Russia’s Knotty Policies on Islam, Mirrored in Trial
KAZAN, Russia — Almaz Khasanov stood up to a microphone in the green-painted cage where he and his co-defendants sit and made a statement that sent a wave of anxiety through the cramped courtroom here.
“I am a member of the political party, Hizbut Tahrir,” he said in prepared testimony. “The goal of this organization is the creation of an Islamic way of life, including the creation of an Islamic Caliphate.”
Mr. Khasanov is a self-styled religious revolutionary who has vowed to challenge the longstanding way of life here in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, an ancient Muslim region deep in Russia’s heartland.
He is on trial along with 11 others, accused of membership in a terrorist organization and of fomenting plots to violently overthrow the government. Most of the men deny belonging to the group, and their friends and human rights advocates say that the Russian police and intelligence agents used torture to extract false evidence in the case.
By contrast, Mr. Khasanov freely admits to being a member of Hizbut Tahrir and insists that it should be his right. While Hizbut Tahrir has been banned as a terrorist organization in Russia and most of the other countries of the former Soviet Union, it has sworn off violence as a means of achieving its goals. It is allowed to operate in the United States and most of the European Union, though typically under intense scrutiny.
Nevertheless, many people here, Muslim and Russian Orthodox alike, are unsettled by the unabashed fundamentalism of Hizbut Tahrir, which preaches a pre-modern theology that is generally incompatible with Western notions of civil society. In that sense, the trial has underscored the country’s broader ambivalence toward its Muslim minority.
Though historically Muslim, Kazan, a city on the Volga River about 500 miles east of Moscow, has been shaped more by its confluence of cultures than by any one social current. Crescent-topped minarets compete with gilt Orthodox cupolas and bland Soviet high-rises for prominence in the city’s skyline, though shopping malls, boutique hotels, bars and nightclubs also appear striking.
The Tatar Muslims here, who have lived under Moscow’s control since Ivan the Terrible wrested the region from the Mongol Empire in the 16th century, appear little different from their Russian neighbors in their secular dress and penchant for chilled vodka.
Yet an influx of conservative ideas from abroad, officials and religious leaders say, is beginning to undermine local traditions and could even threaten the stability of the region.
But all the defendants on trial, their relatives and many experts on Islam in Russia deny this.
It is still unclear what level of involvement, if any, each of the other men had in Hizbut Tahrir. Many of their relatives denied that they were members at all. Rather, they said the men, mostly students, were being persecuted for studying and proselytizing Islam outside official religious structures.
“These are educated people — some have two degrees — and they were interested in different currents of Islam,” said Gulnaza Faisulina, whose husband is on trial. “They are seeking philosophical thoughts, and not all the religious leaders are capable of providing this.”
Valiulla Yakupov, a deputy mufti of the government-backed Muslim Religious Board of the Republic of Tatarstan, agreed that the Muslim establishment had not responded to the interests and desires of young Muslims.
“These people have been jailed for their ideas, not for their actions,” he said. “If I and other religious figures worked with them more actively and explained things to them, this most likely would not have happened.”
Inevitably, the trial has reflected Russia’s often contradictory policies toward Muslims, who number between 15 million and 20 million out of an overall population of 140 million. The authorities have promoted the construction of mosques and religious schools, and Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, while president, lobbied the government of Saudi Arabia to increase quotas on Russian Muslims permitted to take part in the annual hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca.
But the government has also embarked on a concerted campaign of intimidation and persecution of free-thinking Muslims that has at times failed to adhere to the contours of human rights law, said Yelena Ryabinina, an expert on Muslim affairs in Russia.
Dmitry Afanasov, a Russian convert to Islam and a friend of many of the men on trial in Kazan, said he was beaten badly and lost consciousness several times at the hands of the police, who he said tortured him into giving false testimony incriminating his friends in terrorist plots in exchange for his freedom.
“They said they were given the green light to beat Muslims,” he said.
It is a campaign shaped in large part by Russia’s decade-and-a-half struggle against violent Muslim-backed separatist movements in the North Caucasus. Two bloody wars in Chechnya alone caused thousands of deaths.
Religious violence, however, is practically unheard of in Tatarstan, where the powerful president, Mintimer Shaimiev, has managed to preserve broad autonomy from Moscow in exchange for keeping separatist sentiments at bay.
The religious revival here, while broad, has been largely benign. About 50 mosques have been built since the fall of the Soviet Union. Madrasas and halal meat shops have opened, and more and more women, many of them young, walk the ornate pedestrian avenues wearing colorful head scarves.
Ruslan Kurbanov, a senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute for Oriental Studies, accused the authorities of stifling a new generation of Muslim thinkers seeking to rejuvenate the religion. Clamping a lid on religious innovation, he said, will only drive more Muslims to extremism.
“Only through acceptance of these new ideas,” he said, “and through permitting pluralism of opinion within official religious structures can the growing tensions and inclination of Muslims to extremism be eliminated.”
Before the recent hearing, Farida Rafikov, the mother of Dias Rafikov, one of the defendants, was adamant about her son’s innocence, saying he was passionately involved in his religion and nothing else.
Following Mr. Khasanov’s testimony, however, she appeared shaken.
“I just don’t know if he will admit to it or not,” she said. “I’m afraid to think about it.”
Sumber: The New York Times
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