Said Ismagilov: Maidan and the war made Ukraine discover its Muslims

Mufti Said Ismagilov, the imam of Muslims of Donetsk and Donetsk region

Mufti Said Ismagilov is the imam of Muslims of Donetsk and Donetsk region. He has been residing in Kyiv since September 2014. How has the life of the Muslim community in Ukraine changed since the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in the east? How does the community co-exist with the Christian majority? UCMC publishes a short translated version of the interview Said Ismagilov gave to Ukrainian journalist Pavlo Kazarin for the “Dictofon” program. The text version was published by the Livy Bereh newspaper.

Sheikh Said Ismagilov is the mufti of Ukraine’s Sunni Muslims. He is an ethnic Tatar born in Donetsk in 1978 to a family of miners. Ismagilov graduated from school in Donetsk, studied at the Moscow Islamic University. He received the title of imam and returned back to Donetsk, used to work at the Ukrainian Islamic University. He has been the imam of the Muslims of Donetsk and Donetsk region since 2002 and stayed in Donetsk until September 2014. Then, due to persecutions on the part of militants he had to leave and moved to Kyiv. He now heads the “Ummah” Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine and the Islamic Cultural Center in Kyiv.

LB: Have you got a personal emotional sequence related to Crimea?

Said Ismagilov: Yes, and it’s also related to the beginning of my religious experience. Back then I lived in Donetsk, I was 15 or 16 years old. The peninsula was hosting a summer camp for Muslim teenagers. For the first time in my life I went to the Friday prayer, and it was at the Khan Mosque in Bakhchisaray, this historical site, dimly lit, with high arches, wooden ceiling and walls. The imam was reading the sermon in the Crimean Tatar language. It is an unforgettable impression.

After that I used to come to Crimea, to Simeiz several times a year. Camps for Muslim boys used to be organized there for a long time. Russian propaganda was saying that militants and terrorists are being trained there. We were reading the Quran there as well as learning practical and ethical norms, we went to the sea twice a day. It was what actually pushed me to enter an Islamic university and link my further life to Islam.

LB: It is often said that there is a mental map of Ukraine that has all the actual regions of the country. [The region of] Poltava as the cradle of the Ukrainian literary language, Lviv as the point that assembles the Ukrainian political project. However, some say that Crimea was either not on this mental map of Ukraine at all or it was marked with pecked lines. If you were to introduce it, how would you do it?

SI: I would introduce it through Cossacks and Chumaks (merchants) who were traveling to Crimea to buy salt. It is clearly written down in Ukrainian culture, poetry and history. The Cossack way of living is actually close to nomadic culture, though Ukrainians themselves are not Nomads but a settled people. The tradition of the Sich (fortified Cossack settlement – ed.) when you go on trips was borrowed from Turks. Indeed, Crimea was not firmly introduced into Ukraine’s mental map because it used to be Crimean Tatar. Crimea should be introduced into Ukrainian mentality with three strokes – that of the Cossacks, Chumaks and Crimean Tatars.

A healthy nation does not deny any of it parts, it accepts them: we have Jews – great, they are part of our history and culture. We have Crimean Tatars – great. We also have other peoples and ethnic groups in areas that are close to the border, we need to accept it as a regular thing and consider it as a whole. I think the Crimean Tatar culture needs to be perceived as part of Ukraine’s modern history.

LB: We often hear that Ukraine started seriously negotiating its fate after 2014. In your opinion, how has the social contract between the traditionally Christian Ukraine and Ukrainian Muslims changed and what it is like now?

SI: 2014 became the starting point of mutual integration of Christians and Muslims of Ukraine. Before that we used to live separately. Majority of Ukrainians had no idea that there are “domestic” Muslims. The attitude to Muslims was suspicious, sometimes hostile, they were considered to be mostly immigrants. the People who had visited Crimea, had seen Crimean Tatars and talked to them, those who had come across this culture turned to be more progressive. Maidan and the occupation of Crimea opened Crimean Tatars and the Muslims in general to the rest of Ukraine, the long-awaited insight happened. People saw that Ukraine is big, diverse, and that it can also be like that.

I guess, this social contract was formed in course of these events. Those who are for Ukraine are with us, and those who are against Ukraine are actually against our national idea, against our unity, our culture, our statehood. I felt this trend from the very beginning when Crimean Tatars appeared on Maidan. Back then I realized that we need to do our utmost best to try and speed up this process as well as to get rid of mutual tension and mistrust.

How can I speed it up? Firstly, we need to preach that we must respect Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity, we need to support friendly attitude, respect and learn Ukrainian language, respect and demonstrate good attitude towards Ukrainian culture. I always preach among Muslims: there should be no hostility to different expressions of culture. […]

The new social contract […] will be of a global scale and will last for centuries. In this social contract we need to state that we, Muslims, accept all cultures and all religions that exist, that we respect and tolerate them asking them to treat us the same.

In Crimea, there used to be constant conflicts between Crimean Tatars and pro-Russian residents who were very aggressive towards Crimean Tatars. Later when the Muslims of Crimea started leaving for other regions of Ukraine, unfortunately, they started leaving carrying these negative experiences with them. For example, the Muslims resettled to Lviv and started demanding that there’s an urgent need to put a mosque there. Community of Lviv was surprised: why is their attitude so aggressive? Are you sure that you definitely need to have a mosque for some hundreds of people? What would be the residents’ take on that? Maybe we should try and resolve this issue in a softer way first? I came to meet the Muslims and Christians in Lviv and told them: let us do an Islamic cultural center that would not look like a mosque architecturally, we would gather inside this building, pray, hold all our traditional rites and holidays, but in a way not to create the tension in the community. People looked at me and said: but why, we need to insist, we need to fight for it. I said: you do not need to fight here, these are not the foes around you. Here are the people who truly love and respect you, who sympathize with you. On the opposite, we need to demonstrate these people that we are ready for a compromise and a dialogue and that we will not initiate conflicts. Lviv now has both a synagogue and an Armenian church. Before they were constructed some time had passed so that people could adjust themselves and be tolerant towards the expression of another culture.

LB: In Russia speakers loyal to the authorities like to say that Ukraine is a homogenous Christian country that is not experienced in communicating with Muslims, in contrast to Russia, where Muslims make up to 12 per cent of its population. Based on that they conclude that Russia is a friendlier country for Muslims. Is it true?

SI: It is absolutely not. The situation with Islam and Muslims in Russia is very tough and complicated. The grade of intolerance is very high. I studied in Moscow, I experienced it myself. Firstly, Russia was incorporating the lands by force: it conquered the Caucasus and was waging wars in Central Asia. In earlier times it destroyed the Khanate of Kazan and the Khanate of Astrakhan. Muslims in Russia have always been a minority whose rights were violated.

And this tolerance is only mounting now. Its peak occurred during the two Chechen wars when the attitude towards Muslims was extremely aggressive. I was studying at the Islamic University in Moscow right during the second Chechen war, and the fact that I look more like a Slav was saving me a lot. There were skinheads, cases of beating, pogroms; police was constantly arresting Muslims right by the mosque.

At the same time at the state level as well as in the legislation everything is not so smooth either – starting from the lists of prohibited literature and ending up with persecution for dissent. In Russia mosques were being destroyed and religious actors killed. In Russia’s spiritual administrations imams and muftis have to either be part of the Federal Security Service (FSB) themselves or there need to be FSB people designated to control what they are doing. There is nothing like that with us in Ukraine. We had never had a single mosque demolished, there are no skinheads or pogroms, non-acceptance towards Muslims in daily life is not there. And the Muslim community appreciates it.

When this tide of separatism started in Donbas, we gathered with the imams of Donetsk and Luhansk regions and I asked them: what is your position? Ninety per cent of the spiritual leaders who were present said: we are on Ukraine’s side, it’s our motherland.

Same situation took place in Crimea. Nowadays when Muslims in Crimea are subject to extremely severe repressions, it does not stop the people. They keep secretly waiting when they will be finally back in a normal free country. It even takes the form of officially disobeying the spiritual leaders who took the Russian side.

LB: A new social contract is being worked out in Ukraine. Don’t you think that at the same time the dramatic difference in values between the mainland and the [Crimean] peninsula increases, as Russia is putting the peninsula into sort of cryogenic freezing after the annexation?

SI: People who come from the occupied territories say they come to breathe, meaning that they want to breathe in freedom. They want to visit a mosque knowing that no one is following them to write down how many times a person came to pray, what book he took from the shelf to read or whom he was meeting and talking to.

Nowadays religious life in Crimea is dissolving into official and clandestine. Official one is being controlled by the state, including through its religious leaders. The same situation is in Donbas. There are official religious leaders checked and controlled by FSB, they are clearly instructed what they can talk about in a sermon and what they cannot, they even tell them whom they are prohibited to talk to. There is also a clandestine religious life, down-to-earth, hidden, when people get together somewhere in the kitchen at home to speak honestly, read the books and web sites that they want and pray the way they like.

LB: There is an opinion that religion is inseparable from politics, that Muslim communities are always a tool to influence a country either from the side of Ankara or Riyadh. Can you present a counter argument?

SI: We do not have to fear that the Muslims of Ukraine will come under the influence of foreign centers just because we are a small group and these centers do not have such a big impact. Moreover, in the Muslim world the single center has not been formed like, for example, Vatican for Catholics. For some Muslims the center is Istanbul, for others it’s Riyadh, for Shiites – and Azeri are mostly Shiite Muslims – it’s Iran. The Muslims of the Caucasus are mostly looking at the Caucasus, the Arabs are watching the countries that they came from. The single center does not exist. For Muslims it is both a problem and pluralism of opinions and views.

Besides, Muslims are not a big group here – after the occupation of Crimea and Donbas, the government-controlled territory accounts for less than half of all Muslims in comparison to the number before the occupation. Majority of our communities are working so that they follow not the foreign religious centers but feel themselves the Muslims of Ukraine. It is not going to happen in a flash, it is an ongoing process. People who live now have old mentality, while their children will be brought up as the Muslims of Ukraine, following the local Ukrainian center, for example, that in Kyiv.

Before the war started I used to live in Donetsk, and the Security Service of Ukraine was controlling the Muslims very thoroughly. I was asking them: are only Muslims subject to such thorough checks or are you checking the Orthodoxs of the Moscow Patriarchate that thoroughly as well? As a result, Muslims who were very strictly controlled in Crimea and in Donbas, turned to be the most consistent Ukraine’s supporters. Meanwhile, those religious organizations that were enjoying various benefits, have sided with the occupant and the enemy. That’s why I think that the Muslims of Ukraine have passed their civic maturity exam.