The Tatar Muslims fear history repeating itself if and when Crimea joins Russia. Dr Ilyas Mohammed questions whether the possibility of Russian persecution of Tatars could lead to a revival of jihad in the region, with Muslims from around the world coming to aid their co-religionists.
The Crimea has an estimated 266,000 Tatar Muslims and they make over 13% of the local population. They are all from the Turkic ethnic group, which is spread across Russia, Central Asia, China, Moldova, Turkey and Bulgaria. Ukrainians and ethnic Russians make up the remainder of the population.
During Stalin’s era the Tatars were deported to the southern fringe of the Soviet Union, more than half died during or after the journey. They were only allowed to return after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. By this time their homes had been destroyed or occupied by the locals. Their culture and religion had been erased from the landscape or Christianized.
Ever since they returned to their homeland, like other minorities in Ukraine such as the Jews, they have experienced immense discrimination over land rights, education and employment.
Islam in the Crimean Peninsula
The Tatars adhere to Sunni Islam and belong to organisations allied to the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Crimea (DUMK), which has close links to the “official Islam” in Turkey. There are two reasons for this: the region was part of the Ottoman Empire and present day Turkey has a large Tatar population living within its boarders.
In recent years there has been a surge in Crimean Muslims and other Turkic people returning to Islam, as a form of identity, a culture and a form of politics. At present the most influential and politically orientated Islamic group in Crimea is Hizb ut-Tahrir, a global political party, which wants to re-establish the Caliphate (unified pan-Islamic state). Until now, it remains on the periphery but this may change if the ongoing political tensions spill over into violence or continue.
The Crimean war and the local, regional global actors
The present political turmoil has already led to violent clashes between the pro-Russian and the pro-Ukrainian camps, the latest being in the eastern city of Donetsk.
These skirmishes coupled with the upcoming seventieth anniversary of the 1944 deportation of the Tatars and the outcome of the secession referendum on 16th of March may result in a prolonged state of violence. The ensuing conditions will have the potential not only to engulf the region but also act as a vehicle to attract individuals and groups from further afield.
If the Crimean explodes into war, it will take place on three geographical levels. Locally, a three-way ethnic, xenophobic and inter-religious violence will ensue, which will produce an environment conducive for jihadis from the Muslim majority countries and the West to become involved.
The conflict will also attract neo-Nazis from the region, as well as other parts of Europe and North America, as evidenced by the presence of Swedish groups, Nordisk Ungdom (Nordic Youth) and Swedish Ukraine Volunteers in Kiev.
Regionally, the conflict between Moscow and the jihadis from the North Caucasus will escalate into a war, leading to more attacks within Russian territory. Globally, the world could open up a second dimension to the proxy war between Russia and the West, beginning with Syria. The biggest risk the Crimean war poses to Russia and the West is “blowback”.
Consequences for the East and West
For Russia the blowback will come from jihadis from the North Caucasus (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia–Alania). Populations of these countries have close ties with the Crimean Tatars, not only religiously but also through shared experiences of violence inflicted by Putin and his predecessors.
Jihadi groups in recent years have shown that they have the capacity to attack any city in Russia, the latest being Volgograd in January 2014. Blowback will also come from jihadis fighting in Syria because of Putin’s strategic backing of Assad. Russia will blame Saudi Arabia for funding the jihadis to attack Russia because of its support for Assad.
The West will experience blowback, not only because the conflict will become a powerful resource for Islamist groups to “radicalise” Muslims. Like Bosnia in the 1990s and Syria today, it will inspire some Muslims outraged by their brethren suffering to volunteer and fight alongside them.
The returning volunteers will be seen as a security threat by western governments. For two reasons, they would be militarily trained, therefore increasing the paranoia of carrying out attacks in their home country. They would also be ideologically hardened through their interaction with other jihadis and what they had experienced, eulogised by some Muslims and others to engage in violence.
International conflict resolution
As it stands, the UN is paralyzed, unable to do anything to affect the political upheaval in the Ukraine. Diplomats from the US, France and Britain have tried to put pressure on the Russians to work with them towards a solution but so far these efforts have failed. Even China has been asked to intervene on the side of the aforementioned countries but it is unlikely to side with them because of its own concern with the Uyghurs in Western China.
Turkey has voiced its concerns over the secession referendum. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in a joint press conference with the Turkish Tatar political leader, Mustafa Abdülcemil Kırımoğlu, stated that “this referendum is not recognized [by Turkey]. This referendum has no legitimacy…We are in contact with the EU and NATO on the steps that will be taken …The referendum in Crimea violates international agreements and law and is an illegitimate step. …The de facto situation created by the referendum will not be legally binding for Turkey”.
Ukraine’s presidential candidate and former boxing World Champion Vitali Klitschko has warned of the “ethnic cleansing” of Tatars. On Saturday he said that “Crimea is today on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. The Ukrainian citizens there are left at the mercy of foreign occupiers and local criminals. There is also a risk of ethnic cleansing. Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians and all patriots of Ukraine are threatened”.
The prospect of the Crimean conflict cross-fertilizing with the Syrian civil war increases hour by hour and rejuvenating the Cold War. The conflict is a zero-sum game for both parties, with the ultimate losers being the populations of both sides.