The website “Islam for Europeans” presents to readers an interview of it’s CEO Haroun Sidorov with Professor Mikhail Yakubovich, a native Ukrainian Muslim, the author of the first translation of the meaning of the Qur’an into Ukrainian, an academic Islamologist and a prominent figure in the Muslim community of Ukraine.

As-salamu aleykum, professor Yakubovich. Please say something about yourself to our readers. How and why you converted to Islam and what was your path towards Islam like?

Wa alaykum assalam. The way I am going by it became clear for me since my childhood. I grow up in a family where the religious freedom (and, in some way, “freethinking”) was the thing appreciated the most. So finally my first contact with Islam happened in the age of 8 or 9, when I listened the stories of my father (who spent part of his life in Central Asia living amongst Muslim people) and reading the Russian translation of the Qur’an, the one by Ignatii Krachkovskyi. The conversion itself happened much later, at the age of 18. To be honest, I do not like the division on the “traditional” and “new Muslims”, it is better to use the term “conscious” or “practicing”. For me personally Islam is also a big intellectual system, so my main interest as academic is the study of intellectual traditions in it.

How did you as a native Ukrainian Muslim found the Ukrainian Muslim community when you became a part of it? What major ethnic groups does it consist of and what role do they play in it? What is the attitude of indigenous Muslim diasporas to Ukrainian and other newly-converted Muslims? Are there any problems between them and how they are resolved?

You know, there are big problems and big opportunities at once. Since my early experiences with Muslim communities (mostly Salafis, who were active in dawah), I started to reflect on the question of relations between the specifically “national” and “religious” in Islam. This issue seems to be opened and unsolved still, since general statements about the unity and universal brotherhood in Islam are not working at all. Learning Arabic language, I came to the idea that the very basics of Islam should be practiced as the first generation of Ummah practiced it, but to know how it was in reality the history must be studied better. And the language, of course. When you read the Qur’an in its original language and understand what is said there, it gives you much more arguments than before. As once Ibn Taymiyah (I was really admiring his thought years ago, it is hard to find any of his known books which are unknown to me). So, basic concept of the Qur’an and Sunnah written in Arabic should be the principle, but the secondary staff, the “branches” of this concept could be described in “national concepts. Here in Ukraine we have one main group, who are the Crimean Tatars, and of course many diasporas from Caucasus and Central Asia. Volga Tatars are also amongst them. In some communities like the traditionally-constructed “spiritual administration” of Crimean Tatars (both old, the one in Crimea and the new, the ones in Kyiv) ethnic identity plays the biggest role; the same is true about Al-Ahbash Neo-Sufi group, “Spiritual Administration of Ukrainian Muslims”, where almost the entire leadership is Arab or from the other “Islamic” nationalities. We, the Muslims of Ukrainian origin, are “dispersed” between communities. Even if in some institutions (like the most active moderate “SAUM” Ummah headed by well-known public figure Said Ismagilov) Muslims of Ukrainian origin reached some leading positions, this is still more exclusion than a rule. To solve the issue Ukrainian Muslims should be more linked by ties (starting from social media and finishing with special projects) and to acquire Islamic knowledge, keeping both Islamic and Ukrainian identities.

It is impossible to talk about Islam in Ukraine, bypassing the events that took place in this country over the past 4 years. As far as we can judge, in terms of Ukraine’s national self-awareness and political orientation, before the Revolution of Dignity (Maidan) in 2014 and the subsequent war with Russia, and after it, we have two different countries. How did all these events affect the Muslim community of Ukraine? Can we say that together with the new political nation of Ukraine, a new Ukrainian Muslim community was born?

That is the point. Since “Ukrainian” civil identity (anti-Russian sentiment, usage of the language and so on) now became one of the most productive trends even among the Muslim diasporas, so “to be Ukrainian” seems to be more socially prestigious than before. In Ukraine, we had different fraction reacting to the events. It was some pro-Russian Muslims, mostly from Donbass and some from Kiev, but the latter now keep almost complete silence on the events happening, propagating some “political neutrality”. Some establishments like those of the Crimean Tatars on the Crimean peninsula became affiliated with Russians as well, but the most active part of Crimean Tatar community made new developments towards Kiev. So most of the Crimean Tatars are standing with Ukraine. I know Crimean Tatars who participated in the demonstrations at Maidan and those fighting in the Ukrainian Army. In the institutional level, the only community which declared pro-Ukrainian identity openly and called to the fight against Russian occupation is the SAUM “ Ummah ”. As for the Muslims among Ukrainians (or Russians living in Ukraine), some of them also went and joined Ukrainian Army or volunteer units. Even some Salafis and members of Hizb al-Tahrir group (who declares complete disassociation from “non-Islamic politics) decided to support Ukraine because of the oppression they suffer at the hands of the Russian regime. I do not think we already have new Muslim community as such, but at least we have the one with new mental borders and Ukrainian identity plays a big part in it, be it cultural or merely civil one.

Tell us, please, what is the current situation of the Crimean Tatar Muslim community? How would you describe it’s relations with the Muslims of the rest of Ukraine?

In order to understand this, there are few main issues to be dealt with. First of all, we have majority of Crimean Tatars remaining in Crimea. The religious establishment (muftiate under Emirali Ablaev) keeps pro-Russian position, they already blamed Ukraine at least few times. But majority of Crimean Tatars are not in favour of Russia. Russia makes quite smart politics in Crimea (but nevertheless even more cynic), making the conflict “silent”. Their strategy is that Crimean Tatar issue should not be presented internationally, not in bad nor in good attitude. And hundreds of Crimean Tatars suffered from the searches, imprisonments, affiliatins with the extremists etc. Being in the same situation as Muslims from the other areas of Russia. The Ukrainian part or Crimean Tatar community (25.000 – 30.000 persons) is more pro-Ukrainian, and the appearance of new religious establishment under the muftiate of Ayder Rustemov is notable thing. What is interesting here, is that for the election of the muftivarious communities of Crimean Tatars gathered ( including “Hizb al-Tahrir”, Salafis and various other, different groups with their “secular” and “traditional” leaders). This shows that the national sentiment in Crimean Tatar movement is extremely strong. The relations are quite good, first of all, with SAUM “Ummah” same as with some Salafi and “Hizb al-Tahrir” communities where Crimean Tatars are active participants; of course, leaders of some organizations are afraid that the new Crimean Tatar institution will take some part of communities to their side, but in reality everything is still in the process of formation. I hope these relations will be preserved for the future.

The Ukrainian revolution of 2014 and the subsequent national liberation war were in fact the choice of the future for Ukraine as a whole and for its Muslims. It is known that Russia and the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine wanted to impose a model of the so-called “Russian World”, suggesting that Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians are one Orthodox people. With this approach, Ukrainians-Catholics, Ukrainians from the local Orthodox Church, unrecognized by Moscow, Protestant Ukrainians and even more Ukrainian-Muslims are regarded as “traitors”, “sectarians” and enemies of the “Russian world”.

Therefore, it is not surprising that many newly converted Ukrainian Muslims took an active part in the struggle against such a “Russian world” and for an independent Ukraine, where freedom of religion is guaranteed. Moreover, they were supported in this struggle by a part of ethnically Russian Muslims, both from Ukraine itself and from Russia, where ethnic Russians who accepted Islam are also regarded as enemies of state Orthodoxy. Can you say that as a result of this struggle, a civil nation has taken place in Ukraine, the full part of which is its Muslims, including indigenous Ukrainians, who are accepting Islam?

I think so. There are many young people, people interested in Ukrainian history, language, politics, for them everything happening in Russian Islamic community is a nightmare. We do not want “indices of prohibited books”, destruction of “illegal” mosques, ethnic clashes, domination of some religion in secular state etc. Of course, this is still “post-Soviet” era, and we have some Islamophobic trends as well. The only change is that previously they were mostly imported from Russian TV channels, but now we have more “European” Islamophobic (or “Muslimiophobic”) developments, which are shown trough the fear of immigrants, hijab issues etc. But still, we are already free from many prejudices which are mainstream in Russia. We see how the pro-Ukrainian forces like patriotically-oriented Muslims and Christians share similar attitudes on the peace and war, freedom and oppression. However, what do we need is to have it implemented in reality, but the reforms which are active in Ukraine are too slow for that. Do not blame me for pessimism, but Ukraine should work hard for many years to achieve the goals that were stated during the Maidan.

As you know, one of the main motives of your Revolution and the clash with Russia was Ukraine’s desire to be a part of Europe, and not to return back to the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. Did the Muslim community of Ukraine manage to use its country’s choice of the European way? What role does the Muslim community of Ukraine play today in the lives of Muslims in Europe?

First of all, more than 30 Muslim organizations from Ukraine (including both centralized administrations and local ones) signed two important documents, the one is “Charter of Ukranian Muslims” (2016) and the second one is the “Social Concept of Ukrainian Muslims”. Both documents show support for the values which are similar to the “Charter of Muslims of Europe” (2008), in some way, they are even more progressive, abstaining from general declaration and propagating real steps for development. The question is however who is the partner in EU to interact with? Of course, it is about Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe and some other communities based on the ideology of Islamic social and political activism. I think the ties with European Muslims should be strengthened even more, but sometimes I see how many European Muslim themselves are skeptical about the situation in Ukraine. Some Muslims are anti-American, ok, this is one of the oldest trends, but why those who are anti-American are pro-Russian? We have good ties with Muslims in Poland, Lithuania, Germany and some other countries, but Muslim community of EU is even more disintegrated than Ukrainian one. Sometimes I want to ask: could we still talk about “European Islam” as it is, or there are many traditions inside? It is more about theory and definition, but I see (let it be more romantic view, but still) that Islam in the Eastern Europe preserved more “Europeanness” than in the Western one.

Despite the fact that the Ukrainians sincerely aspired to Europe, a rather languid and incoherent policy of the EU managed to disappoint some of them, moreover, those who no longer want to return to the East. As a consequence, advocates of a alliance with their closest neighbors appeared in Ukraine, which, unlike Germany and France, who are interested in cooperation with Russia, perceive its imperial ambitions as a threat to their existence.

So, we are talking about the commonwealth of the countries of the Baltic-Black Sea region. This idea was supported at the summit, which took place in 2017 in Poland with the participation of the new US president, where it was already expanded to the Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea community. Do you think this trend can have its own Islamic dimension, given that some extreme right-wing politicians see it as an alternative not only to Russia, but also to the “Islamization” of Europe? If so, how do you see it?

In contrast to many other people here, I am much skeptical about the perspective of any regional developments here. Now – and this is long-standing issue – Ukraine experiences some problems (talking about our historical memory with some neighbors). In some way it is natural for many countries and is not crucial, since the borders are opened, visa-free regime for both citizens of EU and Ukrainians is established, many ties of cooperation are developing, but for me Ukraine should try to survive in “pre-Third World War” condition on its own principles. What we Muslim should do however, is to show how the Post-Ottoman (and Post-Russian Empire) space preserved some [past traces of Islam here, and yes, we share some history with Muslims living in the Balkans, the ones from the Baltic area (mostly “Western” Tatars living in Poland, Lithuania and Belarus), and Crimean Tatars. At least there is common Islamic intellectual history, and it should be studied well to restore former ties. May be it is more about science than politics, but still some words about the past should be said in the face of future.

Even apart from the attitude towards Ukraine, the question of the fact that the countries of western and eastern Europe are very different among themselves has been increasingly raised lately. Moreover, these differences directly affect the Muslims. Due to historical circumstances in the countries of Western Europe there were millions of Muslim immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. This has given rise to many problems that are now further exacerbated by the refugee crisis and jihadist terrorism, in which immigrants and refugees are involved. Historically, Eastern Europe was not connected with Africa and the Middle East, as much as the Western Europe. Therefore, the countries of the Visegrad group are now resisting the distribution of refugees from the EU. In both Western and Eastern Europe, “Islamization” is not seen as the spread of Islam among the local population, but as an invasion of people of a different race and culture, whose marker is an alien religion demonized by the media. However, an equally important question arise: how do Muslims perceive it?

Experience shows that in Western Europe, where compact areas and communities of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East have emerged, they also perceive their identity in this dialectic: “Muslims versus Europeans” or “Muslims against whites”. If the “white” accepts Islam, both white racists, and anti-white racists, perceive it as a break with “white identity.” And for the first group he becomes an outcast and a traitor while the second group tries to assimilate such envelopes – taking them under their care and marrying them with the people of the non white communities, specifically so that their children are no longer, and do not feel themselves any longer as white.

What we notice in this connection is that this state of affairs is much more often caused by protests among newly-converted Muslims from Eastern Europe, where the population is still mono-racial to this day. Not all, but some of the Eastern Europeans accepting Islam completely do not see this as a break with their racial identity and want to see “Islamization” as a process of their compatriots accepting Islam and not as the colonization of their countries by millions of migrants from Africa and the Middle East who view whites as enemies. Moreover, some Eastern Europeans retain such installations not only at home, but also in Western Europe or even in the USA.

So, at the moment the idea of our website “Islam for Europeans” has received the greatest support among representatives of different Slavic peoples and for some reason the Italians, both in Eastern and the Western Europe, and in the USA. Among them, by the way, are ethnic Ukrainians, as well as ethnic Russian Muslims, who are more focused on Ukraine today rather than Russia, where they have no place.

How do you feel about this trend, and in what way should in your opinion the Islamic community in Ukraine develop? – Western European or Eastern European? What would be better for the development of Islam in Ukraine and where could its Muslims show themselves more – in the multiracial Islamic space of the West or in its native European segment, more oriented towards eastern and southern Europe?

My vision of this is that the real Europeanness (preserved in the Eastern Europe) could be conceptualized within the Islamic line as well. However, sometimes our concepts are merely the products of some intellectuals and no more the idea for the masses. For example, someone could decide that being European in the Eastern European sense does not contradict to the idea of being Muslim here, but how to convey this idea to some people who stay on the other position? To make one more Islamic group, be it transnational jamaah or even some “native” Muslim Administration means to establish one more “Islamic sect”. What we should do, first of all is to propagate, to publish, to organize conferences, to invite Islamic leaders and so on, the vision must be discussed widely. Why so? Because this is a part of Islamic knowledge, at least part of fiqh, Islamic law. Islam must be socially active here, we should use the moment. In the other ways where Muslims will be more than just dreamers, and what the Ummah needs is the realism.

What would your advice to our readers, and European muslims in general be?

I would advise them to be a good citizens in the Islamic sense, first of all. It means to promote good for the people, and the best thing they can do is to practice real Islamic morals in front of others. Moreover, I think we should be more united now, and never let the lines written in the Middle East or somewhere to be a matter of division between us. Do not hesitate to be yourself, since today even some Arab thinkers (like Imam Abdessalam Yassine in his book “Winning the Modern World for Islam”) say that God may replace current Muslim nations by the others, more believing ones.

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