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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.

"Those who cut a Muslim into three parts are much worse than those who cut a sheep into three parts," said the imam, Nail bin Ahmad Sakhibzyanov.

Sarachev went home happy, proud in the profession of his faith. The imam went home happy, too. It was the biggest slaughter yet in Almetyevsk.

Striving for faith

Sakhibzyanov, 53, studied to be an imam in what was then Soviet Uzbekistan. He says he dealt with the KGB agents who infiltrated religious schools in those days by telling them what they wanted to hear. What a man says, he suggests, is not necessarily what's in his heart.

Today, this is what Sakhibzyanov says: that his goal is to help Tatars regain their traditional religion. Yes, he studied in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, and yes, the school he runs uses a Saudi curriculum. But naturally he subscribes to the Tatars' traditional Hanafi branch of Islam, he says; if he didn't, his school would lose its license. He only wants to help the wayward Tatars, buffeted by centuries of Russian and Soviet rule, find their way.

His opponents in Kazan say his Islam is Hanafi in name only, that it otherwise bears the hallmarks of its Arab - or Salafi - origins. They say its focus on Islamic purity is the flip side of intolerance toward other Muslims, and narrow-minded zeal.

"Almetyevsk is the center of Islamic radicalism in Russia," says Rafik Mukhametshin, rector of the Russian Islamic University in Kazan. "They're trying to return to a mythical Islam. And they're unpredictable because they refuse to learn from history."

Almetyevsk, he says, is the most dangerous spot in Russia.

And yet part of Islam's appeal for Sarachev was its promise of simple domestic happiness.

"I had a choice," he says. "Either the street - alcohol and cigarettes and all that stuff - or a very pleasant atmosphere and pleasant people."

Now, instead of partying, he plays on an all-Muslim rugby team. He drinks coffee instead of vodka, and where once he danced, now he likes to take walks. The job is just a job, but the pay allows him to spend convivial hours at the banya - the Russian sauna.

His new friends at the mosque have married, and they have jobs and kids and cars. Sarachev's aim is to live the good, respectable life. He sees Islam as the way to achieve it.

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