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Feature Story May 16, 2002
From Chelni To Guantanomo
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 5 of 6
Shamsutdinov claimed that such actions were taken as punitive measures because members of the Chelni TOTs fought in Chechnya against the Russians. "Local power took mild actions against TOTs there because, well, they live in Russia, are Russian citizens, and are bound to the law in Russia," he said.

Kashapov denies the allegation that they sent any fighters to Chechnya, although he is obviously sympathetic to the Chechen plight. They even organized a convoy of humanitarian aid (in KamAZ trucks) to help victims in Chechnya. As proof, Kashapov showed me a picture of him and Basaev together. "We are taking the political route to independence," he said. "While we have sympathy for the Chechens, we don't want any fighting here."

There are 148 TOTs offices in Tatarstan, with another 50 or so in neighboring regions, although Shamsutdinov claims that the Chelni branch is famous for its radical politics. They used to produce several newspapers, including Alechy Urda, Izvestiya TOTs, and Nezavisimost, although the last stopped printing in 1997, allegedly because of FSB harassment. "In Tatarstan, the FSB now controls all the media," Kashapov claimed.

He and others I talked to seemed particularly sensitive to the lack of representation of Muslims in the Russian media, even though there are 20 million Muslims in Russia. While Kashapov and his organization have catalogued long lists of attacks against Russia's 20 million Muslims by everybody from skinheads to politicians, he says the media usually only shows "a mosque, prayers and then some Wahhabi extremist with a Kalashnikov around his neck."

This lack of representation and the other obvious shortcomings in the Russian media, such as the Putin cult and the jingoistic Chechnya coverage, only strengthen the credibility of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the eyes of many Muslims. None of the Chelni nationalists or religious Muslims I talked with were entirely convinced of bin Laden's guilt.

As Airat's sister, who held up her veil so that I could only see her eyes, said, "Islam is a peaceful religion; it's the [Russian] soldiers returned from Chechnya who run around drunk saying, 'We've seen your type in Chechnya, and we raped and killed them.'"

Chelni's citizens' experience directly contradicts media reports.
A monument

In spite of the repression, the religious community in Chelni continues to practice. The madrassah that was closed by the courts continues to function in a semi-legal, unofficial capacity with about 70 students. According to Ibragimov, the imam, 80 percent of the students are girls since, he believes, "When a society is rotten, women are hurt by it more."

The numbers of practicing Muslims have steadied in recent years, he said, and Chelni's 10 mosques are currently enough to serve the community. The problem is funding, which is only available to 'official' mosques.

In a replay of a Soviet policy meant to control Islam and make it compatible with Communism, the Tatar government funds some mosques and a madrassah. The republic openly supports the Russian Islamic University, according to the mufti of Tatarstan Guzman Iskhakov. It is the only one of its kind in Russia, and he hopes to get federal funding for it soon. A degree from it even counts as an official document.

Meanwhile, the small community in Chelni remains completely segregated from the power structure financially, politically and culturally. Shamsutdinov, who depends on Russia for his comfortable Moscow lifestyle, rightly claims that most Tatars want to remain a part of Russia. But that's only because most Tatars and Russians are too busy trying to survive, or too hungover from trying to forget, to consider radical politics.

"We live in a colony and everything goes to Moscow," Airat's veiled sister said. "The Chechens didn't want to live in a colony any longer, and who can blame them?"

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