foist delusions and heresies in the form of the traditional national Hanafi.”

Valiulla Yakupov, a key spiritual figure and deputy mufti, campaigned for an outright ban on Salafism. In July 2012, he called on Tatars to “fight for ourselves” against the “miserable psychology” of fundamentalists who, he said, were marginalizing Tatar influence in mosques.


On the morning of July 19, 2012, hours before the start of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, Yakupov left his home as usual just after 10 a.m. Outside, he was hit by a hail of bullets, forcing him to crawl to his car, where he died. Several miles away, Faizov was driving his SUV when he received a phone call notifying him of the attack on Yakupov. As he pulled over at an intersection, a series of bombs exploded under his car. Not wearing his seatbelt, Faizov managed to escape before the car was engulfed in flames. His survival with only broken legs was attributed to the attackers having planted explosives under the passenger seat, erroneously believing he would not be the driver.

Unlike in the North Caucasus, attacks on religious leaders were unprecedented in Tatarstan. Some initial reports blamed the bloodshed on grievances over the distribution of profits from Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca. But later that day, attention turned to radical Islamists of the Caucasus Emirate when an online video appeared from a group calling itself the “Mujahedeen of Tatarstan.” Lasting little more than a minute, the video features seven men standing in a forest dressed in khaki fatigues, holding pistols and Kalashnikov rifles. Only one of the men is unmasked, the clean-shaven speaker who identifies himself as Muhammad and Emir of the Mujahedeen of Tatarstan. He speaks Russian with a Tatar accent and swears allegiance to Doku Umarov, saying his group is “prepared to carry out all [Umarov’s] orders according to sharia.”

Two weeks later, another video appeared featuring the same speaker, sitting in a forest on bended knees with a machine gun at his side. He again identifies himself as Muhammad and Emir of the Mujahedeen of Tatarstan. This time he refers directly to the mufti attacks and warns of further “operations” against all moderate Muslim leaders of Tatarstan who refuse to practice Umarov’s version of Islamic law.


The night following the attacks, television images showed Faizov lying on a hospital bed with an assortment of tubes protruding from his arms. He was visited by Rustam Minnikhanov, an ethnic Tatar appointed as president of Tatarstan in 2010 by then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. Minnikhanov, with a surgical coat draped across the shoulders of his tailored suit, posed for photos with Faizov and said the violence was an “obvious challenge” to the traditional Islam of Tatarstan.

Several days later, the deputy prime minister, Asgat Safarov, said the “main motive behind the crimes was the professional activities of Yakupov and Faizov and their firm opposition to the Salaf ideology and followers.” He sought to further deepen the religious differences by saying, “the Hanafi and Salafist movements represent light and dark forces for the republic.”

Like Minnikhanov, Valdimir Putin was eager to show his allegiance to Faizov. A month after the July 2012 mufti attacks, he travelled to Bolgar, a historical site where Tatars first adopted Islam. During the visit, Putin held a presentation where Faizov, dressed in his traditional robe and white turban, was brought out in a wheelchair. Affixing a national medal to a frail-looking Faizov, Putin made a speech echoing the same warnings he made to Chechen radicals when he came to power in 1999: “We will not allow anyone to tear our country apart by exploiting ethnic and religious differences. Terrorists, bandits, whatever ideological slogans they use, want to achieve only one thing—to sow hatred and fear.”


Unlike the North Caucasus region that includes the volatile Dagestan and Chechnya, Tatarstan to the north has historically had an amenable relationship with Russia’s leadership. Whereas the North Caucasus was colonized in the late 19th century, Tatarstan’s integration to Russia dates back 300 years earlier to the reign of Ivan the Terrible. After the predecessors to the Tatars, the Bolgars, turned to Islam in A.D. 922, its influence grew steadily, prompting Catherine the Great to make it the kingdom’s official religion in the 18th century. The 1917 Bolshevik revolution brought a sudden change. The new regime sought to close most religious institutions, and many mosques were turned into gyms and stables. By the 1980s, Tatarstan was home to only a handful of functioning mosques. Communist rule also saw the deterioration of the Tatar ethnic language, with the alphabet officially changed from Arabic to Latin and then Cryllic in an attempt to bring about a uniform Soviet identity. For more than seven decades, Tatar culture was effectively frozen.

The 1991 Soviet collapse touched off a rapid revival in Islam. Keen to distinguish themselves, Tatars sought to embrace their Islamic heritage, and today there are more than 1,000 mosques in Tatarstan. The Tatar language was also reborn in Latin script, and an independence movement was established. Under the leadership of Mintimer Shaimiev, in 1992 more than 60 percent of the republic’s population voted for full Tatarstan sovereignty. While total independence was not granted, Boris Yeltsin’s belief in federalism allowed Tatarstan to gain some sovereignty, including the ability to elect leadership, freedom to promote the Tatar language, and control of its own economy, including significant deposits of oil and natural gas.

Yet the 13 years since Putin’s arrival in power have seen a consolidation by Moscow, with centralizing reforms by Kremlin leaders that limit any Tatar hopes for full independence. Eager to distance itself from the Yeltsin era, Putin’s regime has used court rulings and direct executive orders to whittle away at the autonomy of Russia’s 21 republics. Cyrillic became the only official alphabet permitted in Russian provinces and the printing of Tatar in Latin was deemed a risk to national security. Next, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled against sovereignty declarations by any of the republics. A further change decreed that the president of Tatarstan, and any other regional ruler, must be appointed and removed with Moscow’s approval.


Authorities reacted to July’s murderous attacks on the two Tartar Muslim leaders quickly and bluntly. In August, President Minnikhanov signed new laws that included a ban on foreign nationals establishing religious groups and required foreign educated imams to have a Russian-certified diploma before teaching.

But by openly favoring one form of Islam over another, the authorities risk promoting a seemingly victimized Salafism. In August alone, as many as 700 arrests were reportedly made in connection with the July attacks, with some kept in custody for unusually long periods. The case of Ilnar Kharisov typifies the authorities’ reaction. Kharisov, an imam in a village near the town of Almetevsk, was arrested on accusations of preaching a foreign Islam. The arrest raised concerns among some in the community. “They’ve taken all the good imams away, and they’ve replaced them with clowns in their places, and they protect them there with police. People are very unhappy here,” says one local.

Since July there have been several militant incidents. In August, an exploded car was found on the outskirts of Kazan. At the scene were three dead bodies, a Kalashnikov rifle, and items that officials called “religious materials.” The Tatarstan Ministry of Interior claimed the evidence suggested a failed terrorist attack.

In October, a large Federal Security Service (FSB) counter-terrorism operation was launched for the first time in Tatarstan. The targets were the suspected attackers of Faizov and Yakupov. In a similar manner to raids carried out in the North Caucasus, the forces surrounded a Kazan apartment block where two suspects, Robert Valeyev and Ruslan Kashapov, were hiding.  Aware that the men could be armed, the FSB evacuated civilians in the area. After the men refused to put down their weapons, a several hour stand-off ensued with shots being fired from both sides. Eventually the FSB stormed the building, and both suspects and an FSB agent were killed. Inside the apartment officers found weapons, ammunition, a bomb-making laboratory, and three kilos (6.6 pounds) of explosives. The FSB said both men had planned to launch an attack two days later in crowded areas where people would be celebrating the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday.

The operation won favorable headlines for the FSB, with Russian media coverage lauding it as a significant victory against Islamic radicals. The “North Caucasus style” of the mission also served as an indication of how seriously authorities are treating the apparent terrorist threat.

Opinion, however, is mixed in the Tatar community. While some are relieved that radicalism is being addressed, others doubt the Russian government’s motives, believing officials are exaggerating the Islamist menace to spread anxiety. As one local Tatar suggests, “they hope we will embrace Moscow to get away from terror.” The pro-Moscow leadership of Tatarstan may also be using their anti-terrorism mission as a vehicle to suppress political opponents. Many of those arrested in August reportedly had no links to “foreign Islam” but were known Tatar nationalists.


Radical Muslims belong to a variety of sects that oppose Hanafi Islam, or “Russian Islam” as it is colloquially known. Hanafi combines moderate Islamic teachings with traditional Tatar heritage, recognizing female clerics and Russian holidays. The pragmatic nature of Hanafi and its flexibility around Western culture has brought disdain from Salafists who view it as impure and overly influenced by Russia’s secular leadership.

The arrival of the more conservative Islam began in the post-Soviet vacuum when demand for Muslim teachers outweighed supply. Students started going abroad for study, particularly to Saudi Arabia. At the same time, many clerics from Arabia and Turkey arrived in the region. The Tatar population adhering to more conservative forms of Islam remains small, but their presence is growing. Salafists are the most notable fundamentalist group, and are often labeled “Wahhabis” referring to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the cleric central to the formation of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and on whose principles Salafism is based.

Even though Salafism took root in Tatarstan in the mid-1990s, it is not associated with a recognized clergy and has no official presence. The ability of Salafism to endure has been aided by migration from the North Caucasus and wealthy Saudis who fund madrasses, religious schools, which preach adherence to sharia law. Confined to the margins, Salafists regard themselves as a separate entity, distinct from Orthodox Russians and Hanafi Tatars, viewing the establishment as anti-Islamic persecutors.

Rais Suleymanov has spent several years warning of radical Islam’s growing influence, criticizing a general ignorance of the threat. Suleymanov expresses concern that a slow decline in the region’s ethnic Russian population coupled with a rise in Salafism will derail Tatarstan’s modernization. “Changes in the Muslim ummah [community], resulting in a growing number of young people being sucked into [radical] Islam, were mostly neglected and ignored by the regional authorities,” he says.

Prior to 2012, Tatarstan had little history of militancy. Today, however, a key goal for Islamic radicals is to attract the attention of nationalistic Tatar youth, a minority eager to embrace their Muslim heritage and possibly sympathetic to the struggle of North Caucasus rebels. Radical teachings have proven particularly attractive to educated youth drawn to ideologies espousing social justice and rejection of government. 


Since it was founded in 1989, the Azatlyk nationalist movement has sought to promote unity among Tatars and other Turkic ethnic groups to realize an independent state, free from Russian rule. While such nationalism has waned over the last decade, 24-year-old Nail Nabiullin has maintained the Azatlyk’s public presence through energetic demonstrations. Among his key mantras is “Turkic tribes can turn into one nation only through Islam.” Religion plays a prominent role in Azatlyk rhetoric, but historically the movement has not been based on radicalism, rather using moderate Islam to differentiate Tatars from the broader Russian population.

Last summer, Nabiullin organized a demonstration near the Tatarstan State Theater, which attracted about 100 people. Motivated by the spate of arrests following the July 2012 attacks, speakers at the rally denounced the “suppression of Muslims,” with Nabiullin charging that the threat allegedly posed by Islamic radicals “is all a provocation, led by Moscow.” Unlike most Azatlyk events, Tatar flags wereinconspicuous, and everyone in attendance was instructed to abide by sharia rules, meaning separate male and female sections. Several Islamic banners were unveiled at the top of the stage—many with white lettering of the shahada, Islamic creed, on a black background. These same banners have been used in online videos by Doku Umarov and the Mujahedeen of Tatarstan. Several analysts, including Suleymanov, identified members of radical Islamist groups who shared the stage with Azatlyk demonstrators, marking the first time both movements had publicly campaigned together.

Despite the apparent incongruity of nationalist separatists longing for a democratic state operating alongside fundamentalist Islamists striving for a single global caliphate, the two movements had apparently forged a relationship under the premise, “An enemy of Moscow is a friend of ours.”


The Caucasus Emirate has yet to prove it can work effectively on a large scale, but it can incite terrorism in the region. While groups such as the Mujahedeen of Tatarstan are inspired by Doku Umarov’s cause, their direct militant links to the Caucasus Emirate are tenuous. Yet the growth of social media allows radical ideology to spread regardless of physical links, increasing the opportunities for radical Islamists to influence Tatar youth. If authorities persist with the suppression of fundamentalist Muslims, nationalists may seek to take advantage of the social discord and align themselves with radicals.

Hard-line anti-Salafist views are the norm among Russian officials. Farid Salman, head of the Russian Association of Islamic Accord, an organization representing “official Islam,” says the spread of Salafist ideology can be defeated only by force and that no dialogue should be held. This is in contrast to the recent change in the North Caucasus where the government now negotiates with Salafist groups. For the sake of regional stability, Salman’s views are hopefully not precursors to Moscow’s future policies.


Apart from its sizable Muslim population, Tatarstan has little in common with the North Caucasus. Most Tatar Muslims do not see themselves as fundamentally different from ethnic Russians. Conversely, Muslims in the North Caucasus have historically opposed Russian rule and never integrated into the regime. Unlike in the North Caucasus, there are no sections of cities in Tatarstan that are Islamic enclaves. Tatar Muslims and ethnic Russians mix freely throughout the republic. This is likely to continue as economic opportunities in Tatarstan will encourage ethnic Russians to remain in the region, in contrast to the North Caucasus where stagnation and periodic violence has led to ongoing emigration. The continued Islamic resistance in the North Caucasus is fuelled by recent memories of Chechen independence when it was effectively its own state from 1991 to 1994 and 1996 to 1999, with Doku Umarov serving as security minister in the latter period. The closest Tatarstan has come to independence was the 1992 vote that sparked no unrest when Moscow failed to recognize it.

What attracts so many from the North Caucasus to Tatarstan is the same factor that has maintained such long-term stability in the region—a strong and expanding economy. Tatarstan is one of the few Russian regions to contribute more to the federal budget than it receives. In addition to oil revenues, the region has robust manufacturing and chemical processing industries. The ratings agency Fitch recently praised Tatarstan’s “well-diversified economy, improving operating performance, underpinned by fast growth in tax revenue, prudent budget management, and strong liquidity.”


A lack of political transparency, a favoring of some forms of religion over others, and indiscriminate crackdowns on apparent security threats will not enhance the authorities’ standing among the marginalized. As the Arab Spring demonstrated, brutally quashing free speech is no longer viable, even in the interest of crushing supposedly malignant “foreign influences.” While the level of violence in Tatarstan is not comparable to the North Caucasus, authorities must treat even the status quo as an ongoing threat. Al-Qaida linked militancy is spreading into Russia’s periphery and beyond.

Russia will not allow the North Caucasus to secede and will never recognize the Caucasus Emirate. The region poses too much of a potential security risk to Moscow to tolerate even a modicum of independence. By extension, there is no prospect of Tatarstan winning true sovereignty. Its location and economic contribution make it too valuable to Moscow. But transparent economic practices and open ideological debate could prove key tools, if exercised judiciously, to allow Tatarstan’s population to form identities without resorting to underground extremism.

To reduce the attractiveness of Salafist jihad teachings, Moscow must differentiate between different forms of Islam and make greater efforts to acknowledge publicly that Russia is comprised of various ethnicities with divergent social beliefs. Russia’s Muslims should not be expected to blend into the ethnic Russian culture regardless of whether they are traditional Hanafi or fundamentalist Salafists. The current political structure, where parties based on ethnic, regional or religious identities are outlawed, leads to a vast majority of the Muslim population being disengaged from Russia’s leadership and isolated from society. Diversity must be embraced to curb the alienation of Muslims. A choice for both moderate and fundamentalist Muslims to form political parties can incentivize a focus on social objectives, diminishing the prospect of underground campaigns. Freedom of expression will give hope to those ostracized by ethnic and religious differences, curbing the desire for militancy.

Recent communication from the Caucasus Emirate provides an insight into the effectiveness of political freedom. In one video that emerged in February 2012, Doku Umarov was again in the snowy woods flanked by two comrades. But the message from the man who orchestrated mass bombings in Moscow is different. His aggressive tone dissipated, Umarov reveals he has taken heart from signs of public disenchantment with Putin’s leadership. The protests across Moscow over the last two years have inspired him to reflect on his objectives. “Events in Russia have shown us that Russia’s peaceful population does not support Putin’s Chekist [security state] regime,” says Umarov. Militant operations should be carried out “with precision against the security services, the special services, and the reprobates who are officials. If this peaceful population does not take part in the war against Islam, our religion tells us to take care of this peaceful population and not to touch them.”                  

Umarov stresses the word “peaceful.” Nonviolent demonstrations expressing their political beliefs caused a radical militant leader to alter his approach to jihad. Then in April, the Caucasus Emirate released a statement distancing itself from Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the Boston bombings, noting the “order by the Emir Doku Umarov which prohibits strikes on civilian targets.” Of course, Umarov’s new policy may prove fleeting, and it doesn’t mean that the campaign to destabilize Russia’s heartland has diminished. But by simply allowing more discourse, Russia can take a major step in improving conditions of disenchanted Tatars, leaving the nation less susceptible to the appeal of extremism.



Ronan Keenan is a writer and investment analyst who has traveled throughout Russia carrying out economic and geopolitical analysis.

[Photo Courtesy of Adam Jones]


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