Islam in Russia is a broad school, and it is undoubtedly a condiment to national identity. Tatars and Bashkirs identify at least nominally with Islam, and Tatarstan’s long history of liberal Islamic philosophy, such as the Jadidist movementwhich blossomed on the Volga and further into Central Asia, is an interesting factor worthy of more exploration in a situation where years of Soviet atheism seem more to thank for a more elastic interpretation of religious adherence. Some, with an imaginative flair for misinterpretation, have reasoned that peaceful Tatarstan, being a Muslim region in Russia, must obviously be simmering dangerously beneath the surface- the Chechnya of tomorrow.
A confused assertion to make in a region where, as taxi driver Rifat put it, ‘only the really religious Muslims here don’t drink… only the fanatics’. Fanatics for Tatarstan, their Republic where each minaret of the Kul Sharif Mosque – named after the Imam who died defending his students from Ivan the Terrible’s troops in 1552 – stands as much for Tatarstan’s gall and pride as for Islam. The newly planned mosque in Azino, however, is named in terms permitting no ambiguity simply as the Al-Kabir – ‘The Big Mosque’. Whilst the Kul Sharif stands in the city’s Kremlin, a location positively saturated with historical relevance, the Big Mosque will neighbour Kazan’s IKEA.
This is not to say that the plan is without supporters – indeed, its spokesperson, Akhmad-Rashid Dustiyev, put confidently that the mosque’s construction “just depends on sponsors appearing”. Many Tatars when asked about the sheer size of the mosque and Qu’ran spoke with respect, yet leavened with suspicion.
Gamil Nur, the organiser of the independent Tatar cultural and national society, the Sheriq Club, points out that in Islam there is the tenet of Israf, discouraging transparent displays of wealth. “This is a kind of Soviet hangover, megalomania”, he begins, “local people need libraries, small, traditional style mosques and schools”. Gamil believes that whilst the mosque will be an advertisement for a particularly Tatar brand of more tolerant Islam, hopefully raising interest among Tatars in their religious heritage, it is more a ‘symbol of government and economic- rather than religious- power’. He is quick to add that without Islam, a distinct Tatar nation would likely not have survived (a claim Tatars often make when looking at Russification amongst many of the region’s other peoples, such as the Mari and Udmurt).
Advertisements, however, have a cost, and Rustem Yunusov, a Kazan journalist, is keen to point out the economic and political incentives behind the project. Politically, over the first decade of Putin’s rule, centralisation led to Tatarstan losing a lot of its unique autonomy. Constructing mosques such as this are obvious political reminders to Moscow that Kazan is the capital of one of Russia’s largest non-Russian (and of course Muslim) communities. Rustem adds that Kazan is set to become a centre for Islamic banking in Russia, led by Tatarstan’s Ak Bars Bank. The Mosque and Koran could therefore serve as symbols- markers for how to navigate through Tatarstan and the Volga Region, economically and politically.
With Kazan set to host the Universiade, the Student Sports Olympics, in 2013 and the FIFA World Cup in 2018, increasing interest in Tatarstan adds a unique opportunity to assert a form of Islam in Russia which sadly does not often reach Western news headlines. Yet no news, goes the cliché, is good news, and that is in some modest way testament to a city which, if not an example for religious co-existence (for the context is arguably too unique to be an applicable model elsewhere), could be an inspiration.
Whilst there is an understandable irony in the world’s largest printed Koran being entered into the Guinness Book of World Records, the emergence of a handwritten competitor from Afghanistanto the title of largest Koran is an apt symbol of Tatarstan’s Islam – optimists view Kazan’s printed Koran as a symbol of an advanced, tolerant, 21stcentury Islam, whilst detractors see it as a commercialised trinket, devoid of soul, value, and true relevance. Yunusov adds that were the Koran and new mosque in Azino truly a symbol of a commitment to Islam, neighbourhood mosques and madrassas would be the preferred options. Another Kazan journalist, Ilshat Saetov, views the Kazan Koran as a “toy for tourists”.
“Of course as a copy of the Koran it of importance to Muslims, but the size of it”, he adds, “means it is of no practical significance.”
It would seem, therefore, that Islam here is by no means an open book. Salavat Kamaletdinov, one of the secretaries at the Kul Sharif mosque, is in fact rather dismayed that the Koran on display is a closed one. “I do hope that the tourists we see every day admiring this Koran appreciate what is within the book rather than what decorates it”. A less holy light ricochets off the generous gold encrusted binding- that of flash photography- as Salavat admits that though the size of the book means it is only possible to be actually used on festivals, he hopes that when it is on display for vistors in Bulgar, the text with will be visible – hopefully being an open book to all.
By Maxim Edwards (The indepemdent)