Tatarstan March 2002

Islam Versus the Pleasure Principle

Russian muftis have condemned the war in Afghanistan, but Tatar Muslims have other things on their minds. Like Mork & Mindy

On November 14 of last year the chairman of the Council of Russian Muftis, Mufti Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, announced that the victims of the war in Afghanistan were not the perpetrators of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The real victims, he said, were the "completely innocent civilian population of Afghan villages and cities." He went on to warn that the "struggle with international terrorism" was "taking on an ever more bellicose, anti-Islamic character" and was "intensifying confrontational moods between followers of Islam and other religious traditions." Gainutdin's statement, issued on behalf of the Muslim community of Russia, followed the even harsher comments made in a press conference eleven days earlier by his vice-chairman, Mufti Sheikh Nafigulla Ashirov, who had described the war as "criminal" and had denounced the Russian government for supporting a "U.S. crusade against Islam." Ashirov concluded his remarks by citing the "direct threat" that the American presence in Central Asia posed to Russian national interests. "Once we let the Americans into this region," he declared, "they'll never leave." Reports were circulating in the press that Muslims in Tatarstan, an oil-producing Russian republic some 500 miles east of Moscow, had approached a Tatar nationalist organization hoping to volunteer to fight alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

War-minded Tatars, it turned out, numbered only about seventy—out of a population of 3.8 million, approximately half of whom are Muslim. But the muftis' strong words appeared to bode ill for the Kremlin, and not just because President Vladimir Putin has supported the United States in its fight against terrorism. If Tatarstan's Muslims were to rise up against Russian rule, as have the Chechens, they could create chaos in the heart of Russia and potentially disrupt oil exports, on which the country's economy heavily depends. A revival of Islam, which languished along with Orthodox Christianity during the Soviet era, is indeed under way, and the statistics are impressive: since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, the number of mosques in Tatarstan has grown from eighteen to more than a thousand, and an Islamic university has been founded to train the young for, among other things, service in mosques, makhallya (religious communities), and madrassas (religious schools). The revival serves the interests of Tatar nationalists, and insofar as it strengthens Tatar nationalism and remains moderate in nature, it has garnered the support of the republic's government, led by President Mintimer Sharipovich Shaimiyev.

All this being so, one might reasonably expect to find in Tatarstan the "confrontational moods" of which Gainutdin warned. To assess the situation, I recently traveled to Kazan, the republic's capital—a decrepit city on the Volga overshadowed by a white-walled kremlin on whose grounds stand both the Russian Orthodox Petropavlovsky Cathedral and the towering, Ottoman-style Kul Sharif Mosque. The mosque is not out of place here: Islam in Tatarstan antedates Christianity, having come to the region from Baghdad in A.D. 922.

What I discovered in Kazan was a happily mixed population of Tatars and Russians, Muslims and Christians, enjoying not just the amenities of secular life that are prevalent elsewhere in Russia but even many of the trappings of Western and, in particular, American culture. Bauman Street—the city's main pedestrian thoroughfare, which sits beneath the kremlin walls and the minarets of Kul Sharif—boasts the upscale perfume shop Image, a Reebok store, and a McDonald's. Bookshops and newsstands abound, carrying biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Salvador Dali, and Albert Einstein along with all the publications of the Russian tabloid press, which amount to little more than a collage of bare breasts and buttocks mixed with stories about sex and Hollywood scandals. A translation of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People was selling well, as were the novels of Tom Clancy and Sidney Sheldon. I could find little in the way of Islamic literature, or religious literature of any kind. Tatarstan's two local television stations broadcast almost no religious programming but lots of Mork & Mindy, Magnum P.I., Batman, Beverly Hills 90210, Scooby-Doo, and professional wrestling, interspersed with an endless array of B-grade American thrillers. In five days of touring Kazan, I saw perhaps two or three women wearing the yaulyk (as the traditional Islamic head scarf is called in Tatar). Much more common were Russian-style fur hats, form-fitting coats, and high-heeled boots.

Venturing out in the evening, I found that I had a broad choice of entertainment venues, none of which would have been to the Taliban's liking. These included the Manhattan Club, where customers downed beer, vodka, and mixed drinks as they bowled to Western pop tunes, often after buying cigarettes from the Camel vending machine by the door; the Fashion Club, where male and female striptease artists performed to an eager and grasping audience (striptease acts are common in Kazan's nightclubs, as they are in the rest of Russia); and the more or less sedate Jolly Roger's bar. Thoroughly un-Islamic was the Gentlemen Club, where young women offered patrons three varieties of private lap dance: "prostoy" (simple), "dostupnyi" (touching allowed), or "goryachii" (hot). If I had wanted just to get drunk, I could have visited the Raki Beer Bar, next to the kremlin, and spent an evening drinking Krasnyi Vostok (the locally brewed beer) or potent traditional liqueurs. The city's premier cinema, the Druzhba, was featuring three American movies (Don't Say a Word, Artificial Intelligence, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) and a French one (Vidocq). Before and after the shows patrons of the Druzhba could (and did) enjoy beer, vodka, and American soft drinks sold at a mirrored bar on the second floor. Kazan's circus offered children a chance to see Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost, the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus).

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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