Contemporary challenges and opportunities for the Muslim community in the Republic of Tatarstan

Bulat G. Akhmetkarimov,
Associate Professor,
Institute of International Relations,
Kazan Federal University,


The diversity of religious practice remains a characteristic feature of the socio- psychological portrait of the Muslim community in the Republic of Tatarstan at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century. Despite seemingly stable formal structures, the preservation of peace and tranquility in the spiritual life of the region largely depends on several key factors. This article provides an analysis of the potential sources of tension and conflict in the contemporary Muslim community of the Republic of Tatarstan in the context of current local debates on political identity of indigenous Tatars. How and why is Islam often manifested as a tool for greater self-determination of indigenous Tatars in Tatarstan? Why do many local Muslims in the republic refer to Islam when they strive for freedom and justice? How does Islam relate to the construction of group identities in contemporary Tatarstan? The results of the survey conducted across the region underline the significance of the relationship between manifestations of the religious identity of Muslims and their status as national minorities. A diversification of sources of religious knowledge, the influence of the Internet, and an unclear position of the official clergy with respect to religious pluralism further complicates the issue.

The Muslim community of the Republic of Tatarstan has been the object of close attention by specialists from various academic fields since the revival of religious life in post-Soviet Russia. With the growing religious consciousness of the population, the topic continues to attract researchers. Despite extant scholarship on the issue, many questions remain to be explored to improve our understanding of how the Muslim community maintains integrity and traditions in the context of globalization, especially from the standpoint of the field of conflictology (or conflict resolution). How and why is Islam often manifested as a tool for greater political self-determination of the Tatar nation? Why do local Muslims refer to Islam when they demand freedom and justice? How does Islam relate to the construction of group identities in contemporary Tatarstan?

The scholarly literature on religious conflicts often refers to identity markers, local strategies for inclusion and exclusion, economic policies, and migration flows that may affect inter- and intra-faith harmony. Despite the multiple political and socioeconomic challenges that the Republic of Tatarstan is currently facing, a significant majority of practicing Muslims believe that there is no major threat to local religious peace. Relying on analysis of 22 in-depth interviews conducted in the fall of 2020 with mosque attendees in Kazan and several administrative districts across the Republic, this study suggests that generally speaking, Muslims continue to have confidence in secular state institutions. For some of them, however, the situation in Tatarstan is increasingly alarming, for several reasons. As indicated by interviews and the analysis of discussion groups from social media sites popular among practicing Muslims, the nationalities policy of the Russian state, the question of religious pluralism, and the challenges presented by modern communication technologies pose a threat to peace and security in the region.

Nationalities policy and the status of Tatar language

A content analysis of several key discussion groups on social media sites popular among practicing Muslims, publications on the personal pages of several opinion leaders (individuals with great influence on public opinion among Muslims across the region), and the results of a survey conducted in mosques with ordinary Muslim believers confirms the premise that culture and religion are seen as closely intertwined. In their publications on digital platforms and answers to the questionnaire, authors and respondents noted the narrowing of the space for Tatar national self-determination in the second decade of the 21st century. They identify two main reasons for this: 1) the expiration of the Treaty on Delimitation of Jurisdictional Subjects and Powers between Bodies of Public Authority of the Russian Federation and Bodies of Public Authority of the Republic of Tatarstan in 2017; and 2) the fact that the study of the Tatar language in public schools has become voluntary and the number of hours allotted for Tatar language instruction has been reduced.

Officially, the end of the treaty process between the Russian Federation and its constituent units is interpreted as the elimination of asymmetries in the federation inherited from the chaotic 1990s. The ethnic republics, however, see it as undermining the basic principles of federalism. Over the course of the 2000s, the legislation of republics was harmonized with federal legislation. With some exceptions, the provisions of republican constitutions that addressed the sovereignty of republics were brought into conformity with the federal Constitution. The laws and bylaws of constituent units were amended in accordance with federal legislation or repealed. According to Shaikhutdinova, all of these changes demonstrate steady movement from federalism to unitarism.

Survey respondents refer to the above developments as they express significant concern regarding the future of national heritage, language, and culture. A male believer in his mid-60s from Verkhnii Uslon suggests, for instance, that he, like many of his neighbors in the area, cannot be sure that his grandchildren will speak fluent Tatar. “In our daily lives here, we mainly rely on Russian language. I totally understand why we do so and we all appreciate the peace that we have,” he says. “There is history, there may be politics, yet I don’t want my children to bury me in a ‘non-Muslim’ way” (ne po-musul’manski). Thus, we try to stay close to the mosque, which is the only venue besides our homes where we communicate in Tatar,” he adds. “And if it comes to defending a mosque, that’s a matter of protecting our land,” he concludes.

With the change in the status of ethnic minority languages in 2017, the constitutional right to study the languages of titular nationalities became only a “voluntary right,” not an obligatory one. This sets Tatar, for instance, apart from Russian, which was given official status in the July 2020 constitutional amendments and now has to be taught to all school-age children. While Tatar political elites are limited in their capacity to respond and have to act within the framework of federal legislation, civil society representatives, the community of Muslim believers, and the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Republic of Tatarstan (DUM RT) have come up with a number of counter-initiatives. First, the clergy took the initiative to conduct Friday sermons in Tatar. Second, the spiritual administration proposed that Tatar language courses be organized and conducted at mosques.

These initiatives on behalf of the DUM RT have far-reaching consequences. On the one hand, the move has been positively perceived, especially among Tatar nationalists, and strengthened the spiritual administration’s authority as a key actor in the Muslim community of the republic. The head of the World Congress of the Tatars executive committee, Rinat Zakirov, told Kommersant: “Mosques are an important part of our national life. It would be sad if the Tatar language left this sphere.” He noted that the preaching of sermons exclusively in the Tatar language is “the desire of the imams themselves,” but the executive committee of the Congress “considers it correct.” Yet the initiative sparked a wave of criticism from both secular and religious groups. Some argued that over 60% of mosque attendees will no longer be able to understand the imam. For others, the initiatives of the official clergy were another attempt to strengthen a narrow interpretation of “traditional Islam.” Thus, the question about the status of Tatar language may elicit unpredictable consequences within the religious community.

The question of religious pluralism

The dominant status of the official clergy causes some concern among various groups of believers. On the one hand, the clergy has made great strides toward Sufi brotherhoods. With Kamil Hazrat Samigullin having assumed the office of mufti, much has been done to include Sufi movements (Qadiriya, Shaziliyya, Naqshbandiyya-Khalidiyya, Haqqaniyya, Topbashiyya, Husainiyya, Muhammadiyya) in the category of “traditional Islam.” The Tatar murids of Dagestani Sheikh Said Chirkeysky, the followers of Ismail aga, and the Sufi brotherhood of Tatar sheikh Rishat Musin have gained particular strength and legitimacy. They are widely regarded as loyal to the secular state and are also perceived as an alternative to radical—read: Salafi—Islam.

Nevertheless, despite attempts to expand the legitimate presence of these groups in the religious space, DUM RT continues to encounter opposition from marginal religious entities. Followers of groups banned in Russia (Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jamaat, At-Takfir va Khizhra, Faizrakhmanists) continue to participate in the struggle for the loyalty of fellow believers. Their claims range from relatively modest calls for self-conscious Muslims to abide strictly by the dictates of the faith to challenging the legitimacy of state institutions. In order to ensure public safety, law enforcement agencies often apply brutal force against affiliates of these groups. In many cases, this response meets with widespread approval. Yet sometimes such measures are perceived as inadequate and as making these Islamic groups look like martyrs, generating another wave of controversy.

The challenge of modern technology

The use of modern communication technologies, the importance of which became especially clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, has also revealed a number of contradictions in the local Muslim community. Under conditions of limited/restricted in-person contact with religious authorities at the mosque, digital sources of information and Internet imams came to the forefront. Today, Internet pages with religious content and Islamic pages on popular social networks are actively spreading. Researchers identified over 400 active Muslim sites as of 2019, a tendency that was accentuated by pandemic conditions. Internet imams’ interpretation of Islam may not only differ from the Hanafi madhhab and aqidah of the Maturidis, but may also lead believers in unique directions. A recent study by a group of scholars from the Russian regions identifies some of the most popular Islamic preachers among the Tatars today and examines their influence on followers via social media. Thus, for example, Rasul Tavdiryakov’s social media accounts—with 34,000+ active followers on Instagram, 48,000+ on YouTube, and 3,000+ on Telegram—seem to reflect on some of the most pressing questions currently facing the Muslim community. Tavdiryakov’s views do not always line up with those of the official clergy.


Diversity of religious practice remains a characteristic feature of the Tatar Muslim community. Maintaining religious peace in the Republic is therefore increasingly dependent on several factors. The first of these is Tatars’ status as a titular nation in the Republic. The fewer opportunities a national-religious group has to express its national identity through existing secular institutions, the higher the likelihood of sectarian tensions. Second, the attitude of the official clergy toward the issue of religious pluralism will be key to securing peace. The dominant status of the Spiritual Board can be maintained only insofar as it reflects the views and interests of the majority of believers. In order to prevent conflict situations, it needs to provide the broadest possible coverage of diverging interpretations of religious dogma. Third, the influence of the Internet may cause some Muslim believers to encounter new narratives that conflict with the official position of the muftiate. One should therefore not rule out the possibility of growing religious tensions within the Tatar Muslim community in the short- to medium-term.


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