Crimean Tatars have been the traditional Muslims of the lands of today's Ukraine for six hundred years. Their "Khanat" state lasted for centuries. It is well-known that they had been decimated and deported by Stalin in 1944 and were allowed to return only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Due to spontaneous migrations within the Russian and then the Soviet empires, many non-Tatars of Muslim descent settled in Ukraine. Later, in the 1990s, so did a considerable number of Mideastern, mainly Arab immigrants who went there originally for studies, business, adventure, inexpensive life, etc. The latter tend to stick to Islam more than the secularized ex-Soviets although search for national identity led to some kind of Islamic renascence, confirmed by the congress itself. Diversity in origin, culture and religious awareness reveal that the mentalities and interests of Ukraine's Muslims are not identical either.
Mufti Yakubovitch and Mr. Baraghin were re-elected as leaders of the Religious Center at the end of the congress during which the importance of the agreements and the cooperation with the "Ar-Raid Federation of Social Organizations" had been stressed many times.
"Ar-Raid" was registered in Kiev in April 1997 as a federation of nine Muslim associations in the cities of Kiev, Odessa, Zaporozhe, Donetsk, Lvov, Harkov, Simferopol, Vinitsa and Lugansk. It aims at the increase of "the cultural, social and educational level of Ukraine's Muslims," the spread of Islamic culture among, and financial assistance for them, and Islamic proselytism (da'wa) in the country, as stated in its fundraising brochure, in Arabic: "By this, Ar-Raid will become an important breach (thughra) in confronting Christian missionary attacks and Jewish expansion, so assist and help it to be able to follow the way it began..."
Unlike the Tatar-led Religious Center, Ar-Raid has been created and dominated by Arabs residing in Ukraine. It has a fancy headquarters in the capital. It contributes to the (re)construction of mosques, organizes conferences for the country's Muslim community, summer camps for its children (since 1993) and women (Islamic head-scarves are strong symbols in a post-communist country of Orthodox tradition), arranges for ritual slaughter, sometimes free medical care, publishes Islam-related leaflets, books, cassettes, video-tapes in Ukrainian, and a fortnightly paper with the same name, "Ar-Raid." It is printed in Arabic, deals mainly with Arab and international politics, but sometimes also with local events.
The "Ar-Raid Federation" seems to have fruitful contacts in the Arab world. In that brochure, it acknowledges support from the waqf ministries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe, the Muslim World League, the Arab and Muslim embassies in Kiev and several further Islamic private charities, mainly in the Gulf. Even modest Arab help can be significant in this miserable though huge and potentially powerful country.
Ar-Raid paid for the construction of the Odessa Islamic Center (homeland of the Tatars) and particularly for the above-mentioned "Islamic University" of Donetsk which is also close to the Crimea. Most of its still few students are locals, not Arabs: Tatars or even Ukrainian converts.
Directed by Dean Jamal Marzuk it trains imams, hatibs and teachers, following a four-year curriculum. It resembles similar educational institutions in Russia about which we know more.
Ukrainians have been brutalized by Soviet rule and then the harsh conditions of post-socialism. The Orthodox Church offers some kind of refuge in this ideological vacuum but many other (foreign, mostly Christian) proselytizers also take advantage of this situation by deliberately confusing the spiritually hungry and disoriented people. As we shall see Arabs are not necessarily welcome in this xenophobic and intolerant context. (In this respect, neighboring Russia's Chechen war does not help either.) Local Tatar Islam is more accepted, also because it represents a very small but well-known part of the population. However, the Assembly of Crimean Tatars is a markedly secular organization distancing itself from religious reasoning. It regards Islam as national tradition at best so immigrants are the ones whom "authentic Muslim" initiatives (and cash) may be expected from. Turkey (both the secular government and its Islamist opposition) can also be a source of inspiration although ethnic solidarity with Tatars is more important here as it is in the cases of the other Turkic peoples of the former Soviet Union.
In light of the Arab residents' and their institutions' remarkable role it is worth to note that Ar-Raid Chairman Ma'adh Abu Obeida was denied entry into the country at his return from a private visit to his native Egypt on April 17, 2000, a few days following the above mentioned congress. Dr. Abu Obeida had lived in Ukraine for eleven years and led the federation since 1997. According to the June 9 issue of "Ar-Raid" his visa and other documents were in order and the Ukrainian airport immigration officers gave no explanation for this measure so one can only guess. As Abu Obeida himself commented in the paper: "If the authorities do not withdraw this decision right away, it will endanger and affect negatively the future of Islam in Ukraine.
"The Muslims of Ukraine breathed the breeze of unlimited and uncontrolled liberty of thought and action," he continued, "and now this decision is to be considered as a renunciation of democracy and freedom. It may make Muslims distrust the government regarding the protection of their rights. It will also negatively affect the world outside Ukraine, particularly the Islamic world, since the foreigners' confidence is still uncertain as to whether the state's organs work in the spirit of freedom and legality. This decision will adversely affect foreign capital investment, tourism, as well as charity donations to the ill-fated of Ukraine which I do not wish." Understandably, Ar-Raid's Chairman did not underestimate the significance of this incident. Time will show the real impact it is going to have.
Gyorgy Lederer is an Islamicist, Arabist
and specialist of East Europe conducting research on contemporary
Islam in that part of the world. This article originally appeared
in the 2:1-2, September 2000 issue of the internal Newsletter
of Centrum voor Islam in Europa of Universiteit Gent, Belgium.