Muslims of Ukraine: history of solidarity

18.12.2015, 11:28
Muslims of Ukraine: history of solidarity - фото 1
Sheikh Said Ismagilov: “Defending the Fatherland is the only way to preserve our dignity”

Thanks to their active civic stand and patriotism, Ukrainian Muslims have managed to win the respect of the rest of society in the past two years of the ordeal that has befallen this country and to arouse interest in their history and way of life. We discussed the past and the future of Islam in Ukraine as well as the causes and the likely effects of the horrible terrorist attack in Paris with one of Ukraine’s most brilliant and progressive religious leaders – Sheikh Said ISMAGILOV, Mufti of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine “Ummah.”

Sheikh Said, why do you think radical fundamentalist trends still manage today to find followers, including citizens of European countries? Who do you think is to respond to these challenges above all – the Muslim community or European society as a whole?

“The radical movements you are speaking of are a marginal phenomenon. They do not have a large number of followers. They are just a few groupings led by the so far unknown ringleaders who issue orders, supply weapons, etc. This is a place that attracts people disposed to radicalism and violence – they can be found in any society. These groupings usually resemble strictly secret sects that are closed to the surrounding world. I can’t remember any of them speaking publicly. These people do not attend mosques or mix with other Muslims. Nor do they live a full-fledged Muslim life. They only heed their leaders with whom they usually maintain distance contact via the Internet. They are mostly neophytes who have a very vague idea of Islam. Therefore, it is very easy to recruit them. For the same reason, there are a lot of people from Europe and post-Soviet countries among ISIS members. They are out of touch with the Muslim tradition and often live in a milieu that is hostile to Muslims. It is easier to influence this kind of people. Incidentally, we know that a terrorist who blew herself up in Paris had not been religious at all a year ago. What forced her to turn into a fanatic in such a short time? We can only guess how her mind was ‘bended’ so that the girl sacrificed her own life and the life of the people around her for the ideas, which she had not known at all a year ago.

“Radical groupings often attract people who are in a certain crisis – those who are disappointed with their own way of life, have lost a relative, suffered financial losses, etc. Recruiters work very professionally – they notice such people and exert intense psychological pressure on them. At the same time, it is obvious that only a professional network, which receives adequate financial and other support, can organize crimes of the type of the Paris terrorist attack.

“To finish answering your question, I will tell you a Muslim joke. An armed ISIS terrorist stops a car that carries a family of Arab Christians. He says to them at gun point: ‘Quote something from the Koran, or else you will all die.’ The man at the wheel quotes the Bible in Arabic. They let the car go. A shocked wife asks a little later: ‘How could you take such a risk? He could have shot us dead.’ ‘If he knew what the Koran says, he wouldn’t be standing here with weapons in hand,’ the man answers. This is what we, Muslims, say when asked about terrorist acts. If these people knew what Islam teaches, they would not be committing these heinous crimes.”

What impact did the Paris attacks have on the attitude to Muslims in Ukraine?

“Thank God, we have seen no major changes. Yet, unfortunately, some mass media seem to be whipping up Islamophobic sentiments on purpose. We can often see temporary splashes of the grassroots-level Islamophobia after such horrible crimes. Fortunately, there are only some isolated instances of this. For example, somebody spat on the windows of a building that is used as a mosque the other day in Zhytomyr.”


Ukraine marked recently the second anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity. I know you were an active participant. What do you think about its consequences today?

“I am not disappointed, for, in my opinion, changing the leadership was not the main goal of the Revolution of Dignity. Most importantly, people felt free and understood that the country’s destiny depends on them. We have learned to overthrow the government that does not suit us but have not yet learned to elect a new one. Participants in the Revolution of Dignity managed to oust the most odious figures from the Olympus of power but failed to form, instead, a party of their own, a ‘Maidan party.’ This party could help us delegate new – professional, educated, responsible, and honest – people to the government. This new class was to have changed this country and ruined a corrupt system that creates an abyss between the poor and the rich.

“Today, we have a situation when the same people and parties (sometimes under other names) have in fact remained in power. This is why there is no real struggle against corruption, no lustration, and no trust in the leadership in Ukraine. The Revolution of Dignity was an important step for us because Ukrainian society had been deprived of almost all rights since the Russian Empire times. But now it is time to take the next steps. I am sure that the young people who carried out the Revolution of Dignity are entirely different now. And their children will be still more different.”

Can we say that the two years of Ukraine’s ordeal have brought various religious communities closer?

“We surely can. The revolution and the war helped Ukrainians discover Ukrainian Muslims. Most people did not even now up to now that there were Muslims in Ukraine – they simply did not notice us. It is active participation of Muslims in the dramatic events that showed, among other things, that the Ukrainian nation consists of the representatives of diverse religious and ethnic communities. Now Ukrainians trust the Muslims and know much more about them.”


A lot Ukrainian Muslims are taking part in eastern Ukraine hostilities as soldiers of the Armed Forces and other military formations. In what way do you offer them spiritual support?

“There had been no military chaplains in Ukraine before the war began. In the spring of 2014 we came across this problem, when a Muslim, who fought in the Aidar battalion, died in action. Somebody was to go to the front line and perform all the necessary Muslim rites.

“The Muslim military kept asking us if it was right to kill an enemy who is also a Muslim, for the Russians brought North Caucasus Muslims en masse into action. The Koran says that if two Muslims cross swords, both the killer and the killed will end up in hell. So, what is to be done – maybe, to refuse to serve in the army? Naturally, this is not the first time this question comes up. In the Caliphate era, Muslims happened to fight quite often. Even the Prophet’s closest associates fought each other on the battlefield after his death. The Koran says that a Muslim’s life, dignity, and property are inviolable – no one can come and take them away. The state is, incidentally, also a certain public property. For we drink water and eat the bread grown on this land, and our children are born and raised here. It is our duty to defend the Fatherland. Only in this way can we preserve our own dignity. We were not the first to attack – it is they who came to kill us and loot our property. For this reason, the Ukrainians, including Muslims, must defend themselves.

“When a necessity arose, the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine ‘Ummah’ began to help the military with food, medicaments, clothes, etc. We are now working to institute military chaplaincy. Three of our military chaplains already hold services at the front. As the Muslims are scattered over different military units, the chaplains are responsible for concrete sectors. Whenever a Muslim needs something, has been wounded or killed, our imam goes to the place and performs all the necessary rites.

“Yet we must admit, unfortunately, that the question of chaplaincy is still to be coordinated with the Ministry of Defense. A due law has been passed, but it is not quite clear how it will function and what the chaplain’s official status will be like. It is the problem for not only us, but also representatives of other religions.”

What is the situation of the Muslims on the occupied territories? Do you manage to maintain contact with them?

“Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian Muslims have found themselves on the occupied territories. Most of the problems were in Crimea, where there was an attempt to force Crimean Tatars ‘to love Russia.’ They were subjected to repressions – many of them were intimidated and kidnapped, and some were tortured to death. Religious organizations were also victimized. Intimidation is on the wane now, but a certain number of Muslims still remain missing. Some Mejlis leaders are behind bars. The Russians are ‘mopping up’ the ‘undesirable Muslims’ and the banned books. Those who refuse to ‘love Russia’ either disappear or have to run away.

“At the same time, the Donbas situation remains rather uncertain. Muslims are sometimes summoned for an ‘interview’ as part of an effort to find those who are ready to collaborate with the new ‘authorities.’ However, there have been no specific repressions on religious grounds so far.”


Ukraine recently marked Holodomor Remembrance Day. What does this date mean to Muslims?

“Ukraine’s Muslims know very well what genocide is because, as is known, the Crimean Tatar people lost almost a quarter of them during the deportation. Like all the Ukrainians, we traditionally take part in all the commemorative events. I am convinced that this kind of crimes have no statute of limitations. In the Holy Koran, the Almighty Allah orders Muslims to be just. The Almighty Allah says that He forbids believers to do injustices to themselves and their creatures. The Holodomor is a gross injustice, and every faithful person must condemn injustice and speak the truth. We must know and remember this horrible tragedy so that it never occurs again.”


Secularization is often regarded now as one the causes of a certain crisis of ideas and a decline of value-related guidelines among Europeans. Is this problem arising in the Muslim world? How is present-day Islam responding to these challenges?

“The problem of secularization is that it is unable to offer any alternative to the Divine, religious values. For human civilization emerged on the basis of the latter. Any morality has religious roots – it is based on the commandments that can be found in all worldwide religions: ‘thou shalt not kill,’ ‘thou shalt not steal,’ et al. See the constitution of any country – they are all based on religious rules, just without mentioning God. There is no such thing as ‘secularized morality’ – humans have invented nothing on their own. The crisis of ideas emerges because people reject religious values but are unable to find anything in lieu.

“The phenomenon of secularization also occurs in the Muslim world. The Muslims who have migrated to Europe are often not as religious as their parents were. For them, faith often turns into just honoring the tradition. In this context, it is a certain ‘adaptation’ to the realities of European society. We have the same problem here in Ukraine. For example, it was always considered that a lot of Tatars lived in Kyiv. We do not know where they are now. Older people are saying that their children and grandchildren ‘consider themselves Muslims’ but do not attend mosque. We can see similar tendencies among Christians.

“The best way to resist these phenomena is to bring up children properly. I am convinced that children should be taught Divine values, faith, a particular religious culture and tradition. As is known, one’s personal example is the best way of education. If a child grows up in this kind of a milieu, later, on reaching adulthood, he or she will be if not religious then at least respectful of the religious tradition. Of course, it also happens that excessive religious upbringing triggers a protest or even leads one to atheism, but occurs very seldom. In our Muslim community, we try to teach children to respect faith and religion.”

One of the key signs of the current secular era is transformation of religion into an object of choice. For even a few hundred years ago, one could not imagine a situation when they would have to decide whether or not to believe in God or which of the many religions to “choose.” Religious awareness was an integral part of human existence. Speaking of Islam in the world and in Ukraine particularly, can we say it is still mostly “a faith of parents”? What part of the believers is making a deliberate choice in favor of this religion?

“Before the 20th century, Islam was, almost like Christianity, very traditional. The Muslim world was on the decline, for religion was treated as a faith of parents, a folk tradition. But then Islam saw a period of rapid resurgence. There emerged a number of thinkers and preachers who called for updating Islam and turning it into a living and active missionary religion. Although they were in no way linked to each other and hailed from different countries, they managed to implement this program. Ukraine did not escape the overall trend either. Suffice it to recall the Jadidism movement founded by Ismail-bey Gasprinsky in Crimea. These people were convinced that Islam could no longer be an ossified archaic religion and must be updated from inside to become modern and dynamic. Muslims eventually became much more religious and began to preach actively. Today, Islam is not perceived as just a faith of parents. Of course, you can still come across the old ‘traditional’ approach in the villages and small towns of some Muslim countries, but in the progressive Muslim societies faith is a personal choice of everyone. In the Soviet era, the state did not recognize the existence of Islam in Ukraine. There was not a single mosque, no holidays were marked  – everything existed underground only. Some Muslims have ‘assimilated’ – they are entirely out of touch with religion. But those who have re-embraced Islam as a certain choice of life philosophy are very active and passionate today.

“Islam is being reborn differently in various countries. Unfortunately, this aspiration leads to radicalism sometimes. This is caused by some inner factors. It is not enough for some people to be ‘just’ a Muslim. They need something more – to fight for something or to search for an enemy. These ‘passionaries’ are easy prey for all kinds of radical groupings. We can thus say that the rebirth of Islam has a certain ‘side effect.’”


The talk about a “decline” of Western civilization has been periodically coming up for at least the past 100 years. The ordeal the West has undergone lately has revived this debate again. What do you think is the essence of European values? Do they need any transformation or, on the contrary, a more consistent protection?

“In my view, Europe is not only far from being ‘on the decline’ but, on the contrary, is developing very rapidly in some respects. But, to tell the truth, these achievements occur in the material sphere. From a spiritual viewpoint, Europe is, unfortunately, in a certain crisis indeed. The root cause is rejection of Christianity. Europeans are now reaping the fruits of such things as secularization and antireligious struggle in the late Middle Ages and in modern times. If Christianity wielded as much influence in Europe today as Islam does in the respective countries, there would perhaps be none of these problems. For if one is strong spiritually, has a certain goal in life, and knows what he or she is living for, this person will always be strong, enduring, and self-confident. Why are Muslims and representatives of some other religions showing activity and an inclination to expansion today? Because these people have a spiritual linchpin. Having rejected a religious, spiritual, linchpin, Europe offered certain secular ideas – let us be spiritual but without God… We can see now the consequences of this approach. It is no accident that Angela Merkel said recently: ‘If you don’t want Europe to be Islamized, go to church.” It seems to me that Europe will soon see a rebirth of Christianity. Or, maybe, it will turn to some other religions. At the same time, taking into account the fact that Catholicism is now actively transforming and strengthening its positions, I think it can become Europe’s guide on the way to Christianity. The Catholic Church has brought itself much up to date since the Second Vatican Council. Today, it is an active and dynamic religion which knows how to attract people.

“A desire to believe is inherent in the very nature of man – such was the creation. If an individual does not believe in God, he or she begins to believe in science or something else. If one cannot find a mainstay which would guide them and make their life worthwhile, this individual begins to ‘wither away.’ If Europeans fail to return to God, they will face a still graver spiritual crisis. What we can see today are only the first signs – it will be worse later on.”


Do you think the revival of religious awareness requires the rejection of universal principles, such as human rights? Or, maybe, the two ideological strata can be united?

“In most cases, religious and secular ideas can be combined. Yet there are, naturally, some differences. Religion will always oppose same-sex marriages, prostitution, legalization of abortions or drugs – these things are banned by all religions. Both the Bible and the Koran warn: ‘Do not do so, for otherwise humankind will go into decline.’ But if you consider yourselves wiser than God, inquire about the destiny of the ancient peoples that thought like this. So we can presume that Europe’s return to Christianity will call for revising certain secular European values which are being imposed on the whole world today.”

A portentous event occurred this year for Ukrainian Muslims – the Koran was translated into Ukrainian for the first time. The translation was done by Mykhailo Yakubovych. What do you think about the quality of this work?

“Mykhailo Yakubovych and I cooperated. On the whole, I positively appraise his work. I had some criticisms, but they were taken into account in the second edition. I will remind you that the translation was first published in Saudi Arabia. The second edition saw the light of day past spring at the Kyiv-based Osnovy publishing house. Yakubovych has done a big and important job. Every Muslim who comes to the holy Mecca to perform the Hajj receives a Koran and its translation into his native language, as a gift from the kingdom, before leaving for home. Until now, Ukrainian Muslims were presented with a Russian translation. But when Yakubovych’s translation was approved by the Holy Koran Institute in Saudi Arabia, Ukrainian pilgrims began to be presented with it. The Ukrainian translation is now available at all the world’s largest mosques. Therefore, thanks to this publication, the Muslim world will know more about the Ukrainian language, and Ukrainians – about the holy book of Islam.”

Roman Hryvinsky

7,16 December 2015 The Day