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Young Russians in search of faith are turning to Islam

By Will Englund
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 9:28 PM

ALMETYEVSK, RUSSIA Rustam Sarachev should have had a hangover the first time he set foot in the central mosque here. He had wanted to throw a raucous party the night before, a send-off for himself on his way to Islam. But the guys he was with had mocked him for even thinking about the mosque, and had gone off drinking on their own.

So here he was, regretfully clearheaded in the daylight, 500 rubles unspent on vodka and still in his pocket, heading up the steps of the big salmon-colored mosque that dominates one end of this minor oil city east of the Volga.

It was late September 2006, the beginning of Ramadan. As he looks back on it now, he remembers that he wasn't sure why he had decided to come, or what to expect. He was 17, at loose ends, a self-described hooligan, a troublemaker, starting to get hardened by a life that was heading for the verges of the law, yet still vulnerable to the insults and disdain that seek out young men with no future here.

When he walked through the great double door of the mosque, he was taking his first steps toward joining an intense Islamic revival here in the Muslim heartland of Russia that is drawing particular strength from its young people.

Sarachev was 2 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed, 5 when the first war in Chechnya broke out, 12 on 9/11. His whole life has been an era of cataclysms, of an old world being torn apart, of war against Muslims, at home and abroad. Old identities, old certainties, have proved empty. And now he was joining others here of his own generation who are finding, in religion, an alternate authority. They are joining a global community, and at a time when great passions are stirring that community.

They learn at the mosque that Allah is punishing Iraqis for their heresies. They learn that 9/11 was carried out by American agents, or maybe agents from somewhere else, to provoke a war against Muslims. But they learn, too, that those who want to go and join the fight in Afghanistan, or Pakistan - and young men who aimed to do precisely that have passed through Almetyevsk - are in error. This is not the time. Islam needs them here, in Russia.

Their faith, in any case, is not ignited by politics. If it were, the Russian authorities would have cracked down on the mosque long ago. Sarachev came up those steps, on that day four years ago, not out of anger but in search of a way out of the pointlessness of his own life.

Built in the 1990s with Saudi backing, the mosque makes a strong physical statement. Inside, it features intricate woodwork, handsome red and green carpets and painstakingly assembled blue tile mosaics. On holidays, believers pack its services. During afternoon prayers, as they face to the southwest, toward Mecca, a window to their right might give them glimpses of a glorious pearly pink sky, otherworldly almost, even as the setting sun glints off the five golden domes of the Orthodox church across the way.

"I was shocked," remembers Sarachev. "I couldn't understand where I was. There were only young people, all around. They treated me so well. I'd never been welcomed like that before."

He saw familiar faces. Almas Tikhonov, who had been a big partier and a roughneck, and then had dropped from sight, was there, praying. Sarachev was impressed by the way Almas looked; there was a compelling serenity about him.

In the days that followed, that picture lingered in Sarachev's mind. He decided to go back to the mosque, and then again, and again. He had to endure the jibes of his old friends, and that was hard - but maybe it stiffened his resolve, too. As he began to see them in a new light, it made it simpler to give up the drinking, the hanging out on street corners, the sneaking off to a village where they could party all night, away from parents' eyes. Sarachev eventually came to understand that the world is full of devils, and that the duty of a good Muslim is to overcome those devils.

And somewhere here, he knows, though he's still working it through in his own mind, lies the meaning of jihad. "It's a struggle against those who don't believe," he says. "It's not a test. Jihad is a war."

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.

"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.

That's not exactly radical. But he knows, uneasily, that there's more to his Islam than that. Faith is difficult and much is demanded. Islam has powerful enemies, not only the non-believers who wage war on Muslims but also the devil that lives in everyone. Error is widespread, and Sarachev is keen to avoid it, if he can only be sure how.

Sakhibzyanov tells his followers that the struggle is between the soul and the brain - between faith, in other words, and thought. The Muslim must strive for faith.

If that's true, his detractors argue, it's no wonder the imam's Islam has such a strong appeal for those who learned their values on the street, in the with-us-or-against-us world at the margins of society.

But not every young worshiper here has that background. Guzel Sharipova, 23, was everything as a student that Sarachev was not; she studied chemistry on a full scholarship in Kazan, and graduated with highest honors. It was in Kazan that Islam found her, thanks to an Arab boyfriend. She was living with her great-aunt, Galima Abdullina, a retired schoolteacher, and began asking her about the prayers she recited. Eventually, she put on a veil.

"She was a girl who loved life, and suddenly she became so religious," says Enzhe Anisimova, Abdullina's daughter. "We watched her as a baby, and she was so beautiful, and spreading light. Now she's so serious. Islam is very close to me, but that doesn't mean that I accept everything. Something in it really attracts Guzel. But what is it? If she has found answers to the questions she was trying to find answers to, maybe that solved something for her."

Sharipova says, "Everyone has a time to come to Islam." She draws deep satisfaction from the rules it imposes. That frees up so much. She works now as a chemist - with her brain - but she gives her attention to her soul.

And where Sarachev hopes Islam will bring him modest comforts, Sharipova treasures the way it allows her to discard life's vanities. "I'm trying to spend time on only necessary things," she says.

New expectations

Rustam Sarachev came to the mosque knowing almost nothing about Islam. Now he knows that praying to ancestors, or saints, is the worst imaginable sin. He knows that being Muslim is more important than being a Tatar. He knows that the Russian special services don't like Islam because the alcohol and tobacco Muslims reject are big businesses. He knows those same special services dread the day when all people turn to Islam.

His ancestors, in centuries past, drank beer and mead at weddings and often sought the intercession of their forebears in prayer. Would Sarachev consider them Muslims if he met them today - or devils? In his earnest way, he's only beginning to deal with the difficult questions. He's happy that Islam is helping him find the answers.

"Everyone eventually asks, 'Why am I here? Why will I die? What will happen after I die?' You gradually start to understand who you are and why you were created."

It is, he says, to live a pure Muslim's life. And, through Islam, all is spelled out. "The prophet showed people everything - from how to go to the toilet to how to run a state." But there's still so much to get straight in his own mind.

Last year, Sarachev got to know some young men who wanted to pick up guns and go fight abroad. They weren't from the mosque. He thinks they had taught themselves Islam on the Internet. Sometimes, when they met on the street, they'd start urging him to go off and fight against Americans.

He says he was troubled by it, and as he describes it he still looks troubled by it. He's struggling to understand even now what's expected of him by his religion. He went to the mosque and asked the imams for advice.

They explained to him, he says, that these young men were mistaken. "Those people who say they want to fight, they're like foam on water. There's a lot of foam, but it's useless."

Eventually they went away, he doesn't know where. Sarachev, yearning to dig deeper into Islam, is still uncertain about jihad, and the fight against devils. "It's very complicated. I don't want to be wrong."

Sakhibzyanov knew about the would-be fighters. All Muslims, he says, know they are part of a larger community that must defend itself. But leaving Tatarstan to fight elsewhere is, he says, the wrong choice. "They are needed here."

The imam is a savvy navigator in a potentially hostile culture. Islam, he says, is a peaceful religion, violence is a sin and the task for Rustam Sarachev and other young Muslims is to keep studying and deepening their certainty in its purity and oneness. And then more will follow, and then more.

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