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We achieve understanding not by instructions of officials

14.01.2009 15:12

On the 5th of November, 2005 Nizhny Novgorod hosted one of the most important events in the life of Russian Muslim community for the past years — a forum Russian Muslims on the Verge of a New Millennium. This event initiated by the Religious Board of Muslims for the Nizhny Novgorod Region (DUMNO) attracted public attention and was covered by many mass-media. This particular interview with Damir-khazrat Mukhetdinov was published in local newspaper Vremya Novostey (News Time).

 

Chained by common fate

— I’ll start with the quotation from the book “Azan over Volga” by Evgheniy Arsyuhin. He affirms: “political structure of Nizhny Novgorod principality turned out to be very sophisticated. This was a thorough, unique symbiosis of Russia and the Golden Horde aimed at providing economic unity of the region and guaranteeing free international trade on the Volga way”. If we follow this logic we are sure come to conclusion that the idea of foreignness of Muslim communities is absolutely absurd. The same can be said about the ideas of exclusively hostile coexistence of Russia and the Golden Horde. But despite this, centuries-old mutual approach and enrichment of two great cultures is prejudiced every now and then.

— Mr. Arsyuhin is a well known historian and ethnographer. And besides he is your colleague — a journalist for the Rossyiskaya gazeta (Russian Federation Newspaper). But there is another scholar of authority whose conclusions I would like to refer to. The chief archaeologist of Nizhny Novgorod Region Tatiyana Guseva having hold the large-scale archeological dig on the territory of the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin came to conclusion that the real relationships between Russia and the Golden Horde have nothing to do with the stereotypes that are pressed on us since our school-days.

The results of this research reveal to us not the history of conflicts but the history of normal life when trade used to be the national priority. There were “peaceful” attributes of every day life found in our Kremlin rather than arrows, swords or sabers. Among the pieces of history found during the archeological dig on the territory of the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin there are Mongolian ornamentations, crockery, utensils. All this proves that there was an intensive trade between Russia and the Horde. And trade is hardly compatible with military confrontation.

The peculiarity of the Nizhny Novgorod region is such a unique phenomenon as an “ethnic patchwork”. Russian, Tatar, Mordovian and Chuvash villages are situated here in very close neighbourhood. Why would our ancestors settle so closely if they weren’t longing for peaceful coexistence? I’m truly convinced that people lived here in peace and mutual aid. That’s why even if any offences took place in the past, today we should focus on the experience of mutual enrichment of cultures. For example we can recall the fact that during the times of the Golden Horde Nizhny Novgorod princedom was independent and it were Nizhny Novgorod princes who established the contacts between Moscow princedom and Tatar khans.

I would also like to remind you about the words of our president Vladimir Putin who said referring to contemporary historians that Tatars fought at Kulikovskaya battle together with Dmitriy Donskoy against Mamai who was supported by mercenaries — Genoese and Nogay

 

Dialogue without radicalism

— Ok. Having highlighted the historic key points let’s turn to the present. Being the capital of the Volga region and a large industrial centre nowadays Nizhny Novgorod attracts a great deal of immigrants from Muslim regions of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The number of national communities is increasing as well as their influence on the native population of the region, and on the Tatars as well. Immigrants from the Caucasus are usually treated very negatively by the ethnic majority that tends to regard newcomers as a source of social troubles. Sometimes this apprehension is rather valid. We can see that Religious Board of Muslims for the Nizhny Novgorod region does its best to reduce this tensity for example the participation in establishing the Center of Adaptation and Job Placement for Immigrants. What else do the Muslim religious leaders do to contribute to the solving of this problem?

— “Where the lame live one should limp” — says an old eastern proverb. We always remind the numerous immigrants from the Muslim regions of the former USSR about this. If you’ve chosen Russia for a place to work and live at you should respect culture and traditions of local native population. And here we really try to do our best in order to socialize the immigrants. Religious Board of Muslims for the Nizhny Novgorod region tries to serve as a sort of a buffer between their native culture and Russian society.

And again I want to refer to historic parallels: by founding the Religious Board of Muslims of Russia in 1788 Empress Catherine the Great hoped to integrate the newly joined Central Asian countries into the Russian Empire. And it were Tatars, the second largest nation in the country, who put this into practice.

Today Russia again needs some mechanism that would help the immigrants integrate into our society and yet not to loose their identity and ethnic originality. The native Russian Muslims have more chances to help immigrants to adjust to our laws and traditions, to find points of contact and to carry on negotiations. And still it may turn out to be rather difficult. Because of Islamophobia among local residents and the migratory policy which is not flexible enough.

The tensity is often caused by justice being unjust. Take the murder of a small Tajik girl in Saint Petersburg, for example. Apparently committed because of the child’s nationality the murder was regarded and judged as a simple hooliganism. Such facts can only lead to the national community to the state of rage and the society in general — to instability.

What steps does Religious Board of Muslims for the Nizhny Novgorod Region undertake to decrease the instability in society? We undertake public and educational work, publish books, hold out lectures and elucidative conversations with local Muslims.

It is obvious that the immigrants are often uneducated people who failed to find job back at home and having come here they are ready to fight hard and harshly for survival. These people really need being refined by education, culture. That’s why we need educational institution.

Let me give you one more example. A banal story about one of the immigrants visiting Nizhny Novgorod Cathedral mosque who turned out to be on the point of joining a radical party Hizb ut-Tahrir. The boy came to the Nizhny Novgorod madrasah Mahinur eager to enter it. Being the head of the entrance examination I wondered if he had a school-leaving certificate, spoke Russian, was ready to write a composition…

— The composition should also be written in Russian?

— But of course! This is the rule of entering the Russian educational institutions. It is the Ministry of Education who fixes the list of disciplines obligatory for any school-leaver…

The boy I’m talking about had finished only 6 years of secondary school when the war in Chechnya started. He still has a lot to study and he hardly even speaks Russian. So I just had no right to take him. Later I learnt that he found another teacher — an Arab who demanded no certificate or compositions. They started with studying the Arabic language, finished with politics…

And this is only one stroke from the picture of the immigrants’ life. Having no public assistance they drag miserable existence working from morning till night. And in the evenings they gather to discuss some acute questions…

By the way unlike to Tatars who while considering themselves Muslims often neglect Islam canons Daghestans, Uzbeks, Tajiks and representatives of other Muslim nations of the former USSR strictly follow the Islam regulations. Almost every man considers it to be his holy duty to come to mosque on Friday prayer.

So the Muslim immigrants usually spend their evenings discussing religious questions. And it might be really dangerous if they fail to find the answers to their questions in our mosques. It’s very likely that such ideas as establishing a caliphate and building an ideal Muslim society may appear in their minds. As you probably remember everything actually started with the attempts to establish a Sharia society. This led to a bad end and first of all for the Chechens themselves. We do not want anything of the kind to happen in our country! That’s why in our Friday sermons we appeal to the mosque-goers: Please do follow our laws — juridical, moral and cultural!

The relations between Tatars and Russians, Muslims and Orthodox Christians have been shaping up for over six centuries now. The ideal harmony is still not achieved but the achieved results of interethnic and interconfessional peace should be treated as our greatest treasure to be protected. We can’t afford to let someone put it at stake.

We are people of common fate. The fates of people of different nations and religions are interlaced tightly in Russian society. A simple but representative example is my own life. My wife is half-Russian half-Tatar. My first spiritual mentor wasn’t Tatar or Arab. It was a Russian old woman Mariya by name. I called her Baba-Masha. This ordinary Russian woman was the one who accustomed me to the belief in God during the Soviet period of our history when religions were almost forbidden.

— But why her? How did it happen?

— She was our neighbour. My mother used to work all days long and in the evenings after kindergarten she left me with Baba-Masha. That is how it turned out to be that in my childhood years I knew Bible better than Koran. But I should give Baba-Masha her due: being a very pious woman she never tried to press me to Orthodoxy. “Damir, you have your own religion — a Muslim one”, — she used to say. The main thing is your belief and belief is love for God, love for one’s neighbour…

So we have no aversion towards those of our neighbours or relatives who belong to other ethnic groups or nations. My ancestors for example used to be trade men and they spoke fluently not only Tatar but also the Russian and the Chuvash languages. They lived in close cooperation with people of these nations.

— By the way the Chuvash Republiс seems to be very interesting from ethno-confessional point of view. Chuvash Republiс is situated between Nizhny Novgorod Region and the Tatarstan Republic, the Chuvash language belongs to Turkic group and people practice Christianity…

— Yes, but before Ivan the Terrible’s victory over Kazan and forced baptizing of the Tatars the Chuvashes were Muslims…

— Not pagans?

— No! Mordovians and Mari were pagans. We have held out comparative analysis of the Chuvash language and found a great deal of words having Turkic origin. In contemporary Chuvash there are plenty of Arabic words and loan translation from Farsi.

 

No reasons for pathos

— The necessity for a dialogue between authorities and national communities is evident today. But whom do the authorities choose for interlocutors? Tried and safe minority leaders. While the majority of active and conscientious citizens are kept away from the process of working-out the principles of conflict-free coexistence and integration. Probably a new “thinker” should be invited to take part in this process? I mean the civil society. “Public diplomacy” as a ground for social initiatives. Do you believe in such a concept?

— That’s an interesting question. But I’m afraid that to answer it I’ll have to give up the pathos mood. The fact is there still is no genuine constructive interaction between national communities and authorities. We do our best to change the situation for the better. The ethnic, cultural and spiritual face of Nizhny Novgorod is changing rapidly. Some city districts have already turned into Azerbaijani ghettoes. Thirty year ago in my tenement house there used to live only one Azerbaijanis. Actually he is still living there, but now majority of his neighbours are his compatriots — the immigrants. In that house there are now a few dozens of Azerbaijani families with four and more children in each of them from the first wife. As usual the second wife is Russian but according to the documents the children to whom she gave birth are also Azerbaijanis. This is the reality! That’s why we appeal to the authorities for absolutely new principles of working with migrants.

But everything happens right on the contrary. You have mentioned the Center of Adaptation and Job Placement for Immigrants. We really took part in establishing this organization. But the officials technically hampered the process by long protraction of the registration. Probably they are afraid of Religious Board of Muslims for the Nizhny Novgorod region to have too many social projects and too much respect in Muslim community. So it happens to be that our officials simply prefer being puppeteer to collaboration.

— May be they just want the entire civil society to be their collaborator? And prefer it to a unified organization particularly a religious one?

— Is there a civil society in Russia?

— Sorry, Damir-khazrat. That was a lame joke.

— Everyone should understand that patriarchal way of life has always dominated in Muslim community. Everything in the Muslim world is determined by the head of the community, by a clan. Authoritarianism and strict administration are the main Muslim guiding principles. Democracy machine is slipping. It is quite feeble even in Russia where the history of state system counts many centuries. To say nothing about Uzbeks or Tajiks hardly have any centuries-old tradition of laws and constitutions in their memory. Basmachestvo (armed movement against Soviet government in Central Asia in 1922–1933) may turn out to be the only thing their memory surely keeps.

— Probably here is a chance to enrich consciousness of immigrants with European values?

— European experience proves the contrary. There is no point trying to plant the cuttings of western democracy to the untrained brains: they do not take roots. When crowds of Arabs and Turks rushed to the Old World Germans and Frenchmen hoped they would assimilate soon... And what happened in reality? The life in Muslim communities was regulated by the Sharia laws which soon demanded to put piglets away from the TV programs for children, to remove the image of the cross, etc. The communities quickly grew in number and soon started laying down political demands: special program in schools and universities, obligatory participation in the work of the Parliament… Europe hoped to deport the most irksome rioters during the Cartoon scandal. But a misfire again. European Muslims reacted to the Cartoon scandal rather frostily while in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh mass demonstrations of Islam might and solidarity took place — the demonstrations which sometimes turned into vile and sinful violence…

 

We are the echo of each others

— The conflicts are often based on religious matters. Probably the ground reason lies in the position of the religious adherents themselves. Strong condemnation and extermination of the evil is apparently the main goal of all religions. In accordance with Koran Allah created all the people from one root. But probably through centuries we have moved away from each other: know very little about each others’ traditions and moral values. The word “Islam” can be translated from the Arabic language both as “peace” and “obedience”. I doubt that everyone knows that. Living side by side, why are we still strangers to each other?

— Nowadays world community is united in many aspects: the globalization makes countries closer. Only religious differences are still separating us despite of the fact that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are actually all monotheistic Abrahamic religions that appeared on the same territory. The prophets were each others’ relatives. Arabs and Jews are the sons of a single father — Abraham. So contemporary problems are not in the religious aspects but in the fighting brothers themselves.

Sometimes Muslims themselves hamper the progress of establishing a peacefrul dialogue by being aggressive and ignorant in the questions of their own faith. Present day historians prove that there were times in humanity history when Islam spread on a vast territory from the today Spain to China in only 50–60 years. And it wasn’t pressed by force. The Muslims then were not as powerful as Byzantium. Their weapons were: devotion, godliness and high morality. People simply wanted to follow their example. As far as I’m concerned in order to set interreligious dialogue and to avoid any tension we should simply start developing a common plan of bringing about a rapprochement between people of different nations and religions. While working out this plan we should all together give up theological controversies and despite all the obstacles make headway on our way to cooperation and dialogue.

 

No debates — no democracy

— An attempt to hear each other is no doubt commendable though dialogue doesn’t necessarily mean reaching an agreement. But what cooperation can we talk about if among the interlocutor there are such impetuous and even rowdy characters as Geidar Jemal or Dmitry Rogozin? Tolerance here may be only dreamt of.

— I have asked this question myself. Why do TV programs presenters invite such characters and ignore religious figures representing real organizations, mufti Ravil Gainutdin for example? Inviting scandalous figures and Islamophobic editors simply avert from Islam those who know little about it.

When we (the Chairman of Religious Board of Muslims for the Nizhny Novgorod region Umar-khazrat Idrisov or me) are invited to talk on the radio or TV we are after one thing: bringing positions together through our dialogue with the officials. Sometimes we put the questions rather sharply indeed. But it is obviously done for the sake of solving the problems and avoiding tension. Look at Daghestan for example: no one ever criticized the officials there and what do they have in the end? Explosions and shootings instead. We criticize the officials and, thank God, it’s silent here. It is way better when adrenalin gets to your blood in the authorities offices then when a crowd is shedding blood on the squares. The society can’t but hear the dialogue and approve of it because dialogue is always more productive than revolutionary slogans and appeals to set up barricades.

Interview by Vladimir Ogorodnikov published in Nizhny Novgorod News newspaper July, 2006

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