The permitted and the forbidden: Ukraine’s security services turn their eyes to “banned” Islamic literature

For the first time since Maidan, Ukrainian Muslims have started speaking out about harassment from Ukrainian security services. RU

Tetiana Kozak
26 April 2018
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Witnesses look on as Kyiv's Islamic Cultural Centre is searched on 6 March 2018. Source: Youtube. Last month, Mufti Said Ismagilov, a charismatic and prominent Muslim leader in Ukraine, announced to journalists at a press conference that Muslims in Ukraine were being subjected to “systematic persecution”. The day before, on 6 March, SBU operatives had raided the Islamic Cultural Centre in Kyiv, producing a warrant that authorised a search of the premises for literature “promoting hatred and cruelty, racial, ethnic or religious intolerance and discrimination.”

The raid took place early in the morning, when only one security guard was on site. Some twenty security forces personnel arrived at the Islamic Cultural Centre together with six witnesses and demanded that the library, gymnasium (school) and a little street-side bookshop all be opened up for inspection. While the guard, prevented by the siloviki from informing the centre’s senior staff about what was going on, took some members of the raid party around the premises, the others remained outside. Looking out of the window, the guard saw them breaking down the door of the bookshop.

“I can’t imagine them arriving at the Kyiv Lavra and crowbarring their way into the church shop if no religious representatives were present. That’s inconceivable. But they did it to us,” says Said Ismagilov, who is indignant as he presents CCTV footage of the incident.  

CCTV footage of the 6 March search at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Kyiv.

The footage captured several significant moments. Firstly, after searching the bookshop, SBU operatives emerged with a black bag containing allegedly seized books. They took the bag off site, beyond the camera’s field of view, before returning with it a while later. Secondly, the footage shows a member of the search party entering the otherwise empty staff room of the centre’s gymnasium with the bag. After he leaves, three books are found in the staff room and seized. 

“They could have planted anything there. It’s a good thing it was religious books rather than weapons,” says Mufti Ismagilov. 

In addition to raiding the Islamic Cultural Centre, the SBU also conducted a two-and-a-half-hour-long search at the home of Sheikh Tarik Sarhan, head of the Centre’s Department for the Study of the History of Islam and Eastern Culture. Sarhan has been active in Ukraine since 1995, participating in an interfaith dialogue group and in peacekeeping and educational projects. He’s also served as a Ukrainian envoy at the World Peace Forum.

“Even before they started going through my books — and I’ve an enormous amount of them — they looked behind my fridge and allegedly discovered something in a nook where you can’t see anything, it wasn’t even captured on camera,” Sheikh Sarkhan recalls. “They made their witness retrieve books they themselves had planted there. My five children are still frightened. They keep asking what’s going to happen next and whether they’re going to come back. I’ve taught them that we have to live tolerantly, that this represents our only hope for the future in Ukraine, and now they’re doubting my words.”    

Later, Ismagilov and Sarhan joked about the whole affair on social media: “If a Muslim has a fridge, he’s got to be hiding something under it!” 

According to the prosecutor’s office, law enforcement personnel seized a total of some 100 books during the searches of the Islamic Cultural Centre and Tarik Sherhan’s home. 

“If a Muslim has a fridge, he’s got to be hiding something under it!” 

The Kyiv prosecutor’s office countered accusations of harassment: “We must emphasise once again that the bodies of the capital’s prosecutor’s office have due respect for the work of all religious organisations registered on the territory of our state, and any allegations of discreditation or persecution are groundless and unsubstantiated.”

Nevertheless, the Islamic Cultural Centre’s legal team resolved to pursue the matter in court. “We’re convinced that the alleged extremist materials [found by the siloviki] were planted, as evidenced by our surveillance footage,” maintains lawyer Olga Bashei, who represents the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine (DUMU-Ummah), which Ismagilov heads. “All our books feature the Alraid NGO seal, or that of Islamic Cultural Centre, which means the books they found can’t be ours. We plan to file several lawsuits regarding premises search procedure violations and anti-Muslim discrimination.” 

“Amongst the cups”

No register of “extremist literature” exists in Ukraine. However, as per a ruling issued by the Odesa Regional Administrative Court in May 2012, distributing a pamphlet entitled “The Violation of Monotheism” on Ukrainian territory is illegal.

A forensic assessment found that the pamphlet incited “religious hatred and enmity” and propagandised “the ideology of the fundamentalist Wahhabist movement, recognised in many countries around the world as an extremist Saudi sect whose members and supporters employ radical political methods vis-à-vis representatives of other religions and creeds.”

The pamphlet was found together with another book (The Alleviation of Doubt) during a search of an Odesa mosque belonging to the Pryamoi Put (Straight Path) organisation. As reported in the media at the time, the book was found and handed to the SBU by a pensioner (who also happened to be an ex-KGB officer). Law enforcement operatives searched the apartments of Straight Path leaders Oda Khaled and Masri Mohammad (of Egyptian and Syrian origin respectively). Media reports suggested that the two men’s apartments were found to contain explosives, but the court’s ruling makes no mention of this. The organisation was ultimately closed, and all suspicious materials seized.

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The Islamic Cultural Centre in Kyiv. Source: Tetiana Kozak. Completely unknown prior to 2017, the pamphlet and the book suddenly materialised during searches of Kyiv’s Islamic Cultural Centre, which has gathered under its roof a number of organisations including DUMU-Ummah, Alraid All-Ukrainian Association of Social Organisations and other NGOs. The library and school exist alongside male and female mosques, with as many as 2,000 adherents in attendance for Friday prayers. There’s also a hairdresser, sports facility, conference hall and a room for marriage ceremonies. The neighbourhood around the Islamic Centre is teeming with halal shops and cafés, and a food market is held here on Fridays.

The Our Future school, housed on the third floor of the Islamic Centre and searched by SBU operatives on that same morning, was celebrating the Days of Shevchenko, dedicated to Ukraine’s national poet, when I visited. The corridor walls are hung with children’s portraits of the Ukrainian poet alongside quotes from his works.

The pupils here follow the standard Ukrainian curriculum; in addition, however, they also study the Qur’an and start learning Arabic and English in Year 1. Another of this institution’s idiosyncrasies is that some of the girls wear headscarves, as is customary in Islam.

“Here’s our staff room. They planted books in the cupboard. There’s cups in there — no imagination on their part as usual, looking amongst the cups. It’s always the kitchen for some reason. No imagination,” the school administrator jokes. The operatives also inspected the bookcase in reception, but discovered nothing of use for the investigation.

A few days on from the search, the staff in the little shop in the Islamic Centre’s courtyard have adopted a wary attitude to journalists. “You’re taking photos now, but what if there’s problems later?” says a saleswoman. Everything was in its proper place after the search, she adds, except for “some bits and bobs” in a couple of corners.


The Our Future school at Kyiv's Islamic Cultural Centre. Source: Tetiana Kozak. The Islamic Centre is adamant that the banned materials allegedly discovered during the search of its premises (“The Violation of Monotheism” and The Alleviation of Doubt) do not belong to the organisation. “These books simply aren’t ours. We don’t agree with certain parts of their content,” insists Alraid chief Seiran Arifov. “Furthermore, supporters of this movement are constantly polemicising against us or accusing us of something. Specifically because our views on these issues diverge.”

“Revolting FSB-style ploys”

“I’ve only ever witnessed this sort of thing — books being planted in mosques — in occupied Crimea,” Said Ismagilov told the news conference. “They’d even plant them out in the yard near the toilets and then adduce them as evidence of an offence.” Ismagilov also believes that “egregious and revolting FSB-style ploys are now a regular occurrence in Ukraine”, referring to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).


“Crimean Tatars are not terrorists” After a new round of arrests of Crimean Tatar “extremists” in Bakhchisaray in early October 2017, 100 Tatars across the peninsula came out to hold one person pickets in protests. Source: Crimean Solidarity / Facebook. Some rights reserved.Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Islamic Cultural Centre’s mosque in Simferopol, the peninsula’s capital, and the premises of the Alraid organisation were searched three times — yielding “discoveries” of prohibited literature. The DUMU-Ummah centre there had to be closed down as a result.

The Islamic Cultural Centre’s premises in Ukraine were first searched in Vinnytsia in early 2016, with the SBU, the Migration Service and border guards checking the documents of everyone who’d come to the mosque for Friday prayers. The check yielded no discoveries. The law enforcement bodies failed to produce any official documents on whose basis the check was being conducted. But, as Vinnytsia imam Musa Salim, a native of Palestine, admitted at the time, worshippers’ documents had been subjected to checks on previous occasions as well.

In late April 2017, the SBU descended on a mosque in Sumy. The SBU went about their business in the tried and tested fashion, searching the mosque, the library, the women’s room and Imam Rustam Khusnutdinov’s office. According to the search record, they seized the following titles: The Tolerated and the Permitted in Islam (11 copies), The Science of the Hadiths (2 copies), The Science of Tafsir, Monotheism, and Methodology for the Worshipers (3 copies each), as well as several copies of “The Violation of Monotheism” and The Alleviation of Doubt. Some of this literature really did belong to the mosque, but, so the imam asserts, the titles banned by the Odessa court had been planted.  

“That was the first search I’d ever experienced in my life. Nothing like this happened in Donetsk,” says Khusnutdinov, who prior to 2015 had been based in the Donbas, home, before the war, to one of the largest Muslim communities in Ukraine (the very largest being that in Crimea).

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Imam Rustam Khusnutdinov, Sumy Mosque. Source: Tetiana Kozak. In addition to the books, the SBU also seized a digital video recorder. In the two months following the search, around 20 students (almost all of them natives of countries in the Middle East) were summoned for interrogation as witnesses. Law enforcement operatives wanted to know what lectures and sermons were being held at the Islamic Cultural Centre, what topics they covered, and whether the imam had made calls for violence, urged anyone to join IS or preached hatred towards other religions. Imam Khusnutdinov was among the last to be summoned.

“Since it happened things have been quiet. I don’t know whether that bodes well or ill,” says the imam. “Why did they come, why did they do this – there’s still massive question marks over it all for me.” The Islamic Centre has now adopted a new rule: a daily review of its books must be performed by the imam or some other accountable individual.

Meanwhile, the premises of the Nur al-Islam community in Zhytomyr were searched in late July last year, also for the first time. The same modus operandi was deployed as for other Islamic centres: operatives searched the mosque and the apartment of the community head, Imam Akhmat Adzhiyev, while also interviewing his wife at her workplace. The search record alludes to the above-mentioned prohibited texts, on several disks allegedly discovered in the mosque. The imam insisted at the time that it had all been planted. The files of the case launched into the matter alleged that Akhmad Adzhiyev may have been involved in importing weapons, drugs and literature promoting “a cult of violence and cruelty, racial, national and religious intolerance.” Since 2014, the 57-year-old Imam, a Chechen by nationality, has been fighting in Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation in eastern Ukraine as a member of the Sheikh Mansour Battalion.

“Yes, the SBU has given direct ammunition to the FSB, but this situation is exclusively Ukrainian, and we’ll do everything in our power to protect the rights of Crimean Tatars and other citizens,” said Refat Chubarov, chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, during a press conference in Kyiv. Chubarov doesn’t want people to draw parallels between the Russian and Ukrainian law enforcement, since such a comparison, in his opinion, only plays into the hands of the Russian regime.

“No one there would be able to capture the general public’s attention and drum up a public discussion,” Chubarov explains.

“Ethnic criminals”

It’s difficult to attribute the upsurge in searches of Islamic centres to any single factor. Experts allude to several issues that may have contributed to such an unswerving focus on Muslims on the part of the security services.

First, we must consider the state’s equivocal policy towards refugees, who continue to be prosecuted and deported despite the adoption in 2015 of the National Human Rights Strategy. Secondly, there’s the situation within the Muslim community itself: the struggle for influence amongst religious organizations has intensified since 2014. And there’s a third issue, too:  Islamophobia.

“The search in Vinnytsia was precipitated by the fact that Salafi Muslims, migrants from Crimea, were convening there. It was a move aimed specifically against them, and not against the Islamic Cultural Centre,” says Oleg Yarosh, a religious studies scholar at the Philosophy Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.


Sumy Mosque. Source: Tetiana Kozak. Islam expert Denis Brilev agrees. “It’s clear,” Brilev says, “that these searches are directed not against DUMU-Ummah and the Islamic Cultural Center but rather against their ‘fellow travellers’.” (“Fellow travellers”, in Brilev’s interpretation, are refugees with potential links to terrorist groups.)

“The transit route from the Middle East to Europe via Turkey passes through Ukraine,” says Brilev. “People with links either to the Syrian opposition or IS are particularly numerous here. Some of them settle in Ukraine. They have their own religious needs, and eventually they’re drawn into existing religious structures in Ukraine that are ideologically close to them.”

“DUMU-Ummah and Alraid specifically welcome political activism,” Brilev clarifies.

Nevertheless, DUMU-Ummah’s stance on radicalism is unequivocally negative.

Political refugees from Russia have been fleeing to Ukraine from Russia since 2014, as have Crimean Muslims who have fallen victim to repression from the Russian state. At the same time, ever more people deported from Turkey are arriving in the country.

Ukrainian human rights activists express constant discontent with the methods employed by law enforcement agencies and special services in their attempts to control the country’s migrant situation

“Refugees and deportation problems — we never had this before,” Oleg Yarosh remarks. “And it creates problems for human rights activists, Muslim organisations and state bodies as well. The latter, unable as they are to get to grips with the matter, use the materials [from criminal investigations] of the Russian FSB and, in so doing, put themselves into an ambiguous position.”

Ukrainian human rights activists express constant discontent with the methods employed by law enforcement agencies and special services in their attempts to control the country’s migrant situation.

“The state would appear to be adopting migration strategies, human rights strategies that it uses to say, ‘We’re no longer “hunting” for people who look different, we’re giving them the opportunity to secure legal status in this country so as to use their potential in order to further the country’s development,’” laments Darina Tolkach, advocacy coordinator at Right to Protection, a Ukrainian refugee-aid NGO. “Simultaneously, however, they’re putting into effect an operation predicated solely on the physiognomic differences between foreigners and natives and geared towards isolating from society at large those individuals who, for one reason or another, have violated the migration legislation,”  

Discussing the aims of the operation, Ukrainian law enforcement personnel unequivocally dubbed it a campaign against “ethnic criminals”, searching for potential targets at markets and detaining people at airports. Human rights defenders, for their part, believe that that Ukrainian state bodies are frequently prejudiced in their attitude to migrants, their actions characterised by proizvol (lawlessness and arbitrariness). Furthermore, Ukrainian law enforcers are accused of collaborating with the authoritarian regimes of various post-Soviet countries.   

“The KGB still exists, and the SBU collaborates with the FSB and the special services of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, among others”

“The KGB still exists, and the SBU collaborates with the FSB and the special services of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, among others,” says Boris Zakharov, a Ukrainian human rights defender. “Other countries’ special services operate via the embassies and work together with the SBU to punish their dissidents.”

The Ukrainian security services’ biased attitude to religious belonging has also been condemned by Ukrainian parliamentarians, Refat Chubarov included.

“Since the 1990s, there’s been this constant tandem in Ukraine: while politicians have talked about the threat posed by Islamic terrorism, Muslim religious figures have spoken out alongside them. And they’ve been talking about the Islamist terrorist threat for two decades now, even though those two decades have seen no terrorists, no terrorist acts, no nothing,” says Alraid chairman Seiran Arifov, explaining Muslim organisations’ difficult relationship with the authorities. Before the organisation closed its Crimea office in the wake of the annexation, Arifov worked at the Islamic Centre on the peninsula.

A propaganda campaign against Crimea’s Muslims had already been unleashed back then, and it was being conducted with the involvement of pro-Russian organisations. Ukraine’s Communist Party (KPU) enjoyed making claims about Wahhabi training camps, Chechen fighters and a caliphate in Crimea — claims that would be promptly be reproduced in oligarch-controlled and tabloid media outlets. The “threat of terrorism” often reared its head on the eve of an election, thereby mobilising the electorate.

Ahmed Tamim, mufti of the Spiritual Administration of Ukrainian Muslims (DUMU), an Al-Ahbash organisation that has been operating in Ukraine since 1992 (and which differs from DUMU-Umma), has voiced concerns about the threat of terrorism in unison with the Ukrainian authorities. After the annexation of Crimea, DUMU was left as the sole Muslim administration within the Council of Churches, and Ukrainian politicians pay close attention to its recommendations.

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Mufti Said Ismagilov. Source: Facebook. This, in turn, does not suit other Muslim organisations, and namely DUMU-Ummah, which, in the wake of EuroMaidan and events in the Donbass and Crimea, is gaining authority both in the Muslim community and among Ukrainians at large. DUMU-Ummah mufti Said Ismagilov was involved in the revolution on the Maidan and subsequently took part in the pro-Ukrainian rallies in Donetsk. He also played a role in the interfaith in Ukraine prayer marathon in Donetsk in July 2014. After religious figures there began falling victim to repressions, Ismagilov was forced into a clandestine flight from the city. Meanwhile, DUMU-Ummah and Alraid supported the volunteer movement from the very outset of fighting in the Donbas, inaugurating an institute of imam-chaplains.

“The Islamic Cultural Centre, Alraid, and DUMU-Ummah have been very active in the public sphere of late. They’ve drawn attention to themselves by dint of their various social and political initiatives. Perhaps this is an attempt to intimidate them, to cut them down to size,” Oleg Yarosh suggests.

Despite the efforts of Crimean Tatar leaders and the Muslim community, Islamophobic rhetoric has by no means disappeared after Maidan, persisting both on the level of state officials and citizens themselves

In particular, Yarosh recalls the fact that DUMU-Ummah helped inaugurate the All-Ukrainian Council of Religious Associations in 2016. This new organisation opened its doors to religious organisations not represented in the Council of Churches. Mufti Said Ismagilov was elected as its head. The purpose of the All-Ukrainian Council is “to establish in Ukraine a model of tolerance and partnership in interfaith relations and in engagement between the state and religious organisations.”

“The state isn’t yet pursuing any single-minded policy rooted in Islamophobia or designed to restrict Muslims’ rights. Compared to previous years, however, the situation has deteriorated,” notes Yarosh.

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12 March 2016: members of Azov's "Civil Corps" protest against the housing of Syrian refugees in Yagotyn, Kyiv region. Source: vk.com/batalion.azov.According to a sociological investigation conducted by the Razumkov Center, over 20% of Ukrainian respondents surveyed in 2017 held negative attitudes towards Islam; in 2000 that figure was a mere 13.7% .

Despite the efforts of Crimean Tatar leaders and the Muslim community, Islamophobic rhetoric by no means disappeared after Maidan, persisting both on the level of state officials and on that of the citizenry itself.

In post-Maidan Ukraine, anti-Muslim rhetoric is parroted by right-wing organisations. In 2016, representatives of the nationalist groups Azov, Right Sector and Svoboda made anti-immigrant pronouncements at rallies protesting the opening of a temporary refugee accommodation centre outside Kyiv. Many local residents shared their opinions. Furthermore, information about the conflict was presented by many Ukrainian journalists “in the spirit of Russian media outlets”.

That same year saw the publication on the Azov website of an article declaring that “Crimea must be Ukrainian, not Tatar”. Right-wing radicals accused the Crimean Tatars of Islamicising the west Ukrainian city of Lviv. These pronouncements were very much in tune with the sentiments of Lviv residents, who spoke out against the construction of a mosque in their city.

Most Ukrainian politicians simply try to turn a blind eye to the problems faced by Muslims. One issue that requires an urgent solution is a shortage of mosques and burial plots; another is the ban on hijabs in ID photos. The ongoing dialogue with Ukraine’s Muslims exists in large part thanks to the efforts of the Muslim community itself. Are Ukrainian politicians ready to deal with the challenging situation in the Muslim milieu while making genuine conciliatory gestures towards Muslims? Ukraine’s coming elections will provide the answer. The elections will also serve as a new test case for tolerance and for a real, and not merely professed, observance of human rights in Ukraine.


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