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Young Russians in search of faith are turning to Islam

In the Russian heartland, young people are discovering spiritual fulfillment by turning to Islam, the religion of their Tatar ancestors.

Sarachev is a Tatar. His ancestors converted to Islam in the 9th century, when Tatarstan was a powerful state in its own right. For the past 450 years, the Tatars have lived under Russian domination; proud of their heritage, they consider themselves the natural leaders of Russia's 30 million Muslims.

But Sarachev's forebears didn't practice Islam the way he understands it today. Over a millennium, Tatars had developed a rich and complicated theology, comfortable with rational thought and mindful of the need to coexist with the Christian Russians. In Kazan, Tatarstan's capital, the religious establishment endeavors to carry on that tradition today.

But Soviet hostility to religion left most Tatars with only a perfunctory sense of their own Muslim inheritance. Growing up, Sarachev remembers, religion meant grandparents and holidays, and little else. Yet even then, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Arab proselytizers had come to Tatarstan, and they were preaching a different sort of Islam - starker, simpler, more puritanical. It has taken root here, and it appeals powerfully to young people who, like Sarachev, are drawn to its order and rules, and to its purity.

Slow acceptance

Almetyevsk, a city of 150,000 with no history to speak of - it was founded in 1955 - lies among low brown ridges, a four-hour drive east of Kazan. It's not material poverty here that drives young Tatars to Islam, because oil and gas have brought prosperity, but a spiritual poverty in a country where every institution, from schools to hospitals to the police, is riddled with cynicism and corruption.

Sarachev's parents divorced when he was young. His mother works at a pipe factory; Sarachev has a job there now, too, operating a hydraulic press. He still lives at his mother's apartment.

When he embraced Islam he learned that everyone is born with an inner faith, "and it is the parents who turn a person away from religion." Not necessarily one's literal parents, he adds; it could be a metaphor for society. But it's little wonder that his own mother and father were unhappy with his religious awakening and rejection of the culture they lived in.

"They didn't understand," he says. "There were fights and quarrels. But of course they had been very mad at me when I was getting home late and drunk." So when they saw that that stopped, they started, slowly, to come around. Now, he says, if his mother sees him praying at home, she'll close the door and won't interfere. (She adamantly refused to be interviewed for this article.)

This year, for the first time, they gave him the money to buy a sacrificial sheep.

Nov. 16 was the day Muslims honored Ibrahim, who intended to slit his son Ismail's throat but sacrificed a ram instead. After an early-morning service at the mosque, a large crowd moved outdoors to a parking area for buses. Now it was filled with farmers' trucks, each carrying a dozen or so restless sheep. Under a damp sky, the chief imam, in a gray hat made from fetal lamb's skin, presided. With him stood the head of the city administration, the veterinary officer, and plainclothes leaders from the security services.

The sheep - more than 600 of them, each hobbled with three feet tied together - were carried to wooden pallets laid out on the ground, where their jugular veins were slashed. Blood flowed down gutters that ran the length of each pallet. At times a butcher would have to sit on an animal for a minute or more after its head was half severed, as it kicked and heaved.

Then the carcasses were skinned and cut into three equal parts: one for the purchaser, one for his relatives, and one for the poor.

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