To this day, the massive truck factory is virtually the city's only employer. This didn't even change after a fire hobbled the plant several years ago and left it virtually idle. Production is slowly picking up, and the number of low paid workers along with it, thanks to high tariffs, but the region remains among the most depressed in oil-rich Tatarstan.
According to Shamil Shamsutdinov, Tatarstan's deputy representative in Moscow, the lack of jobs is what made Chelni so popular among radicals. "Chelni is a young city and, unfortunately, KamAZ fell on hard times with perestroika," he said from his large office looking out on the Moscow River. "Now, they've got the most active radical community in Tatarstan."
That "radical" community has two main branches, although both groups are small enough to be familiar with the other. The Tatar Public Center (TOTs) represents the secular nationalists and has about 300 active members. Ironically, in spite of the fact that TOTs' primary goal is landlocked Tatarstan's political and economic independence from Russia, the government feels much less threatened by them, and is content to harass them periodically.
The other branch is that of the devout Muslims. While all Tatars identify as Muslims (much like all Russians are Orthodox), most enjoy eating pork and drinking alchohol as much as the next infidel. Observant Muslims make up an insignificant minority and, from what I saw, hardly seemed threatening.
Malik Ibragimov, one of the two imams in Chelni's central mosque who trained in Saudi Arabia, has a voice that sounds closer to an American convert to Zen Buddhism than to a radical Islamic fundamentalist. Talking with him only made me more aware of my own ignorance. During my time in Chelni, I realized I'd never exchanged more than a few words with a religious Muslim before.
Far from the firebrand I expected and even hoped to find, Ibragimov defined Islam as a personal inner struggle between good and evil (which, in fact, is the greater jihad according to the Prophet Mohammed).
Only when prodded did he discuss his politics. He asked that I keep his opinions off record, but I will say that everything he said about Israel, bin Laden, Chechnya and Afghanistan fell well within the Muslim mainstream.
And yet this soft-spoken 38-year-old imam and his followers are treated like a serious threat to the state. His predecessor at the central mosque, Airat Bakhtov, was jailed for two months without a warrant just as Ibragimov started working there. Around the same time, Ioldyuz, the madrassah attached to the mosque, was shut down by court order for not having a license to teach. Other members of his congregation claim to be harassed regularly by the spets sluzhba, while TOTs alleges that the FSB detained over 1000 young Muslim men throughout Russia in a 1999 post-apartment bombing roundup. And then there are the eleven prisoners that Ibragimov and others consider political prisoners who were framed by the FSB.
"They call Islam radical when we preach against using alcohol," said Ibragimov.
The bizarre story of Imam Airat Bakhtov, Emina's son who later wound up in Afghanistan, illustrates just how far repression can push a man. Airat's story has gotten some international attention, with an article about him by Natalie Nugaired published in Le Monde in February after Agence France Presse journalist Pierre Luilre discovered him in American captivity in Kandahar last January.
I expected a Johnny Walker sort of narrative of alienation that lead to spiritual awakening and jihad. But he and the other two Tatars known to have been in Afghanistan followed a very different path to the Taliban. "Bakhtov, Sharipov, and Gumarov were all very quiet and mild mannered," claimed Rafis Kashapov, the president of the Chelni branch of TOTs, who knew them through TOTs events.
Emina claimed that nobody in her entire building -- Tatar or Russian -- had a single negative thing to say about her son. She has no doubt that Airat ended up in Afghanistan because of FSB repression.