Muslims in Ukraine: A Small Problem Amid a Larger One

By J. Millard Burr*
Thursday, February 27th, 2014 @ 2:08AM

“Crimean Tatars and Pro-Russian activists clashed outside a local parliament building in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.” (Washington Post, 26 February 2014)

In a long and detailed article on recent events in the Ukraine the Washington Post provided a tantalizing snippet, noted above, and then provided no further comment on an incident pitting Ukraine’s Muslim and ethnic Russian communities.

With the exit of President Viktor Yanukovych, observers are left to speculate what will become of the Ukraine.  In that nation there exists a plethora of political parties, and thus the election for President and to the 450-member unicameral legislature (the Verkhovna Rada) has in the past been subject to much horse-trading.  Still, if simplification is demanded, it can be said that as of this moment the Ukraine is divided between the Russophiles found east of the Dneiper River and in the Crimea, and the Russophobes to the west.

A second question should be, what will happen in the Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula?  If the Russophobes in Kiev retain the power they have won, will the emerging Russophobia lead Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to seize the Crimea where ethnic Russians comprise about sixty percent of that region’s population?  Most importantly, as Sevastapol serves as a singularly important Russian naval base and is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, the possibility that Russia will move against Kiev to protect its interest is all too real.

Previously a part of Russia, in 1954 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, “gifted” Crimea to Ukraine as a gesture of goodwill to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with tsarist Russia. At the time, it did not occur to anyone to think the unthinkable: that one day the Soviet Union might collapse and the Ukraine might become an independent country.

Today, the Ukraine is a Republic composed of twenty-four provinces (oblasts) and the self-governing republic of Crimea. The Crimea itself is found on the northern coast of the Black Sea where Russia’s massive Black Sea Fleet is stationed at Sevastopol.  Russia is the beneficiary of a lease agreement with Ukraine that allows its fleet “to remain at Sevastopol until 2042.”  As a result, the Russian base in Sevastopol is home to an estimated 26,000 military, while the some 60 percent of the region’s population is ethnic Russian.  Recent news reports from Moscow indicate that Russia is prepared to fight, (i.e., occupy) the Crimea if the Ukrainian nationalists threaten ethnic Russian dominance.  “This viewpoint seems to reflect Kremlin thinking,” and it is recalled that at a 2008 meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush, Putin reportedly told Bush that “Ukraine was an accident of history.” (Josh Cohen, “Will Putin Seize Crimea,” The Moscow Times, 24 February 2014) And Europeans are reminded that in a similar circumstance Russia invaded Geogria in 2008 when Moscow’s hold on the Caucasus was threatened in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Other questions remain: If the Crimea seceeds, will Ukraine’s Russophile oblasts located east of the Dneiper River (which divides the country in half) follow suit?  Finally, what will happen to the Ukraine’s Muslim minority, which fears a return of the Russians and of Russian Orthodoxy championed by Putin himself.


Well prior to recent events in the Ukraine, in 2008 an expert on Islam in the Ukraine–and the Crimea in particular–was asked to comment on the trouble brewing between the dominant Russian population in the Crimea and that region’s Muslim minority, the Crimean Tatars. Recent clashes had resulted from questions of land ownership and the economic marginalization of the Tatars.  The expert claimed:

“Tensions in Crimea only take on a front of religion. Conflicts in Crimea are periodically used by Russian nationalists for political means, in portraying a weak Ukrainian government incapable of managing the Crimean situation. I think that Russian nationalists would not necessarily mind a deteriorating situation in Crimea if it in fact de-legitimizes Kiev. The situation in Crimea is an opportunity for Russian nationalists to instigate conflict. Even though Russian nationalists represent the fringe among ethnic Russians in Crimea, the question remains whether they are indeed on the margins. (“Islamic Organizations and Challenges in Crimea: An Interview with Dr. Alexander Bogomolov,” Laryssa Chomiak and Waleed Ziad, International Committee for Crimea, updated 18 April 2008.)

When Dr. Bogomolov was asked to comment on recent trends in Muslim political activity he stressed that substantial participation was occurring thanks to umbrella organizations “found primarily in Kiev, the autonomous republic of Crimea, and the Donbass region.”  Still, just how extensive was the growth of the worrisome Islamist movement seemed to be anyone’s guess.  (This has been the case since the author of this piece began following events in the Crimea in the 1990s).

Bogomolov has noted that, in estimating mosque participation, the number of Muslims in Ukraine totals approximately 439,000 people, which includes both Ukrainian citizens and non-citizens. He feels the estimate provides a “more realistic count” than the common estimate of two million Muslims that was used shortly after Ukraine achieved independence.  While mosque participation may not be the best method to judge the extent of the Muslim community, it still makes up a very small percentage of Ukraine’s population of some 45 million souls.


Despite the difficulty in estimating the Muslim population, it is certainly true that its organization has increased substantially in the years following the independence of the Ukraine and its membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)–the organization founded in December 1991 by the Ukraine, along with the Republic of Belarus, and the Russian Federation, and later joined by nine former Soviet Republics.

Among the CIS states of predominantly non-Muslim population, Ukraine deserves special attention. First, beginning with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there soon emerged a number of nationalist-qua-separatist organizations in the Crimea. According to Russian reports the Crimea was then in the process of creating “bases of Wahhabism”, i.e., Islamist nodes fostered and financed by Saudi Arabia.  As Moscow saw it, the Saudis were clearing a fertile field for an Islamic outreach (dawaa) program that would reach the more than two million Ukrainian Muslims, a majority of whom lived in what Islam traditionally called the Tatar territory of the Crimea.

Shortly after gaining independence on 24 August 1991 the nascent republic was warned by Moscow that certain Ukrainian “radicals” had begun to form ties with the emerging Islamist movement in Chechnya. It was next claimed that “Wahhabite gangs” formed in the Crimea were taking part in the jihad intended to separate Muslim Chechnya from Russia. And the Kavkaz center, based in Lvov, was providing the Internet service used by “Ukranian legionnaires” involved in the Muslim struggle that aimed to incorporate once and for all the Caucasus in the Dar-al-Islam (the House of Islam).

In the Ukraine itself, the first Islamic community was founded in Kiev’s Shevchenko district in 1991.  It was at about the same time that members of the International Muslim Brotherhood (the Ikhwan al-Muslimun) began to make an appearance.  Their effort was soon noted in the creation of Muslim youth camps, the crucible used by the Ikhwan elsewhere to mold future leadership.

In August 1992 the General Administration of Muslims of Ukraine was founded and its leader, Sheikh Ahmed Tamim, urged enjoined Muslims, actual and lapsed, to begin the study of the Koran. He founded a madrassah for that purpose later that year.  In September 1993 the organization was renamed the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine (DUMA). It was determined to unite the nation’s Muslims and provide religious training.  Later that year the Islamic Institute of Kiev opened its doors.

Fortunately for the Ukraine, Sheikh Ahmed Tamim, the Grand Mufti of Ukrainian Muslims, took a cautious approach in what was then an emerging Muslim community that was finally free of the Soviet yoke. Tamim did not disguise his concern that the entry of Ikhwan and their “wahhabite ideas” was counterproductive.  Thus, he urged Ukranian authorities to “take drastic steps for strengthening their control over the activity of organizations and movements nominally related to Islam.” Tamim warned that Wahhabi “propaganda literature” enjoyed an “uncontrolled diffusion in the Ukrainian regions.”  The propaganda with which the Grand Mufti was concerned was being printed in the Ukraine in both Arabic and Ukrainian. Material was being sent from the Ukraine to the Caucasus and into nearby Belarus.  Its production was being financed by Saudi Arabia’s very Islamist World Assembly of Muslim Youth, an organization penetrated throughout by the International Muslim Brotherhood. It followed that in Kiev a Department of Religious Affairs was created which served under the Minister of Justice at the national level. Regionally, the Crimean Council of Ministers was responsible for giving legal recognition to Muslim communities.


It was debatable how much influence Sheikh Tamim himself had in Crimea because a Crimean Tatar Mejlis (organization) emerged and seemingly operated independently of Kiev.  A Crimean Tatar Muftiyat soon emerged which united in a single body the mufti responsible for the organizing of mosque communities. The Tatar Mejlis emerged as the nation’s best organized Muslim political association.  However, it was soon under attack following the arrival of Ar-Riad (The Association of Social Organizations in Ukraine), an Arab-sponsored Islamic dawaa movement founded in 1997 and funded by Saudi Arabia. Other smaller organizations included the Hizb al-Tahrir (established in 2003, and an Islamist organization often criticized in the West), and a few “Salafi (Wahhabi) groups, which were in the main based in the Crimea. Politically, an Islamic Party of Ukraine was founded, but has had little impact. (Parties must achieve 4% of the vote to gain representation in parliament.  Thus it is only by forming blocs that the smaller parties are represented.)

The Ar-Riad united the many clandestine efforts of Muslim students (especially those that had been involved in the convening of youth camps) in a single organization. It was led by one Abu Obeid, who would shortly afterward be denied entrance to Ukraine. Internationally, it was a participant in the World Association of Muslim Youth, and it was funded from Saudi Arabia.  Throughout, it was an Ikhwan operation.  The same year it was founded, Ar-Riad organized a summer camp that brought Muslim youth leaders from all parts of the Ukraine. The training program involved lectures, group discussions, and other elements devoted to the propagation of dawaa.  In addition, Ar-Riad opened a book publishing house in Odessa in 1998 (its opening coincided with the opening of three new mosques in the Crimea).  Later that year the movement began the publication of its Ar-Riad newspaper, which included articles by or on Ikhwan ideologues including Banna, Qutb, and Qaradawi.

By the new millennium the Muslim Brotherhood, though limited in membership (approximately 300 senior members, with 30 cells in Crimea alone), was the most active Muslim spearhead operating in the Ukraine. Its Ar-Raid, for years led by Ismail Qadhi, remains to the present a member in good standing of the Ikhwan-dominated Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE). Ar-Riad takes part in numerous activities “in the administrative, religious, cultural, educational, charity, public relations, media, and civilizational communication fields,” as well as outreach (dawaa). The organization, composed of “anywhere from 9-13 chapters,” includes those in Kiev, Crimea, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Odessa. It has recently been claimed that Ar-Riad is funded by the Saudi Islamic Development Bank.

In the Ukraine the Al-Raid reportedly has developed a large clientele and a network of regional branches.  While these groups do receive funding from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and is a member in global Islamic networks, Muslim activity has in large part been devoted to building local communities. There are no recent reports that Ukrainian Muslims may have been enticed to join jihadists in the Caucasus, Syria or the Maghreb.  One indication of how closely the movement is watched was the treatment given to the chairman of Ar-Riad in April 2000.  Following a trip to Egypt, he was denied re-entry to the Ukraine. Still, the government has done nothing to halt the entry of young Egyptian and Gulf Arabs from participating in summer dawaa.


In the Crimea it has been claimed that the ethnic-Russian majority actually assists the Ar-Riad.  It does so in order to weaken the local Crimean Mejlis subservient to Kiev and to its Muslim hierarchy involved with the Department of Religious Affairs.  While the Mejlis has received de facto acknowledgement from the Ukrainian government, that status has been disputed by Russian nationalists. The result has been reports of “significant disagreements” between the Crimean Mejlis and its Muftiyat, which has been penetrated throughout by the “Wahhabis.” As far as the Muslim leadership in Kiev was concerned, the Wahhabis are attempting to introduce a foreign ideology that conflicts with the Tatar traditional way of life.

In opposition to the growing radicalism in the Crimea, the relationship between the government and the Crimean Mejlis was strengthened with the creation of a Crimean Tatar advisory board that advised President Kuchma.  A seemingly competitive “Council of Crimean Tatars” was then chosen by Prime Minister Yanukovich.

The relationship between the Mejlis and the Rukh (center right, western Ukraine) Party precedes that of the creation of the Republic. It is based on arrangements made by “dissident Ukrainian nationalists (i.e., Tetyana Chernovil) and Crimean Tatars (especially Mustafa Jemilev) in Soviet prisons.” The Rukh then assisted the Crimean Tatars “to establish a voice within the national Ukrainian political landscape in the early years of Ukrainian independence. Early on, the Rukh Party viewed Crimean Tatars as natural allies in a Russian-dominated Crimea.”  And if the Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainian Muslims have support today, it still comes from center-right allies in Kiev and western Ukraine.


The Al-Rakhma (mercy) mosque, which opened in Kiev in December 2011 in the former Muslim quarter of Tatarka, was the first to be built in Kiev since the independence of the Ukraine. Tatarka was the site where Muslims of many  nationalities, “but mostly Tatars,” congregated in the 19th century.

In 1987 a small prayer house was opened to serve some 500 Muslims. The Muslim community was officially registered in Kiev in 1991, and in 1994 began the construction of the copper-domed Al-Rakhma mosque completed two decades later. Its opening was welcomed by the same Grand Mufti of Ukraine Sheikh Ahmad Tamim, the leader who had first warned of Wahhabi penetration.

Included in the mosque complex reportedly financed by the local community, there has been built an administrative building, a publishing house, a madrassah, a wedding hall, and space for an incipient Muslim university.  Although there is a minaret, the cautious Sheikh Tamim, still waging a battle with extremists, stated that a muezzin would not be calling people to pray because, “We are trying to take into consideration the environment we live in and the interests of the people around us, and as we strive for peace and mutual understanding, the minaret only remains a symbol.”

The effort to maintain a peaceful coexistence was welcomed. It has been 18 years since the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations was formed, which has since its founding in 1995 included a Religious Department for Muslims of Ukraine.  And Bishop Yevstratii, Kiev Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, added, “The new mosque is situated in a district called Tatarka, which signifies that Tatars began to settle in Kyiv quite a long while ago. So, the relations between Christian and Muslim Ukrainians have a long history; it was not easy, but it is shared by all of us. It is obvious that in the conditions of the modern globalized world there are representatives of practically all world religions in any big European city, and they require a place to gather and pray. That is why it is good that Kyiv Muslims will have a place like this.”

It is ironic that Ali Khamzin, the head of the foreign relations department of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, was somewhat more cautious.  He noted that the year 2011 had been, “a year of good hopes for the Ukrainian Muslims because in March, after long-lasting protests of Crimean Tatars and court cases on this matter, Crimean Muslims finally managed to legally obtain an official order to build a mosque-cathedral Buyuk Juma Jami in Simferopol.”  He did see the construction of a mosque in Kiev and the approval of one for Simferopol was “an important step of Ukraine’s government, Ukrainian society and the nation towards the Muslims in the country, their rights and expectations.”  He added, “Nowadays there are many questions concerning relations within the Muslim community of Ukraine as well as its relations with the government. But the main issues should be settled in an unbiased dialog between the Muslim community and the government. We have a lot of examples of such relations which usually have [a] positive outcome.”

It was likely that still fresh in Khamzin’s memory were the recent clashes that occurred in the Crimea.  Crimean Tatars maintain a list of places over which they claim historical, cultural and religious ownership, including the Aziz in Bakhchisaray, Crimea.  This Muslim cemetery and pilgrimage site was demolished by the Soviets and a market was built on top of it.  It remains today a point of conflict between Russian nationalists and ethnic Tatars.  When Tatars began in August 2006 to move to take back the site, they were met by strong local resistance.  To at least one observer, “it was clear that the so-called Russian ‘Cossacks’ were the main culprits.”  The explosive situation was ended with the arrival of security forces, armored vehicles, and by the Tatar Mejlis effort to arbitrate the dispute.

As it now stands, the Tatars have no better ally than the western Ukrainians.  Should the Crimea fall to the Russians, the general freedom that the Tatar have enjoyed will almost surely be ended.  For there is one thing that is certain, the Russian government hates the Ikhwan.  For more than two decades it has attacked the organization in words whenever and wherever it could, and it holds the Ikwhan-qua-“Wahhabi” responsible for prolonging the jihad in the Caucasus. Given free rein in the east, a Russian invasion would almost assuredly put an end to the Ikhwan, to dawaa, and to the Tatar Mejlis.

* J. Millard Burr is a Senior Fellow with the American Center for Democracy.

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