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).

If these spectacles aroused Muslim ire, I saw and heard no indication of it. What one sees of Islam in Kazan is a moderate and intimidated manifestation. Shortly after arriving, I visited Gabdrashit Zakirov, a vice-rector of the Russian Islamic University, in his office. The university has been operating since 1998, but although tuition is free, it has only 148 students—a small number indeed, given that Kazan itself has half a million Muslim inhabitants. Dressed in navy-blue Tatar robes and a black tyubetey (skullcap), Zakirov seemed like the sort of observant Muslim the muftis might claim to speak for. But he professed ignorance of the incendiary remarks made by Gainutdin and Ashirov. The war against the Taliban and al Qaeda, he told me, was a "matter for politicians," not religious men, and in any case it was taking place "thousands of kilometers away," so he knew "little about it." When I pressed him for the religious point of view on what he did know, he said that all he could offer would be an "emotional answer of no real value"—and then declined to give me even that. He did tell me that since Russia's law protecting freedom of speech and worship recognizes "the special role of the Orthodox Church [which has expressed support for the U.S. military action following September 11] in Russian history," he feared that Russian Muslims were now coming to be seen as "internal enemies"—a remark suggesting that his reticence was rooted in a fear of the state. The most assertive declaration he made to me was that Moscow's policy on the war should take into account the interests of Russian Muslims.

I then telephoned Abdulkhak Khazret, the imam of one of Kazan's most prominent functioning mosques, al-Mardzhani. Khazret told me that he would not meet me to discuss the war, because "many people have talked about the subject, so I wouldn't add much new ... This is a political question, and I'm not a politician." When I stressed that I wanted the Islamic perspective and so was turning to him, he developed difficulty in speaking Russian. "Oh ... I have trouble, you see, putting word to word, my Russian no good. Sorry ..."

At the Tatar-American Regional Institute, where I visited an Arabic class, the students were more talkative. Emma, the only young woman in the class wearing a yaulyk, told me that she feels uncomfortable going about in public with the scarf on: it makes her the object of stares and derogatory remarks. Her bareheaded Arabic teacher, Zulfiya, concurred, saying that her parents objected if she wore the yaulyk. "Why are you wearing that scarf?" they would say to her. "You're young and beautiful but you're dressing like a grandma!"

I brought up the war in Chechnya, an emotional issue in much of the Islamic world—but not, it turned out, in Kazan. The conflict, Zulfiya told me, was about money, not religion; it was a "political affair," and "we don't know the real story behind it"; it was therefore "doubtful" that the Chechens' struggle constituted a "jihad." Just what did Islam mean for the students? It meant being urged by parents to keep the uraza (the fast of Ramadan) or to attend jumga (Friday prayer ceremony); but few said that they complied, and all defended their right to decide on their own if they wanted to practice their faith. One young woman in another class found my interest in Islam misplaced. "Excuse me, but for seventy years [the Soviets] destroyed religion here, so Islam plays no part in our life. You should ask us about something else."

From the archives:

"What Went Wrong?" (January 2002)
By all standards of the modern world—economic development, literacy, scientific achievement—Muslim civilization, once a mighty enterprise, has fallen low. Many in the Middle East blame a variety of outside forces. But underlying much of the Muslim world's travail may be a simple lack of freedom. By Bernard Lewis

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashback: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Islam" (December 12, 2001)
Is democracy compatible with Islam? Atlantic contributors from the early to the late twentieth century take up the question.

She had a point. During the Soviet era atheistic education and the closing of mosques and churches ensured a waning of religious beliefs and practices. And certainly repression has played a historical role in the modest position that Islam occupies in Tatar life. Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan in 1522, after which he killed or expelled the city's Muslim population. Later czars pursued subtler anti-Islamic policies, with the result that many Tatars converted to Christianity, and the Russian and Tatar aristocracies began to intermarry. The majority of Muslims in Kazan today fall easily into secular habits, because Islam is a minority faith in a culturally Orthodox Christian country, and Tatarstan's location in the middle of Russia permits no easy access to the Muslim lands on Russia's southern periphery.

All that being said, what truly sustains secularism in Tatarstan today, and what gives the harsh words of prominent muftis little purchase among the masses, is something else—the relatively free market, which provides Tatars with a ready supply of Western pleasures and products, not to mention ideas, of which the Soviet system had deprived them. It is exactly this sort of market-driven secularism that many Muslim clerics fear—and with good reason.