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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Mufti Tamim Akhmed, “Our aim is not to let Islam be used for political ends”

18 March, 2003 - 00:00

The Day recently received Mufti Tamim Akhmed Mohammed Moutah, head of the Clerical Administration of the Muslims of Ukraine. Mufti is Arabic for “one who explains,” i.e., an adept of the Shariah, one who resolves disputes, and makes decisions binding on all the faithful of a Muslim community.

The share of Islam in Ukraine is relatively small today in comparison with other religions. The most recent information of the State Committee on Religions says that out of 26,000 religious communities in this country 440 are Muslim, with most of them (329) located in the Crimea. Yet, the number of Islamic communities and believers, including ethnic Ukrainians, is rising every year. This is a reality of our life to be reckoned with if peace and mutual understanding among Ukrainian citizens of different religions and denominations is to be one of our priorities now and in the future.

As we know, Islam is now in the focus of the world media. Pure politics and political terrorism apart, what primarily causes the conflict is the non-acceptance of others the way they are. To quote Oscar Wilde’s ironic phrase, “Other people are in general quite dreadful,” the more so that we know almost nothing about them. Which is little wonder, though, if we recall that the history of peaceful and normal relations between European Christians and Muslims is rather young (except for the period when Muslim nations were colonies). To illustrate this, here is a small story. In the eighteenth century, a famous (in the Orient) Persian scientist, poet, polyglot, and aristocrat came to Paris. A dashing figure, he completely spellbound high society but always provoked the question, “How on earth can one be Persian?!”

We hope that The Day’s round table, with participation of our readers, will make some contribution to understanding those who are not like us.

“Respected Sheik, this country hears the voices of certain Russian politicians who attempt to frighten Ukraine with the growing Islamic factor in the Crimea and, accordingly, the increasing influence of Turkey. They advise us to support Russian actions in Chechnya and call all those who fight extremists. What is your attitude toward this?”

“Everyone has his own view of the current situation. Our aim is to not let Islam be used for political ends. Of course, we have never supported those who use the slogans of Islam to establish their own order and their own variety of Islam (such as Wahhabism, for example). We have always opposed this.”

“Do the Ukrainian Muslims feel any hostility from the government or the public? To what extent do you think that Ukrainian society is tolerant of other religions?”

“The state generally does not interfere with our taking actions, educating the faithful in the spirit of Islam, and performing religious services. To be sure, there are some regions, where the officials of certain bodies still do not know how to deal with Muslims. Besides, the official attitude toward Islam is sometimes at variance with that of the media and other elements which distort the truth about Islam. Some misinformed officials bring about delays in the solution of very acute problems. But, on the whole, the Ukrainian state gives us every opportunity to work normally and meet all our religious needs. We have no problems at the level of the president, Presidential Administration, and Verkhovna Rada.

“This attitude was perhaps caused by the fact that Ukrainian society has long maintained contacts with the Islamic world. In the Soviet period, many Arab, i.e., Muslim, states were in direct contact with Ukrainian enterprises; Ukrainian specialists worked in Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Iraq, and other countries, as well as in Central Asia. Many Oriental-born men married Ukrainian or Russian women in Ukraine. What helps develop relations and contacts now is tourism and small business. It is important that, by their nature, Ukrainian nationals are open and ready to make friends with all. So in general there are no difficulties in the development of our relationships. Yet, certain mass media outlets sometimes create some “Muslim problem.” It is for this reason that we are grateful to Den/The Day for unbiased and meaningful coverage of matters relating to the life of Muslims in Ukraine.”

“Today, Ukraine has the Clerical Administration of the Muslims of Ukraine (CAMU) headed by you, the Clerical Administration of the Muslims of the Crimea, and a religious-cum-political Muslim organization in the Donbas. Is this a normal situation for Islam or is this part of a process that shapes a single Muslim community? What is your relationship with the Muslims of the Donbas and the Crimea?”

“We are guided by the Ukrainian law governing the registration of any kind of legal entities, including non-governmental religious associations. Meanwhile, it is a common requirement that religion should have one juridical organization in a country with one clergyman at the head so that all the faithful might have a clear picture of what they are subordinated to and know where to turn to in case of need. However, some CIS countries, including Ukraine and especially Russia, have registered a large number of religious centers. Unfortunately, among those who founded them were also people very far removed from knowledge about religion. We would like those who make decisions about the registration of religious associations to think over the possible consequences.

“The head of CAMU is called a mufti. This is not a simple word: it implies responsibilities, such as, first of all, the knowledge of Islam and the ability to answer the questions of believers. We do not confine our work to members of our own community. Our clerical center functions throughout the territory of Ukraine and is in touch with all communities and imams (clerical community leaders). We spread literature and receive imams or students for further education.

“I emphasize that CAMU engages in no political activity. We oppose mixing religion with somebody’s ethnic or political interests. In particular, we always warn about the dubious intentions (the danger of extremism and terrorism) of certain delegations bound for Ukraine.”

“How many mosques function in the territory of Ukraine? How is the construction of a mosque in Kyiv going?”

“Of course, there are areas where Muslim populations are concentrated in Ukraine, which have long had mosques, houses of worship, and Muslim cemeteries. It is very important that we are building the first mosque in Kyiv’s history. At first, we were allowed to build just a house of worship without a minaret. And, although the Urband Development Board has authorized the construction of a true mosque, there is still some administrative red tape. We hope the city will at last allow putting up the minaret, for this is a long worldwide practice. What is more, we are fully supported by the authorities. For a mosque in the capital is the country’s face before the Islamic world. Let me note that there are mosques in all European countries today.”

“A very reverent attitude is taken to translations of the Koran. Is there a Ukrainian translation of the Koran?”

“There are no adequate translations into either Russian or Ukrainian. Unfortunately, many people set themselves a purely commercial goal: they rushed to outrun everybody else instead of doing a faithful translation of the original. This is a very difficult problem, and we will address it.

“The Clerical Administration of the Muslims of Ukraine publishes sufficient literature that conveys correctly the content of the Koran, especially in such matters as social life, family, health, medicine, inheritance, the performance of religious rites, etc.”

“The great Ukrainian Orientalist Ahatanhel Krymsky, who also made a major contribution to Ukrainian culture, suggested that holy books be viewed as not only a religious but also a cultural phenomenon. Therefore, the Russian language is good only for those who don’t know Ukrainian. We are interested, though, in the opportunity to read Koranic texts in Ukrainian also.”

“We are also interested in this, but let us not forget that most of Ukraine’s Muslims come from ethnic minorities who, by and large, have forgotten their mother tongue. They have to speak the language understood by the majority. Still, we hope to enrich Ukrainian culture and libraries with translations of the Koran. But incorrect translations are worse than no translations at all. For example, a certain Russian-language university textbook gives a completely distorted view of Islam. As a result, people of other religions not only get the wrong impression but even reject Islam. Such translations are not conducive to good relations between Muslim and non-Muslim. We hope the Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Philosophy, Ministry of Education and Science, and others will develop contacts with us. Cooperation and authentic information about Islam are bound to promote good relations among all members of our society.”

“Respected Sheik, we think it would be interesting for our readers to know where your parents come from and where you got education.”

“My parents come from Lebanon. I was born in Beirut and got my first religious education at a theological school. Then I studied in Ukraine, graduating from the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, where I majored in computer science and systems engineering. Then I did doctoral research on local microprocessor networks.

“My family consists of my wife and five children, the youngest daughter being three months and the eldest 14 years old. My wife is Lebanese. Four of our children were born and are being raised here in Kyiv. The speak Ukrainian very well, without mistakes — this language is for them almost as native as Arabic.

“Contacts with Soviet teachers of historical materialism and other such subjects prompted me to make an in-depth study of Islam and try to develop a deeper understanding of the religion. This is why I studied at a prestigious theological university in Lebanon. I have been awarded several Islamic divinity diplomas in different countries.

“Yet, I also find my diploma in computer science and networks useful: sometimes I repair our office equipment on my own, I am good at programming. This is my current hobby.”

“Could we, instead of coming to your office for advice, e-mail you a query and receive the answer?”

“Why not? You certainly can. By telephone too.”

“Respected Sheik, please accept as a keepsake the book Ukrayina Incognita based on the materials of Den/The Day.”

“We will be pleased to use your book as a teaching aid for students of the Islamic University now functioning in Kyiv. This is the CIS’s only Islamic university whose degrees are recognized at the famous Al-Azhar University in Egypt. Incidentally, our students do have Ukrainian history course. Thank you for the invitation and the present.

“I should note that your newspaper creates a good impression, for it promotes the development of good relations between representatives of diverse religions in Ukraine; it is a newspaper for the intelligentsia.”

Round table hosted by Larysa IVSHYNA, Klara GUDZYK, Varvara ZHLUKTENKO, Diana BAZYLIAK, The Day