For Muslims in Ukraine, war revives questions of faith and belonging

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LVIV, Ukraine — The Quran on Murad Suleimanov’s desk has become a crisis management manual as he figures out how to serve the hundreds of terrified, displaced people who stream through the doors of the mosque he leads in western Ukraine. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for the latest updates on Russia’s war in Ukraine. ArrowRight When his heart grows heavy over Russia’s war, Suleimanov reads about lopsided battles in Islamic history. When he checks on a Muslim elder whose house was destroyed by shelling, he recites verses about faith in hard times. And when the imam sees pro-Russian Muslim militias participating in brutalities, he turns to passages about the sanctity of life and thinks there must be “some other kind of Muslim, with some other Quran” to justify such acts.

For Suleimanov and others in Ukraine’s tiny Muslim population, there’s no question that they should share in the country’s protection. Muslims here are fighting on the front lines and providing humanitarian relief, viewing their wartime efforts as both a religious duty and an assertion of Ukrainian identity in a nation that hasn’t always welcomed them.

“Yes, we’re the minority here, but we’re a part of this country,” Suleimanov, 31, said one recent evening. “We must do something.”

At his headquarters, the Islamic Cultural Center of Lviv, a display case exhibits faded old Qurans carried by Crimean Tatars, Muslims who were forcibly deported in 1944 during a Soviet ethnic cleansing campaign. Displayed in another case are chunks of shrapnel and spent ordnance from Russian attacks in recent weeks that leveled Muslim-owned homes in the suburbs of Kyiv, the capital.

These mementos, collected nearly 80 years apart, represent chapters in the long story of Muslim suffering at the hands of rulers in Moscow. Islam has deep and tangled roots in the region; six of the former Soviet Union’s 15 republics were majority-Muslim.

Today, the 20 million Muslims living in Russia face worsening repression, including torture and arbitrary detention, according to a report released this week by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Those who oppose the war risk the same reprisals for speaking up as other dissidents, making it impossible to gauge true support. Officially, however, Muslim leaders in Russia back the government, with many parroting Kremlin talking points about a Nazi threat in Ukraine or casting the war as a righteous struggle — a “jihad” against the same Western powers that bomb Muslim nations.

On the other side of the border in Ukraine, a primarily Orthodox Christian country led by a Jewish president, Muslims make up about 1 percent of the population. Their numbers jump to about 12 percent in the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. That land grab resulted in an exodus of Crimean Tatars to other parts of Ukraine, where they joined long-established Tatar communities or built new Islamic centers alongside Turks, Arabs and Ukrainian converts.

Though they still face stereotypes and harassment, Muslims say they have greater religious freedom than in much of Russia.

“We still feel that there are some barriers,” Suleimanov said. “Not everybody supports us, so we have to work so that people see Muslims and understand that we’re a part of the community.”

At his weekly Friday prayer service in Lviv, Hussein Kuchuk reminds Muslims not to “blindly follow leaders giving unjust orders” and to avoid becoming “a plaything” for corrupt powers.

Kuchuk, imam of the Crimean Tatar Cultural Center, is referring to Muslim loyalists to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Perhaps the most notorious is Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen strongman whose forces were filmed chanting “Allahu akbar” amid the ruins of Mariupol, the besieged port city in southern Ukraine.

“A lot of non-Muslims watch those videos and it gives an impression of Muslims: ‘Oh, if Kadyrov is saying that, all Muslims are like that,’ ” Kuchuk said after Friday prayers. “They don’t represent Muslims — they represent Putin.”

But Kadyrov’s feared militiamen aren’t the only Muslims on the battlefield. At least two Chechen units that emerged after the annexation of Crimea are fighting on the Ukrainian side, journalist Neil Hauer reported in New Lines Magazine.

The longer the war lasts, analysts warn, the greater the chance of stoking internecine Muslim tensions within Russia, as well as its Muslim diaspora throughout the greater region.

Robert D. Crews, a Stanford University history professor who has written extensively about Islam and Russia, said a number of factors could fuel unrest: Sanctions against Russia are likely to hurt poor Muslim laborers there. Families are sharing photos of Muslim funerals for sons who died fighting in Ukraine, prompting some critics to accuse Russia of treating Muslims as cannon fodder.

In the past, extremist groups such as the Islamic State have turned such turmoil into a recruiting bonanza.

“This is a very explosive issue when Muslims are dying and they’re being drawn from Dagestan and Chechnya, places where the state does have a heavy hand when it comes to Islam,” Crews said. “The risk is that you revive anti-state politics, anti-state mobilization.”

Muslim leaders in Ukraine debate whether Muslims should take up arms in the war, though they’re in broad agreement over condemning the Russian aggression and helping displaced families. Perhaps the most prominent Muslim figure in Ukraine, Said Ismagilov, is all in — his social media posts include direct appeals to Muslims in Russia and around the world to “be on our side.”

“He’s joined the fighting forces, he’s wearing the uniform and he’s very much taking the face of an integrated Ukrainian Islam,” Crews said of Ismagilov.

For Crimean Tatars like Kuchuk, who grew up with stories of their grandparents being loaded onto cattle cars and forcibly deported from their ancestral lands, there’s a visceral pain in witnessing thousands of displaced Ukrainians boarding trains to safer cities.

Kuchuk is among them. He fled Dnipro two months ago and now temporarily leads the Lviv center because the previous imam took his family to safety abroad. If left unchecked, Kuchuk said, this upheaval will spill across borders and destabilize Europe.

“If you don’t oppose dictatorship,” he said, “it wants more and more.”

In 2015, when Muslims in Lviv turned an old building into a new hub for worship and learning, they were deliberate about what to call it. The full formal name of the center Suleimanov leads is the Muhammad Asad Islamic Cultural Center.

Asad, born Leopold Weiss in 1900, came from a prominent Jewish family that lived in Lviv when it was part of Austria. He later embraced Islam and wrote a famous memoir, “The Road to Mecca,” which is credited with inspiring other Western conversions.

Muslims in Lviv say that invoking Asad was a reminder that Islam isn’t a foreign or new concept here.

“The first goal was to provide a place for Muslims to pray,” Suleimanov said. “The second was to break stereotypes.”

Today, the center is more than a place of worship for its diverse congregation. There are Arabic classes, youth programs and Quran studies, all in flux because of the war.

One recent evening, three Arab immigrants gathered at the center to pray during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting that ends next week. Two had just been displaced from other cities and laughed at the irony of fleeing volatile homelands only to get caught in another conflict.

“Where there is war, you’ll find a Palestinian, a Yemeni and a Syrian. So here we are in Ukraine,” said Vail Albekhesi, 51, a Palestinian who came in 1989.

Albekhesi and his Syrian friend, 55-year-old Talal Alas, said their families are staunchly Ukrainian and that they can’t imagine leaving after three decades of carving a space for themselves in their adopted country.

Besides, Alas said, he’s running out of places to go. When separatist fighting erupted while he lived in Donetsk, he returned to Syria. Then came the Syrian conflict, which has left about 40 of his relatives dead. He returned to Ukraine and is now displaced from his usual home in Kyiv.

Caring for displaced Muslims is a central mission of the Islamic Center, which relies on volunteers and donations from rich Arab states such as Qatar and Kuwait to keep up with the demand. Among the new arrivals is a 56-year-old Russian-born Tatar who gave only her nickname, Um Abdulaziz, for security reasons.

On the morning of Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded, Um Abdulaziz’s dawn prayers were interrupted by the sound of shelling in the central-eastern city of Dnipro. She and her family fled a couple of weeks later. As Russian speakers, she said, they were terrified of Ukrainian checkpoints on their two-day journey west.

Instead, she said, she was welcomed by the young guards.

She and her husband are now leaning toward remaining in Lviv. Joining family in Russia is not an option.

“This is the first time I’ve felt disgust, hatred for the place I was born,” Um Abdulaziz said, her eyes brimming with tears.

The center’s young imam, Suleimanov, is pained by the deep personal animosity he sees taking root on both sides of the border. He said his Friday sermons lately have touched on forgiveness — a premature theme for many Ukrainians, including Muslims, who still live under bombardment.

“We understand that there are hardships ahead of us,” Suleimanov said. “We have to stay strong.”

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