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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Crimea: Islamist movements and danger of radicalization (Part II)

Crimean Tatars
(Image: Al-Jazeera)

One of the most numerous Islamist radical organizations operating in Crimea is Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Party of Liberation of Islam), which was originally founded in 1953 in Jerusalem, by the local Islamic judge Taki ud-Deen an-Nabahani. His ideas spread rapidly in Arabic, Middle Eastern, Central Asian and even Western European countries, and the group itself was branded as a terrorist organization and banned in many countries, including the Muslim countries as well. This group started its work in Crimea in 2003. In Ukraine though Hizb ut-Tahrir isn’t banned as its members never engaged in any criminal, violent and terrorist activities in Ukraine and operate rather as a political party with the religious background.

Hizb ut-Tahrir is a well organized group with the strict hierarchy, but there are no specific requirements for the potential new members. But the process of their further learning and training could take years. Hizb ut-Tahrir has nearly 30-35 thousand followers in Crimea and their number grows rapidly. The group’s ideas and ideology are especially popular among the young people who seek for more active and decisive steps and resolving of their problems. Hizb ut-Tahrir gives them these decisions, as it operates with the classical Wahhabist ideology.

The main gains of Hizb ut-Tahrir are restoring of the true and “pure” Islamic lifestyle and creation of a unified Islamic state – Caliphate,  – based on Islamic Law. Hizb ut-Tahrir ideology is actually Wahhabi ideology, with the calls of preserving Islam in its initial form, like it existed in times of Prophet Mohammed. They also reject state borders and any forms of national and cultural identity, as it all should be sacrificed for the sake of an Islamic State, where people are united only with their religious identity. Thus, members and ideologists of Hizb ut-Tahrir call for creation of a unified Islamic state and for imposing Sharia Law and for the further spread of Islam all over the world and global jihad. As for the current work, the group divides it into several stages. The first stage is about creation of network and its structure, the second stage includes spread of these ideas, the next stage includes creation of an Islamic state, and then, after the Caliphate will be created, Islam and its ideas should be spread all over the world. The group’s ideology is a traditional Wahhabi and Salafist ideology, which includes also elements of jihad. It’s worth mentioning though that Crimean members and representatives of Hizb ut-Tahrir don’t justify violence against the innocent people and prefer to use ideological means of struggle rather than radical and violent ones.

Hizb ut-Tahrir is one of the most powerful and numerous jihadist organizations in Crimea and it has a wide and well organized network of activists and many institutions as well, including schools, cultural and religious centers and mosques. Actually, one of the most important problems of Muslims in Crimea is seizure of many mosques by the activists and members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, where they spread their ideology and recruit new members. One of their practices is also replacing the liberal and moderate imams and mullahs with more radical and fundamentalist preachers, most of whom are either foreigners (predominantly Arabs) or received their religious education in Middle Eastern religious institutions. Thus, Hizb ut-Tahrir actually uses the Caucasian model in its activities, when the ideas are being exported to the region by the foreigners and spread all over the peninsula.
Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of of Crimean Tatars
(Image: Kyiv Post)

But, despite the fact that Hizb ut-Tahrir never engaged in the violent activities in Ukraine (unlike in Tatartstan, for example), its militants were among the fighters with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and many of them returned home with the new ideas and influences. Prominent political expert Vladimir Djaralla indicates that Crimean Islamists and especially members of Hizb ut-Tahrir are of course a part of the global Islamism, as they have the same ideas and the same goals and close ties with the foreign jihadist and extremist and fundamentalist organizations. The current events also opened the doors for the possibility of increasing of their activities and their further radicalization.

Among the other radical Islamist organizations are some Salafi movements, for example, NGO Sebat, headed by the prominent local Islamist preacher Arsen Abu Akhiya. It’s a group of Crimean Salafi Muslims, promoting ideas of conservative Islam. But unlike other radical Islamist groups in Crimea, who denounce the authority and role of the official and moderate Islamist institutions, Sebat is more loyal to them, as its members want to cooperate the members of government as long as the problematic issues, including the painful land issue, will be resolved. But Sebat also opposes Mejlis and was among the groups engaged in the anti-Mejlis protests held in Crimea in 2011.

There is also Crimean Tatar Popular Front, operating in the peninsula and gaining also more support. It’s actually an umbrella group uniting several Islamist radical groups and forces, most of them oppose Mejlis and protest against its activities. This Front though is more a political organization rather than a religious one, and most of the groups of it are known for their calls for Russian interference and assistance and anti-Ukrainian position. For example, Crimean marginal radical Islamist political party Milli Firqa has an obvious pro-Russian stance and even called for Russian intervention in Crimea in 2008, during Russian led war in Georgia, in order to “protect the people of Crimea from Ukrainian nationalists”. This group didn’t have significant support, but it could experience its revival today, cooperating with the occupation authorities in the annexed Crimea.

Other Crimean Islamist groups are Davet, which is a group operating in the framework of the Hizb ut-Tahrir activities, and recently created Ansara – a female radical Islamist group. These groups also support fundamentalist Islam and are on the stage of “radicalization”, as many of them include the newly converted Muslims, known for their radicalism. Takfir wa al-Hijra and Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Tamaat, allegedly operating in Crimea as well, are also marginal fundamentalist groups supporting and spreading Salafist ideology and advocating for “pure Islam”. Both of these groups are closed and their goals are poorly known, but they are among the more radical powers ready for violent actions. Members of Takfir wa al-Hijra were accused of an assassination attempt of Mustafa Djemilev, former head of Crimean Tatars’ Mejlis.

Islamist movements in Crimea represents in the majority of cases traditional fundamentalist and Wahhabist views and advocate for preserving of religion and faith, returning to the “pure Islam”, creation of an Islamic State and imposing Sharia Law and spread of Islam all over the world. But it’s very important to mention also that most of the Crimean Islamist groups and movements remain faithful to the Crimean Tatars’ national idea and issue of national and cultural identity, thus, they can represent a mix of fundamentalist Islamist ideology with nationalism.

Spread of the radical and extremist Islamists ideas and increasing support of them is a result of a long time policy of ignorance to the problems of Crimean Tatars and hostility of the local pro-Russian authorities and activists as well. Radical groups are popular among the young people, as they give then an answer on their questions and a direction to move in order to resolve these problems. Unlike moderate and official Islamist institutions, radical groups offer active and decisive steps, that are why they attract many youth. Actually, the reasons of spread and increasing of popularity of radical and political Islamist in the region are similar to the ones in Caucasus, with an exception of absence of military conflicts in Crimea and relatively peaceful background.

Many experts and journalists compare Crimea to Chechnya and Northern Caucasus, claiming that this region could be a potential military zone and center of terrorist and jihadist activities, but it sounds unfair and exaggerated. Of course, Crimean Islamists are a part of the global Islamist movements and have ties with them, but the situation in the region still remains calmer, than it was in Caucasus, that’s why such a comparison is incorrect. But we shouldn’t also underestimate the raise of popularity of the radical Islamists in the region, especially due to the recent events. Thus, Mustafa Djemilev has warned about the possibility of the dangerous consequences of the Russian military invasion and annexation of Crimea, as it activated Crimean jihadists who fought in Syria and are ready to defend Crimea as well. 

Mr. Djemilev stated in his recent interview that he personally receives many messages from radical Islamists, Wahhanis and Salafis who state that “an enemy entered our land and we are ready to defend it”. Mr. Djemilev personally is against an idea of a militant jihad, as he is committed to the principles of non-violence, but he cannot prevent such a scenario. Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and an expert of jihadist movements in Syria, also stated that Russian invasion is being already actively discussed on social media and internet forums frequented by Islamist and jihadist militants regarding the possibility of “legitimacy of opening a new front of jihad in Crimea”.  

Thus, the current situation, anxiety of local Crimean Tatars and continuous policies of oppression and trying to delegitimize representative bodies of Crimean Tatars could threat further radicalization and expansion of the foreign fundamentalist ideas and fighters, and the danger of a violent scenario increases.