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Feature Story May 16, 2002
 
From Chelni To Guantanomo
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
 
 

Tatar's City Jihad Goes International

NABEREZHNYI CHELNI -- Just over ten years ago, Emina Bakhtova was a lot like Soviet professionals all across the USSR's provincial cities: she wore conservative polyester Soviet suits, an Eastern Bloc beehive hairdo that personified the golden years of Brezhnev's Stagnation, and went to work every day pushing around figures that had little relation to the world outside.

TOTs President Rafis Kashapov.

TOTs President Rafis Kashapov.

Today, it's not easy to discern Bakhtova's hairstyle; a heavy veil obscures it. Her clothes are still polyester, but instead of Soviet conservative, the style is traditional Muslim, covering her entire body except for a small portion of her face. She is a part of a small community of deeply devout Muslims in Chelni that the Russian government labels as extremists and would like to stamp out.

At first glance, the government seems to have a point -- Bakhtova's son Airat is currently being held by American troops in a prison in Kandahar, where he was presumably answering the call to jihad. Two of the three Russian prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Shamil Khazhiyev (alias Almaz Sharipov) and Ravil Gumarov, also have roots in this dismal eastern Tatarstan town. Eleven others from the area are doing time for setting off a bomb along a gas pipe on the road from Kazan to Kirov.

I arrived in Chelni with my CNN and Disney informed image of foul smelling Islamic fundamentalist psychos whose minds have been warped by an overdose of Koran-feeding. I hoped to get a glimpse into the culture that spawned such radicals. Instead, I found a marginalized cross section of Tatar nationalists and pious Muslims struggling to exist and survive despite oppression at the hands of the Russian state and society. They were just about the only people among the general vodka-drenched despair and post Soviet decay that is Chelni who had an ideology coherent enough to give their lives meaning and coherence. Far from being bloodthirsty radicals, the people I met seemed better able to cope with the post-Soviet crisis better than anyone.

"We don't want everything, just what is ours," said Bakhtova. "They [the government] abuse the land, they pollute our water, they take all our money and resources. It's not just the Muslims who think this, either; ask the Russians and they'll agree." It would be hard not to; Tatarstan is one of a handful of Russian regions that contributes more to the federal budget then they receive. 60 percent of the republic's tax revenues are sent to Moscow. Abuse is everywhere.

Even the men taken prisoner in Afghanistan were not the inhuman Al Qaeda fighters I expected to hear about. In fact, most of the people I talked to believe that they fled Russia to escape persecution from the FSB. If they hadn't run away, they'd probably be doing time alongside the eleven men convicted in the gas pipe bombing.

It is a story that has already repeated itself throughout former Soviet Central Asia with devastating consequences. In response to the crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, a portion of the population turns deeper towards its religion; the government, in fear, represses them; and in response to government repression, the Muslims become radicalized.

Chelni is a prefab Soviet city of 600,000 that sprang into existence in 1972 with the founding of the KamAZ factory on its outskirts. Inexplicably, it is now divided into the New City and the Old City, even though I only counted four pre-Brezhnev-era buildings in the entire Old City. Ethnically, like the rest of Tatarstan, Chelni is pretty evenly split between Tatars and Russians. There is only one real street, and to get around town you simply tell your driver a number; saying the street name would be redundant.


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