Ukrainian Muslims and Maidan
“Ukraine seethed, seethed for a long time...” these are the words of the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko from his poem “Haydamaky,” and they reflect the terrifying reality of what the Ukrainian people face today. The Ukraine in which “peace and order” reigned, the Ukraine which experienced a relatively quiet collapse of the USSR, no longer exists. We see how the country is different – the Ukrainian SSR, from which modern Ukraine inherited a state, is giving way to a completely new state. The deep wound, however, that the bloody events of the past two months has inflicted on the Ukrainian people, makes us think again and again about why this happened here, in an enlightened, spiritual, cultural, and seemingly European state. The false and cynical picture a “believing” elite, shown during religious holidays on official channels, was replaced with horrendous terror, a justification for the killing of peaceful protestors, and other criminal acts for which the dictator and his accomplices will certainly be held responsible for – if not before the people, before God. Today the situation has intensified because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the possibility of a bloodier scenario – the civilized world shudders from its possible consequences.
What position did Muslim organizations in Ukraine have in this difficult situation? The faithful of all religions were faced with this question at the very beginning of the tragic events, after the dispersal of the “student Maidan” on the night of November 30. It must be noted that among modern Muslims there is no consensus on the issue of participating in the political life of countries where they are a minority. There is a belief that such participation is unacceptable in principle, and “performance” (Arabic hurudzh) against the government is a sin. Other religious authorities, particularly after the events of the Arab Spring, allow and even encourage Muslims to participate in the life of “non-Islamic” countries. Many Muslim leaders have questioned the definition of peaceful demonstrations as “performance” against a legitimate authority, especially if the power is secular, not religious, quoting the hadith “the most excellent jihad is the uttering of truth in the presence of an unjust ruler” (Tirmidhi Hadith). The religious authorities of the Ummah today hold various opinions, with different arguments, weight, and perception.
Ukrainian Muslims as an integral part of Ukrainian society took part in the events taking place today in the country from the very beginning. Many Muslim organizations in Ukraine (primarily, the Association Alraid and the Crimean Tatar Mejlis) have long and active links with coreligionists in the EU, so the European Muslims’ experience in solving their problems is close and clear. In particular, the Association Alraid is a member of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe, has repeatedly been a co-organizer and member of various activities carried out by Muslims in Poland, Lithuania, and other EU countries. Therefore, the idea of European integration of Ukraine, which was the original propeller of the protest movement, found support among a significant part of Ukrainian Muslims. The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, in particular, repeatedly made statements regarding the need to restore the cultural, religious, and economic rights of deportees in accordance with the principles of European law.
The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, which includes Mufti Emirali Ablaev, head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Crimea, and Mufti Ahmad Tamim, head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine, also supported the European integration course of Ukraine. On September 30, 2013, the council called the European choice as historically justified, and called on people not to oppose the new foreign policy course of Ukraine because of the traditional relations with Russia. At a time when the country’s leaders openly declared their commitment to signing the Association Agreement with the European Union, the gesture could be regarded as a kind of legalization of the government’s action in the eyes of the faithful.
In the wake of the ill-fated night of November 30 to December 1, when a student demonstration in support of European integration was disbanded by security forces, many religious organizations were quick to condemn the violence as well as the provocation near the Presidential Administration (however, today this clash many regard as a spontaneous rebellion, and not an attempt to provoke). Ukrainian Muslim communities expressed in public statements their deep outrage at such acute injustice. On December 2 the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine “Ummah” published an appeal, which condemned the use of force against demonstrators. On December 3 the leader of the largest and most influential Ukrainian Muslim organization, Mufti of Muslims of Crimea Emirali Ablaev, issued a statement, in which he expressed support for European integration of Ukraine and urged the government, the opposition, and all participants of mass protests across the country not to deviate from democratic principles, not to succumb to provocations, to prevent bloodshed, and “in a fair way to resolve the situation in favor of the interests of the Ukrainian people.”
Mufti Emirali Ablaev confirmed his position at a Crimean rally dedicated to the International Day of Human Rights, held on December 10. In addition, the mufti mentioned the events from mid-October when several mosques were intentionally set on fire (the guilty parties, as in most such cases, were not brought to justice): “We must restore our rights, which have been infringed upon. But we must remember that humanity is the main quality that unites all human beings, regardless of their nationality, religion, race.” The actions of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Crimea are consistent with the position of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, who from the beginning were on the side of the protesters. During the same meeting, the head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis Refat Chubarov informed the public that immediately after the meeting some of its members would go to the EuroMaidan in Kyiv. According to him, until the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars – May 18, 2014 – the mejlis will organize meetings and seek specific government action. The SDMC supported the appeals of several religious organizations, who called for dialogue and the need for certain concessions from the government. Over the past two months the SDMC has issued a number of appeals in which they call on the current government and opposition to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, led by Refat Chubarov, supported the Maidan activists.
The Crimean Muslims’ activity, however, was not limited to statements. MP Mustafa Dzhemilev (who spoke from the podium on the night of February 18 to 19, when the Internal Ministry troops and Berkut began the so-called “anti-terrorist operation”), Deputy Mufti Aider Ismail, Mejlis Refat Chubarov, and many other representatives of the Crimean Tatar community repeatedly visited the Maidan. Crimean Tatar activists took part in every national assembly that was held on Independence Square. Dozens, and sometimes hundreds of Crimean Tatars visited the Maidan in Kyiv every day and took part in all civil actions. The protests were supported also by many “new Muslims,” including ethnic Russians and Ukrainians who using social networks and other means informed their fellow citizens of the Muslims’ position.
After Yanukovych and his entourage escaped Ukraine and the further deterioration of the situation in Crimea, the Crimean Tatar Mejlis was the first to organize a picket near the Crimean Parliament demanding an end to the separatist activities. It should be noted that all activities that were coordinated by the Mejlis were peaceful civilian protests. Attempts by some media outlets to discredit the Crimean Tatars (calling them “armed militants,” “Wahhabis from Syria,” “extremists,” etc.) had not even the slightest evidence to back the claims. After the buildings of the Crimean Council of Ministers and the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea were forcefully seized, Refat Chubarov urged the Crimean Tatars to go home and the Mufti of Muslims of Crimea “not to give in to the provocations by unknown people.” Meanwhile, the head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people did not recognize the “elected under the barrel of a machinegun” government legitimate. Currently, the sustained and confident position of the Crimean Tatars is a major concern for all those trying to foment ethnic strife in the Crimea. Even organizations like Hizb al-Tahrir, which act independently of the Mejlis and Muftiat are not interfering in the process. And it must not be forgotten how much the Crimean Muslims were affected by the tragedy of the massacre of peaceful protesters on Instytutska Street. Mufti Emirali Ablaev said to bury the heroes right on Independence Square in Kyiv – this gesture is symbolic and shows the Ukrainian Muslims’ solidarity with the Christians: In Islamic tradition, fallen martyrs are buried in the places of their heroism. According to recent news, the Crimean Tatars have been organizing peaceful protests to bar entry of Russian troops to the Ukrainian military installations.
The Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine “Ummah” has also voiced its position. During the three months of protests, “Ummah” has condemned violence, called for dialogue, reconciliation, and mediation of international organizations. Mufti Saeed Ismagilov lectured on the history of Islam and Muslims in Ukraine at Maidan’s Open University and live on HromadskeTV, where he called for peace and a stop to the bloodshed.
The Alraid association has actively covered the events in Ukraine. Information resources of the Ukrainian Muslims close to Alraid (Ukrpress) as well as the association’s Arabic website, were some of the most reliable sources on developments in Ukraine for media outlets in the Arab world. Representatives of the Association Alraid (in particular, the famous Islamic scholar from Crimea Seyran Arifov) repeatedly gave detailed commentary to Arabic TV channels expressing balanced and objective assessments of what is happening.
Other Islamic organizations in Ukraine, in particular, SDM of Ukraine and the Spiritual Center of Muslims of Crimea, avoided giving direct comments about the civil protests. After the bloody events on Instytutska Street, the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine expressed its deep sorrow for all the victims and wounded protesters from the violence in Kyiv, “calling on all to unite to preserve the integrity of our country and prevent its division.” On February 28, the head of the Spiritual Center of Muslims of Crimea Ridvana Veliev released an appeal, in which he “called on all Muslims to unite and called for peace and stability.” There were, however, some curiosities: SDM of Ukraine denied information about membership in their organization of Oleksandr Kryvonosiv, who spoke several times on Independence Square in Kyiv. Member of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations Mufti Ahmad Tamim attended a meeting with Acting President of Ukraine Oleksandr Turchynov. However, the council’s statement condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine from March 2, which was signed by a number of Christian and Jewish organizations, was missing a signature from the SDM of Ukraine (and the SDM of Crimea).
Many statements have been released in recent days by Muslims and other countries. The protests in Ukraine have received a positive response from the Muslims of Egypt, Morocco, and many other countries where there are problems of authoritarianism and human rights restrictions. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in one of their official appeals directly supported the EuroMaidan initiative; during the commencement of Russian aggression statements were issued from Turkey and other countries. Leaders of Russian Muslims mostly issued general statements: for example, in a statement from February 28 the Mufti of Tatarstan called for peace and denounced attempts to “build democracy in the tyranny of the crowd,” which can be interpreted ambiguously. At the time, independent Islamic organizations published statements supporting democratic change in Ukraine.
Judging from this, the situation in the country will remain tense for a long time, in the first place, because of the aggressive actions of its northern neighbor. But even in this difficult time, the Ukrainian people are aware that Muslims are a part of society that is truely contributing to the building of a free and democratic state. Hopefully, after the peaceful resolution of the situation, the representation of Muslims in the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations will expand, and the Crimean Tatars will receive more rights and opportunities. Muslims of Ukraine should use all of their rights for their own development and for the good, which they can bring to the whole society. This appears to follow the path of the Prophet (PBUH), about which the Almighty in the Holy Quran said: “And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds” (Qur'an, 21:107).