Tuesday, 8 January 2008

A Potemkin Mosque for Sochi’s Olympic Village?

Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Baku, January 8 – Russian officials have told the leaders of the 20,000-strong Muslim community in Sochi that they will finally be allowed to open a mosque – but only for the period during which the 2014 Olympic Winter Games will be held in that North Caucasus city.

They will be allowed to set up a mosque just before the games open so that Muslim athletes will be able to say prayers and Western news agencies will be able to report on that fact, but then they will have to close it down immediately after the Olympic flame is extinguished.

Tavza Ramazanova, the head of the local Muslim community, told Islam.ru last week that this announcement was especially bitter because the Sochi Olympics had seemed to offer a breakthrough moment for a community that has had to make do without a mosque for many years

The Sochi Muslim community has sought permission to open a mosque since the end of Soviet times, she said. Its members have routinely appealed to local leaders and written to Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev, to Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) head Ravil’ Gainutdin, and even to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But so far they have not been able to overcome the opposition of local officials, Ramazanova said. The latter have done everything they can to efface the Muslim history of the town, she continued, and former Governor Nikolai Kondratenko frequently said in public that the city and region would never give land to the followers of Islam.

More recently, Ramazanova said, Shaimiyev had asked the Krasnodar’s current governor Aleksandr Tkachev to intervene, and the latter had responded that Sochi’s Muslims should appeal to the leadership not of the region in which Sochi is located but to that of Adygeia.

What possible role could the Adygei play in Krasnodar kray where Sochi is, Ramazanova asked rhetorically. They have their own republic, and unlike the Muslims of Sochi who do not even have land for a mosque or a cemetery, they have long had their own mosque and other Muslim facilities.

The Olympics seemed to provide just the opening that Sochi’s Muslims had needed. On the one hand, there would be an enormous number of Muslim athletes and press attention to how they were treated. And on the other, Dubai and other Arab countries have announced plans to invest a billion dollars in helping the city prepare.

What has been both surprising and disappointing, the Muslim leader said, is that Muslim businessmen from Dubai have shown no interest in doing anything about the absence of a mosque in Sochi. And she suggested that this absence of interest helps to explain why Russian officials are continuing to behave as they are.

In many ways, the situation with regard to Sochi’s Muslims may even be deteriorating in advance of the Olympics, Ramazanova suggested. “Sochi was a normal city in which all lived comfortably until the head of the administration wanted to make the city ‘only for Russians’ so that there would not be any trace of Islam.”

She reported that city architect Gusev recently said to her: “’Tavza-khanum, you know that this is Orthodox land?’” a statement that officials have tried to make good by erecting churches and public crosses but that, she continued, is very much at odds with history.

Not only has Sochi had a Muslim population for centuries, indeed for longer than there have been Russians there, it was the site of the deportation of more than a million Circassians to the Ottoman Empire 140 years ago, something neither the Circassians abroad nor many of their co-ethnics in Sochi and the North Caucasus have ever forgotten.

Ramazanova told Islam.ru that she would continue the struggle she has waged for the last 13 years to open a mosque in Sochi. And when asked why she rather than a man was leading the community, she replied that it seems to be a Muslim woman can get away with more than a Muslim man whom many Russians will assume is a terrorist.

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