Ukrainian mufti fears for his country's Muslim community

As rockets fall around him in Kyiv, Said Ismagilov fears for Ukrainians in general and the Muslim population in particular

Said Ismagilov in quieter times in 2017. Photo: Stephen Starr
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Mufti Said Ismagilov, one of the most important Muslim figures in Ukraine, is well versed in conflict.

The Donetsk native was forced to flee his home town when Russian-backed separatists occupied eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014 after receiving word they were out to capture him for becoming an outspoken activist against the takeover.

Later, when driving in a nearby area, someone shot a rifle round through his car window. His life was only spared thanks to a bulletproof vest.

Mufti Ismagilov then moved to Kyiv, but now, as rockets fall around him, he fears for Ukrainians in general and the country’s Muslim population in particular.

He said Russia's actions in Crimea after Moscow annexed the Ukrainian province did not bode well for the Ukrainian Muslim and Tatar communities.

Most Crimean Tatars, a Muslim people indigenous to the Black Sea region, opposed Russia’s seizure of the territory from Ukraine in March 2014.

Community members said they faced discrimination and hardship as they came under pressure to align themselves with the Russia-backed authorities.

The Tatar representative assembly, called the Mejlis, was banned, while a Tatar-language television channel was closed down.

There are roughly 250,000 Crimean Tatars in Crimea — about 12 per cent of its population.

Crimean Muslims deemed to be members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir organisation — an Islamist group banned in Russia but not in Ukraine — have been sentenced to up to 20 years in prison on terrorism charges.

If Russia takes over the rest of Ukraine, Mufti Ismagilov told The National he worries that Muslims in Ukraine could face repression.

In Ukraine, Muslims have enjoyed relatively normal lives in recent years.

The Tatars were officially recognised by the government as an indigenous group in 2014, and increasing numbers of Muslim Russians have been immigrating to Ukraine from the restive northern Caucasus.

Until recently, Friday afternoons on the street in western Kyiv that is home to the city’s Islamic Cultural Centre was a carnival-like atmosphere following prayers.

Students from Turkey, Egypt and Central Asia snacked and drank tea, locals hawked trinkets and halal goods, friends chatted.

But that is all now in the past.

On Tuesday, Russia shelled the city’s television tower and nearby Holocaust memorial — one kilometre to the north of the Islamic Cultural Centre — killing five people.

“It is dangerous in Kyiv every day, starting from the first day of the war,” Mufti Ismagilov told The National in a phone interview.

The fears of some community members are built on historical instances of repression.

During the Second World War, thousands of Tatars living in Crimea were removed to the plains of present-day Uzbekistan and points further east in cattle trains on the orders of Josef Stalin. Many died on the journey.

“In Soviet times, Crimean Tatar anti-Soviet dissidents and human rights defenders were often supported by their Ukrainian colleagues,” said Konrad Zasztowt of the University of Warsaw’s department of European Islam.

“The Crimean Tatars, due to their historical experience with the Stalinist regime, which forcefully deported them from their homeland in 1944 to Central Asia, were always anti-Soviet.”

Thousands have fled Crimea for Ukraine as a result.

For Mufti Ismagilov, himself a Tatar, the difficult question is what to do if his adopted city becomes overrun by Russian forces.

“I can say for sure that I will not remain a mufti, and will either leave the city and fight against the occupiers in the free territory of Ukraine or I will remain in Kyiv.”

Updated: March 04, 2022, 11:09 PM
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