Thanks to their strong public stance and patriotism during the two years of trials and turbulence in our country, Ukrainian Muslims have managed to gain the respect of Ukrainian society and stirred up an interest in their history and lifestyle. We talked to Sheikh Said Ismagilov, one of the most prominent and progressive spiritual leaders of Ukraine, Mufti of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine “Ummah”, about the past and future of Islam in Ukraine, as well as the causes and possible consequences of the terrorist attacks in Paris.
– Sheikh Said, in your opinion, why do radical fundamentalist ideas find supporters, especially in European countries? Who must react to these threats – the Muslim community or European society in general?
– The radical movements you’re talking about constitute a marginal phenomenon. They don’t have many followers. These are individual groups led by unknown “protectors” who supply weapons and more. This is a place for people who are prone to radicalism and violence; you can find them in any society. These groups are typically conspiratorial, sects that are closed to the outside world. I haven’t seen them speak in public. These people don’t attend mosques and don’t talk to other Muslims. They don’t live the life of a Muslim. They only listen to their superiors with whom they communicate via the Internet. They are usually neophytes who have a very sketchy idea of Islam. That’s why they’re so easy to recruit and why so many DAESH members come from Europe and former Soviet countries. They’re cut off from Muslim traditions and often live in an environment hostile to Muslims. Such people are easily swayed. By the way, we know that one of the suicide bombers in Paris turned to religion very recently. What made her become a fanatic in such a short time? We can only imagine to what extent her brain was “manipulated”, making this young girl sacrifice herself and others for ideals that she knew nothing about just one year ago.
Members of radical groups are often people who face a personal crisis, individuals who are disappointed with their own way of life, have lost a loved one or suffered financial loss. The recruiters are very professional. They find these people and then brainwash them. However, it’s obvious that only a professional terrorist network with financial and other support can organize crimes on the scale of the terrorist attacks in Paris.
Let me tell you a Muslim joke. An armed DAESH terrorist stops a car carrying an Arab Christian family. He points his weapon at the driver and says: “Either you quote something from the Quran or all will die.” The man quotes a passage in Arabic from the Bible and is allowed to leave. His wife is in shock: “How could you put our lives in such danger? He could’ve shot us!” “If he knew the Koran, he wouldn’t be bearing arms.” replies her husband. That’s how we, Muslims, respond when we’re asked about terrorist attacks. If these people knew what Islam teaches, they wouldn’t commit such horrible crimes.
– Did the terrorist attacks in Paris make Ukrainians see Muslims in another way?
– Thank God, we didn’t see or feel any major changes although some media resources tried to deliberately stir up Islamophobic sentiment and there were some isolated cases of anti-Islam attacks. For example, the windows of a building used as a mosque in Zhytomyr were covered in spit…
– Ukraine recently celebrated the second anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity. We know that you were an active participant. How do you assess the situation today?
– I’m not disappointed because I believe the main objective of the Revolution was not to change the government. Ukrainians from all walks of life felt free and realized that the fate of the country depended on them. We have learned to topple a government we don’t like, but we have yet to learn how to choose a new one. Ordinary citizens were able to drive the most hated and odious individuals from the Olympus of power, but failed to build their own party – a Maidan party that would enable us to delegate authority to new professional, educated, responsible and honest people. This new class would change the country and destroy the corrupt system that generates the gap between the rich and poor.
Today, we see the same old people and parties in power (sometimes they’re under different names). That’s why there’s no real fight against corruption, there’s no lustration and no confidence in our political leadership. The Revolution of Dignity was an important step forward for us because Ukrainian society has been powerless since the days of the Russian Empire. But now we must move forward. I’m sure that the young people who took part in and contributed to the Revolution of Dignity are totally different from their parents, and their children also will be even more different.
– Can we say that these two years have brought religious communities closer?
– Of course. Our country “discovered” Ukrainian Muslims thanks to the Revolution and war. Most people didn’t know that there was a Muslim community in Ukraine; no one ever noticed us. It’s the active participation of Muslims in the dramatic events of the Maidan that showed everyone Ukraine is composed of different religious and ethnic communities. Today, Ukrainians trust Muslims and know more about them.
– Many Ukrainian Muslims are fighting in the Donbas either in the Armed Forces or other military units. Do you give them spiritual support?
– We didn’t have any military chaplains before the outbreak of war in Ukraine. In the spring of 2014 we were faced with this problem when a Muslim who fought in the Aidar Battalion was killed in combat. Someone had to go to the front and to conduct the required Muslim rites.
Muslim soldiers ask us many questions: Can we kill in a war? What if your enemy is also a Muslim? You know that Russia has enrolled many Muslims from the North Caucasus regions… The Quran says the following: if two Muslims cross swords, then the killer and the killed will end up in hell. So, what should we do? Can we refuse to serve? I should explain that this question has come up many times in history. Muslims often fought each other during the Caliphate. Even the Prophet’s close followers engaged in battle after his death. The Quran says a Muslim’s life, dignity and property are inviolable – nobody has the right to deprive him of these things. In a sense, our country and state also belong to us. After all, we drink the water and eat the bread that is found on our land, a place where our children are born and grow. It’s our duty to protect our homeland. This is the only way to preserve our dignity. We didn’t attack first – they came to kill us and take away our home and property. Therefore, all Ukrainians, and especially Ukrainian Muslims must defend themselves.
When the war began, the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine “Ummah” sent food, medicine, clothing, etc. to Ukrainian Muslims. We’re currently working on training military chaplains. We have three chaplains on the front. As Muslims serve in different military units, the chaplains have been assigned to sectors. If a Muslim needs something, if he is wounded or killed, our imam travels to that area and performs all the rituals.
Unfortunately, I admit that the issue of chaplaincy hasn’t yet been approved by the Ministry of Defense. The relevant law was passed, but we don’t know how it will be applied and the official status of a chaplain has yet to be clarified. This is a problem for us and for the representatives of other religions too.
– What’s the situation with Muslims living in the occupied territories? Have you been able to maintain contact with them?
– Unfortunately, the vast majority of Ukrainian Muslims live in the occupied territories. The biggest problems were in Crimea where Crimean Tatars were forced “to love Russia”. They’ve been systematically persecuted – they’ve been intimidated, kidnapped, and some Crimean Tatars were tortured. Our religious organizations have been closed or persecuted. There’s slightly less intimidation now, but some Muslims are still missing. Several leaders of the Mejlis have been detained. The Russians are “cleaning up” Crimea and getting rid of all the “undesirable Muslims” and books that have been forbidden under Russian law. People who haven’t learned to “love Russia” have disappeared or been forced to flee.
The situation in the Donbas is uncertain. Muslims are sometimes summoned by the invaders for a “conversation”. The “authorities” are searching for people who are willing to cooperate with the new “government”. We haven’t seen any specific persecution based on religious grounds.
– Ukraine recently commemorated the victims of the Holodomor. What does this day mean for Ukrainian Muslims?
– Ukrainian Muslims know what genocide means… As you know, Crimean Tatars also suffered greatly when almost a quarter of their population died during deportation. All Ukrainians commemorate these tragic events. Such crimes cannot be forgotten… Almighty Allah instructs Muslims to be honest and just and forbids men to act unjustly towards their fellow man. Holodomor was a great injustice, and every believer must condemn injustice and speak the truth. We must know and remember this horrible tragedy so that it never happens again.