By Rukshana Choudhury
Russia’s relentless war against Ukraine has caused concern about the treatment of Crimean Tatars who live in Russian-occupied Crimea. Muslim volunteers from Chechnya and former Soviet republics have fought against Russian forces in Ukraine since 2014. Alongside them are Ukrainian Muslims known as Crimean Tatars.
Who are the Crimean Tatars?
Crimean Tatars are indigenous inhabitants of Crimea, Eastern European Turkic people historically formed in the Crimean Peninsula, which is on the northern coast of the Black Sea. Estimates vary, but several suggest there are 500,000 Muslims in Ukraine, with the majority (300,000) being Crimean Tatar, who are Sunni Muslim. Crimean Tatars make up 13 per cent of the Crimea population. The majority of the Crimean population adheres to the Russian Orthodox Church.
What are the Crimean Tatars’ origins?
The ethnic history of the Crimean Tatars goes back to the 11th century and was influenced by the genetics of many other ethnicities including Taurians, Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Hellenes, Goths, Huns, Khazars, Pechenegs, Kypchaks, Italians and Mongolic. In 1241, Genghis Khan’s grandson, Batu Khan, conquered Crimea establishing Mongol rule in Eastern Europe and many people converted to Sufism. The Golden Horde (also known as Kipchak Khanate), who ruled over Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and the Caucasus, established Mongol rule in Western Europe. Eventually, The Golden Horde fragmented and Crimean Tatars founded their independent khanate in the late 15th century.
What was the Crimean Khanate’s significance?
A khanate was a political entity ruled by a khan, khagan, khatun, or khanum. Within the Crimean Khanate, religion played a significant role, which prompted how society was structured. Jews and Christians were placed into a separate group that had the freedom to govern their own affairs.
How many occupations have Crimean Tatars survived?
In 1783, the Russian Empire annexed the Crimean Khanate. The second mass deportation, which ethnically cleansed Crimean Tatars in Ukraine, took place on Joseph Stalin’s orders in 1944, when 191,000 Crimean Tatars were exiled to Uzbekistan in Central Asia and some northeastern regions of Russia. Nearly 8,000 Crimean Tatars died during the journey to Uzbekistan. After 18 months in exile, nearly half of the deportees had died from disease and starvation.
In places of deportation, Crimean Tatars were stigmatised as Nazi collaborators. Thousands were recruited to the German army but thousands also served in the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (usually known as the Red Army), which was controlled by the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. It invaded and annexed non-Russian lands, helping to create the Soviet Union. President Vladimir Putin has used the term “denazification” to justify the war against Ukraine now.
From 1967 Crimean Tatars began to return to Crimea. The Ukrainian Supreme Soviet restored Crimea as an autonomous republic within the borders of Ukraine in 1991 after the Soviet Union collapsed. At the end of 1991, 150,000 Crimean Tatars were living in Crimea.
However Crimean Tatars were once again forced to leave again due to the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014. Crimean Tatars have survived three occupations.
How has Russia treated Crimean Tatars?
Since 2014, Crimean Tatars belonging to a representative body, The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, have been prosecuted in Russia for allegedly belonging to a banned Islamic group, Hizb ut-Tahrir. In September 2016, Russia’s Supreme Court banned the Mejlis group after declaring it an extremist organisation. Some Crimean Tatars have alleged they were tortured by Russian intelligence officers.
Dr Hüseyin Oylupinar, co-ordinator of the Turkish-Ukrainian-Crimean Tatar Studies Initiative, at Harvard University in Massachusetts and an adviser in east and central European affairs at the Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara, Turkey, said Crimean Tatars left in the Crimean Peninsula after the Russian invasion are the most vulnerable religious group.
“Under the Russian occupation in Crimea, Crimean Tatars lost most of their basic rights. Their cultural and political elite is purged. Their prominent figures, who publicly criticised Russian policies, are jailed.”
Lenur Kerymov from the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights told Al Jazeera on 12 March: “The situation of Crimean Tatars in Crimea has been hard since the beginning of the occupation. Russia has been persecuting all activists who are against the occupation and organised purges. Until now, about 20 people have been disappeared in Crimea. They were abducted by the security services and they are most likely dead. It has hugely influenced the morale of the people. Russia’s policy towards Crimean Tatars is that of terror.”
What is the impact of the war on Crimean Tatar Muslims?
Dr Oylupinar believes there is no direct effect on Crimean Tatars in the Crimean Peninsula in this war, but it will affect those who left Crimea in 2014 .
“Those Crimean Tatars who were displaced after 2014 and settled in the mainland Ukraine are certainly under the threat of being left on the war front in the Mykolaiv and Kherson regions. Crimean Tatars living in these regions may have been evacuating already or stuck in the newly occupied regions of Ukraine.”
Euromaiden News reports that Mufti Ayder Rustemov, the head of the Muslim community in Crimea, has urged Ukrainian Muslims to resist and called on Muslims in Russia not to take any part in aggression against his country.
In a video message on YouTube he said: “Your path to Ukraine in these circumstances is a true path either to murder or to death. There is no third possibility for you or for us. If you take part in the invasion, you will be directly or indirectly killing Muslims. You may encounter Muslims here who will defend their property, families and honour. And if they die, they will Insha’Allah die as shahids.”
Mufti Said Ismagilov, head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Ukraine, has taken a similar position, defending Ukraine, where he says there is religious freedom. Euromaiden News quotes him saying that in Russia, Muslims are subject to “repressions, arrests, trials, the destruction of mosques, the murder of imams, Islamophobia, and total disregard for the rights of Muslims”.
Rukshana Choudhury is a freelance broadcast journalist and Europe editor of The Muslim Vibe