Religion

Is Confucianism Responsible for South Korea’s Demographic Collapse? Or Could It Be Modernity Itself?

In the United States, fertility rates increasingly correlate with religiosity. Those who regularly attend religious services have more children than those who irregularly attend, who, in turn, have more than nonreligious people (see the graph below). Does this generalization hold for South Korea, a predominantly secular country with substantial Christian and Buddhist minorities? (A 2021 Gallup Korea poll found that 60 percent of South Koreans have no religion, with 16 percent following Mahayana Buddhism, 17 percent Protestant Christianity, 6 percent Roman Catholic Christianity, and 1 percent other religions.) Apparently, it does so only to a slight degree. According to a study published in Demographic Research in 2021, the Total Fertility Rate by faith in South Korea in 2015 was as follows: no religion, 1.13; Buddhist, 1.33;  Catholic, 1.16; Protestant, 1.28; and “other religion,” 1.20.

A number of scholars, however, have linked South Korea’s ultra-low fertility rate to Confucianism, a largely secular philosophical system with religious undertones. In the Joseon period (1393-1894), Confucianism was the dominant belief system of the Korean elite. Confucian ideas and practices still pervade South Korean society, probably to a greater extent than any other country. Intriguingly, other countries of Confucian heritage also have low (North Korea, Vietnam) or ultra-low (Japan, China, Taiwan) fertility levels (although that of Vietnam is just under replacement level and is currently holding steady). Japan and China are also, like South Korea, afflicted with high rates of withdrawal from marriage and the work-force by disaffected young people, a phenomenon known in China as the “lying flat” movement (tang ping).

Scholars who have posited a link between Confucianism and ultra-low fertility in South Korea have generally focused on women, highlighting the increasing numbers of whom are intentionally foregoing marriage and childbearing. Standard Confucianism is decidedly patriarchal, with wives placed in a subservient position to their husbands. Family solidarity is highly valued, with mothers expected to devote themselves to their children. As a result, pursuing a career is often deemed incompatible with childbearing and rearing. Faced with such a dilemma, increasing numbers of young Korean women are choosing career development over marriage and motherhood.

In an interesting article called “Ultralow Fertility in East Asia: Confucianism and Its Discontents,” Yen-hsin Alice Cheng argues that the East Asia has a unique fertility regime characterized by male-skewed sex ratios at birth (due to son preference), low rates of non-marital birth, rising prevalence of bridal pregnancy, and low rates of cohabitation. These attributes, she argues, are “closely linked to a patriarchal structure based on family lineage through sons, strong parental authority, and emphasis on women’s chastity (i.e. sanctions for premarital sex and ‘illegitimate’ births outside of marriage) and the belief that women are obliged to bear sons to continue the patrilineal bloodline” (p. 98-99). Faced with such expectations, she argues, many young women are simply opting out.

Although the connection between low fertility and Confucian patriarchy has been made by many others, Cheng also links it to Confucian-inspired “credentialism.” Here she focuses on the legacy of the highly prestigious imperial civil service examinations that selected elite bureaucrats based on their exam performances. This heritage has resulted, she argues, in a “low regard for vocational education and craftsmanship in Confucian societies,” with “academic success in the educational system considered a life goal that is of paramount importance …, with parents doing their best to make sure their children advance as far as possible academically” (p. 102). Today, academic success translates into coveted positions in South Korea’s world-class corporations and allows entry into prestigious professions. Such jobs, however, are limited, relegating even some of the most diligent students to non-prestigious jobs that are regarded as humiliating. Faced with such pressures, many young people prefer social withdrawal.

Scholarly attitudes toward Confucianism in the West have oscillated from condemnation to commendation, depending in part on economic and political conditions in East Asia. In the eighteenth century, when Qing China was the world’s most powerful country, Enlightenment philosophers celebrated the rationalism, secularism, and meritocracy of Confucianism, marveling at a society in which elite status was determined more by exam performance than by aristocratic birth and in which the military was subservient to civil society. Some writers even claim that Confucius was the “patron saint of the Enlightenment.” But as China declined in the nineteenth century while the West advanced, attitudes changed. It eventually came to be argued that the inherent conservatism of Confucianism, marked by undue submission to authority and rigidly hierarchical lines of power, prevented innovation, adaptation, and modernization in East Asia. But the mindset shifted again in the second half of the twentieth century as Confucian societies underwent extraordinarily rapid economic growth and modernization. It then came to be argued that Confucianism’s profound respect for education propelled economic development while its emphasis on family cohesion ensured social stability. But now the tables are again turning, with Confucian patriarchy and credentialism blamed for South Korea’s demographic collapse and the concomitant crisis of disaffected young people abandoning social expectations and dropping out.

None of these interpretations are either “correct” or “incorrect,” and all probably contain an element of truth. A belief system as comprehensive as Confucianism has many different aspects and pulls in different directions. It influences social structures but does not determine them, and thus provides partial explanations at best. A significant amount of evidence, moreover, suggests that today’s supposedly Confucian-generated social pathologies are not limited to East Asia. Ultra-low fertility, for example, is found elsewhere, including much of Europe. But here too historically patriarchal social structures seem to play a role, as Europe’s more gender equalitarian societies now have higher fertility levels than those with traditionally stronger gender roles; compare, for example, the TFR charts of Sweden and Italy posted below.

The most important issue is probably the extent to which the social withdrawal phenomenon is unique to South Korea and other countries of Confucian heritage. Similar although less extreme developments do seem to be occurring in the United States and Europe, as is noted in the Wikipedia article on South Korea’s Sampo (“Giving Up”) Generation. Rates of depression, anxiety, and social isolation among young people in the U.S., moreover, are also surging. Although many explanations have been offered and debated, this phenomenon is complex and pervasive, leading some to suspect that modernity itself is the ultimate culprit. By this interpretation, modern societies are much better at generating goods and technologies than meaning and real social connections, yet meaning and real social connections remain essential for psychological health. Jon Haidt has been arguing for some time that social media, particularly Instagram and TikTok, are responsible for much of the mental-health crisis among American girls; he now argues that the much more gradual psychological decline found among boys began decades earlier with the arrival of computerized gaming, which pulled them out of real-world encounters and into simulated environments. In some regards, South Korea is the most technophilic and modernistic country in the world, and, by this reasoning, it would be expected to be at the leading edge of a modernity-generated social crisis.

Is Confucianism Responsible for South Korea’s Demographic Collapse? Or Could It Be Modernity Itself? Read More »

The Dutch Bible Belt: Religion and Voting in the Netherlands (& Northwestern Iowa)

The Netherlands is one of the most secular countries in the world. In a 2022 survey, 57 percent of its people reported “no religion,” 18 percent Catholicism, thirteen percent Protestant Christianity, and 5.6 percent Islam. Many of those who profess Christianity, moreover, are not very religious. In 2015, 82 percent of the Dutch population indicated that they “never or almost never” set foot in a church. But despite such widespread secularism, religion plays a significant role in Dutch politics. Three of the 15 parties in the country’s parliament officially signal their Christianity and another has roots in Christian democracy. Such a seeming discrepancy calls for further analysis.

Historically, the Dutch people were often noted for their religiosity. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they formed the core group of the influential Devotio Moderna movement that sought to revitalize Christianity through devotion to piety, humility, and simplicity of life. Learning was important as well, as exemplified by Erasmus of Rotterdam. In the mid-sixteenth century, conversion to Calvinism, or Reformed Christianity, was widespread, especially in Holland and Zeeland. This religious change helped spark rebellion against Spanish rule and the creation of the Dutch Republic in 1579. Although the Dutch Republic was noted for its religious toleration, it was closely associated with Calvinism, which continued to spread across its seven constituent provinces (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Groningen, Overijssel, and Gelderland). Territorial gains made with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) brought substantial Catholic territories into the republic, most notably in North Brabant, which were long ruled on a semi-colonial basis. As the intensity of Dutch Protestantism declined in the nineteenth century, religion conflict intensified, pitting Catholics, Calvinists, and post-Calvinists against each other. The main response was the “pillarization” of Dutch society, defined as the “the vertical separation of citizens into groups by religion and associated political beliefs.” By the beginning of the twentieth century, four main pillars had crystalized: Catholic, Protestant, Liberal, and Socialist. As Wikipedia notes:

Each pillar [had] its own social institutions and social organizations. These [included] its own newspapers, broadcasting organisations, political parties, trade unions, farmers’ associations, banks, stores, schools, hospitals, universities, scouting organisations and sports clubs. Such segregation [meant] that many people [had] little or no personal contact with members of other pillars. [Note: quotation edited to put it in the past tense.]

Depillarization began after World War II, but remnants persist, especially in education. The Netherland’s several Christian political parties might also be seen a holdover of the pillarization era, although some of their sectarian lines have blurred over time. The Christian Union party is rooted in the Reformed Church and thus takes a conservative stance on social matters, but it now leans to the left on economic and environmental issues, based on the Biblical precepts of charity and stewardship. The somewhat more conservative Christian Democratic Appeal originated in 1977 through the confederation of three religious-political groups, two Protestant and one Catholic. The third explicitly religious party, the Reformed Party (SGP), represents unreconstructed Calvinism and is decidedly rightwing. It is sometimes even regarded as advocating theocracy, although that allegation is controversial. SGP is the Netherland’s oldest political party, having been established in 1918. One of its founders envisioned a Netherlands “without cinema, sports, vaccination, and social security.” While the antipathy to sports has dissipated, opposition to playing games on Sundays has not.

Although religious affiliation has declined more sharply in the traditionally Protestant parts of the Netherlands than in the traditionally Catholic ones (see the first map below), intense religiosity is more common in the former region. The Old Reformed (strictly Calvinist) congregations have a membership of roughly 400,000, although some sources claim that over a million Dutch people remain affiliated with their version of the Reformed faith. Staunch believers are concentrated in a discontinuous “Bible Belt” that stretches from Zeeland in the southwest to the Netherlands’ center-north. It is often mapped based on support for the Christian Union and Reformed parties (see the map below). Intriguingly, the Dutch Bible Belt is located just north of the historical divide between the Protestant and Catholic parts of the country. This distribution pattern has been used as evidence that the Netherlands’ Bible Belt originated from Protestant stalwarts fleeing Catholic domination before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but this interpretation remains uncertain.

In the 2023 general election, the (Calvinist) Reformed Party had its best showing by a wide margin in Zeeland, where it took almost 10 percent of the vote. But it came in first place in only one of the Zeeland’s municipalities. Nationwide, it did so in eight of the 342 municipalities into which the Netherlands is divided. Rather than forming a contiguous belt, these municipalities are widely scattered. One lies in the country’s demographic core (Woudenberg in Utrecht Province) and another, Urk, is found in Flevoland, a land that did not even exist until it was diked and drained in the 1950s and ‘60s. As a new province, it might seem surprising the Flavoland would be home to such a traditional community. But Urk is an old fishing town that sat on an island before the massive drainage projects of the mid twentieth century. It is often regarded as the country’s most conservative municipality. Its politics have long been dominated by Christian parties, particularly the SGP and local offshoots, although in recent years the right-populist PVV and FvD have gained considerable support. The 21,000 residents of Urk have also maintained their own distinct dialect, usually called Urkers As noted in Wikipedia article on Urk:

One of the oldest and most distinctive dialects of Dutch is the language spoken in Urk. Nearly everyone in the village speaks this dialect and uses it in daily life. The dialect deviates considerably from contemporary standard Dutch and has preserved many old characteristics that disappeared from standard Dutch a long time ago. The Urkish dialect also includes elements that are older than standard Dutch  and were never part of the standard language.  … The dialect developed this way because until World War II, Urk was an island and could only be reached by boat. Radio was unknown, and the poor population did not have much money for newspapers and books. Until the modern era primary education for the children typically lasted only two years; afterwards children had to help maintain the family and formal schooling ended.

The hardline Calvinist communities in the Bible Belt have been subjected to harsh criticism in mainstream Dutch society. Opposition to vaccination has long generated opposition. Recent censure often focuses on their steadfast hostility to gay rights and gender ideology.

The deep conservatism of old-school Dutch Calvinism is politically reflected in places far from the Netherlands, most notably among the Afrikaners of South Africa. It can also be seen in the United States, particularly in a few counties in southwestern Michigan and northwestern Iowa that were heavily settled by Dutch immigrants. This correlation can be seen in the paired maps posted below, one showing the prevalence of the (Dutch) Reformed Church in Iowa and the other showing the results of the 2020 presidential election in the same state. Donald Trump is anything but a reflection of Calvinist values, but the overwhelming support that he received in northwestern Iowa does indicate an abiding hostility to liberalism and leftism in this region that has deep roots in the Dutch Reformed Church.

As a final note, it is intriguing that the centrist Christian Union party had by far its best showing in the 2023 general election in Bonaire and the two other special Dutch municipalities located in the Caribbean.

The Dutch Bible Belt: Religion and Voting in the Netherlands (& Northwestern Iowa) Read More »

The Taliban’s Renewed Assaults on Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia Community

I was surprised to recently read that the Taliban are trying to marginalize the Persian language in Afghanistan, given its near majority status, stature, and role in inter-ethnic communication (see the previous GeoCurrents post). On resuming power in 2021, moreover, the Taliban had promised to pursue less brutal and divisive policies. In their first stint (1996-2001), they had viciously attacked the country’s minority Shia population, mostly found among the Hazara people in central Afghanistan. Some observers viewed these campaigns as almost genocidal (see this earlier GeoCurrents post). But as Radio Free Europe framed the Taliban’s new attitude:

After regaining power, the Sunni militant group tried to assuage Hazaras’ fears of discrimination and persecution. The Taliban visited Shi’a mosques in the Afghan capital and deployed its fighters to protect ceremonies marking the Shi’ite month of Muharram.

Given the Taliban’s previous animosity toward Shia Islam, I had expected that that any reversal of its newly formulated toleration program would be directed against the Hazaras, and perhaps also the smaller non-Hazara Shia communities in western Afghanistan. Yet I had encountered nothing of the sort. It turns out, however, that my reading on this subject had been far too limited. The July 17, 2023 Radio Free Europe article cited above went on to note that:

Last week, the Taliban prevented Shi’a from celebrating an important religious festival. The militants have also restricted the teaching of Shi’a jurisprudence in universities in Afghanistan. In February, the Taliban reportedly banned marriages between Shi’a and Sunnis in northeastern Badakhshan Province.

The Shi’ite community has accused the Taliban of failing to prevent deadly attacks on Hazaras by the rival Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) extremist group. Meanwhile, rights groups have documented the forced evictions of Hazaras by the Taliban, a predominately Pashtun group, in several provinces.

Other reports are even more worrisome. As noted by Jurist, “The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) issued a statement on Friday calling for an end to the systemic killing of Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan in order to prevent a possible genocide under Taliban rule.” According to Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, “These violent deaths are further shocking proof that the Taliban continue to persecute, torture and extra judicially execute Hazara people.”

Also shocking is the lack of reporting on this situation in the American media. Afghanistan’s Shia population is massive, constituting something between 9 and 29.5 percent of the country’s population of 40 million (see the two highly divergent pie charts below). Continuing attacks on these people could quickly generate a humanitarian crisis of the first order.

Although most Shia Muslims in Afghanistan follow the Imami, or Twelver, majority sect of the faith, a significant minority adhere instead to the minority Ismaili sect. Most Afghan Ismailis are also ethnic Hazaras, but a few are ethnic Tajiks (both of which are Persian-speaking peoples). One might expect that the Taliban would be especially hostile to the Ismailis, given their heterodox, esoteric, and cosmopolitan orientation. Scant information, however, is readily available on this group. But according to one prominent 2001 report:

Ismailis in Afghanistan are generally regarded with suspicion by other ethnic groups and for the most part their economic status is very poor. Although Ismaili in other areas such as the northern areas of Pakistan operate well-organized social welfare programs including schools, hospitals and cooperatives, little has been done among Afghan Ismaili communities. Considered less zealous than other Afghan Muslims, Ismaili are seen to follow their leaders uncritically.

The news searches that I conducted for information on Ismailis in Afghanistan mostly returned articles about a recent deadly knife attack by an Afghan refugee on women in an Ismaili center in Lisbon, Portugal. A Shia Wave article, however, notes that the Taliban are trying to convert Afghan Ismailis to Sunni Islam, and evidently with some success. I was disappointed to find no information on Afghan Ismailis on the website of the Aga Khan Foundation, the well-funded and highly effective humanitarian wing of the global (Nizari) Ismaili community. The Foundation does highlight its extensive humanitarian work in Afghanistan, but sidesteps the country’s sectarian divisions.

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The Fascinating but Forgotten Limbu People of Eastern Nepal and Their Unique Religion

On January 28, 2023, SBS Nepali ran a brief article with the intriguing title “Like the Vedas, the Mundhums are Limbu Community’s Hymns. Now It Has Been Published for the First Time.” Although the Vedas, the oldest texts of Hinduism, are very well known, the religious literature of the Limbu people is extremely obscure. It deserves more recognition, as do the people who created it. Numbering up to 700,000, the Limbu once had their own kingdoms (or kingdoms), recorded in their own annals and written in their own script. The study of Limbu history and the use of the Limbu script were severely curtailed after Limbuwan – the Limbu country – was conquered by the aggressive Gorkha Empire, later called the Kingdom of Nepal, in the late 1700s. Subsequently, many Nepali speakers streamed into the region, making the Limbu a minority in their own homeland. Today, Limbu scholars are reclaiming their rich history and Limbu activists are trying, although probably in vain, to create their own semi-autonomous region in Limbuwan.

The Limbu people form a subset of a larger group known as the Kirati people, who live in scattered areas of eastern Nepal and adjacent parts of India. The Kirati speak several languages, one of which is Limbu, but their tongues are closely related and they all have similar cultures and histories. Most other Kirati people follow the same ethnic religion as the Limbu, called Kirat Mundum, which has its own body of oral scriptures, some of which have now been published. This corpus is noted for its size, conceptual complexity, and the fact that it is not expressed in ordinary language. According to one recent study:

The mundum is the oral tradition among the Kiratis in east Nepal, and it is also a long-standing, and ancient, though not unchanging, ritual practice. But it is very difficult to say what the mundum is exactly. There are many issues about the mundum which so far have remained untouched by systematic and scientific publications.  …

The mundum language is also seen as a divine language, which is unlike the day-to-day language. It is used only for superhuman beings, like the ancestors, or special ritual ceremonies where the ancestors are evoked. The mundum language is different from the ordinary language in many respects, like the morphology of nouns, politeness register, chanting, etc.

A variety of ritual specialists, referred to as shamans in English, go to great lengths to master this intricate faith. Some must devote more than a decade to study and meditation before they are viewed as accredited practitioners. In the Kirat Mundum religion, nature is regarded as holy and a variety of deities are venerated, two of which, one male and the other female, are generally held as supreme. Some adherents focus their worship on a paramount goddess, Yuma Sammang (“Mother Earth” or “Grandmother”).

The survival of this indigenous religious complex in an area where most peoples long ago embraced either Hinduism or Tibetan Buddhism is rather remarkable. Where local faiths, collectively referred to as animism, persist in the Himalayan belt, it is generally among small-scale (or “tribal”) populations, found mostly in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. But the Limbu and other Kirati peoples retain their animistic beliefs despite having long had sophisticated states of their own that interacted extensively with neighboring kingdoms and empires.

Despite its complexity and persistence, the Kirat Mundum faith is all but cartographically invisible. World maps of religion typically portray Nepal as either entirely Hindu or completely Buddhist, with the better ones showing its as mostly Tibetan Buddhist in the high-elevation zone of the north and mostly Hindu in the lower elevation zones of the center and south. I did, however, find an impressive map world religion map that depicts the inhabitants of eastern Nepal as following an unspecified “folk religion” (see the detail of this map posted below). Unfortunately, I was unable to trace the origin of this map; it came up on an image search linked to a Vibrant Maps web page, but the map itself does not seem to be posted on that page.

The religious tradition of the Limbu and other Kirati peoples is by no means static or disconnected from modern currents of thought. In recent decades, a new syncretic form of the faith has emerged, drawing on Kirat Mundum practices and concepts but synthesizing them with elements from other religious and philosophical traditions. As the abstract of Linda Gustavson’s essay entitled “Yumaism: A New Syncretic Religion among the Sikkimese Limbus” reads:

This chapter discusses localized religious-modernist developments within the Limbu community in the borderlands of Buddhism in the eastern Indian Himalayas. It examines the invention of Yumaism by focusing on the Limbu middle class’ agency in relation to their lived contexts, through an actor-oriented and processual approach. Yumaism draws on elements from indigenous religious traditions, Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, scholarly and orientalist discourses, and modernism in general. The proponents of Yumaism are similarly attempting to define their religion as such a way of life, a philosophy that is both rational and modern, while at the same time being steeped in the long historical tradition of the Limbus. While the process of modernization involved in the creation of Yumaism and the impact of Buddhism upon this process should not be underestimated, the dynamics of the modernization of the Limbu religion are grounded in local economic changes, politics, and ethnic relations.

Yumaism is not limited to the small Limbu community in the Indian state of Sikkim. It has evidently spread widely in Limbuwan proper and among other Kirati peoples of eastern Nepal. A pie chart of “religion in Nepal” (which I found on the website Retreatours.com) indicates that roughly 3% of the people of Nepal now follow it.

The Limbu are characterized by other unique and interesting cultural features, which are outlined in the Wikipedia article devoted to the ethnic group. They have distinctive clothing, architectural forms and decorative motifs, music, and athletic events. Matrilineal cultural patterns are clearly evident. As the Wikipedia article notes, “They believe that lineage is not transmitted patrilineally. Rather, a woman inherits her mother’s gods, and when she marries and lives with her husband she brings with her the deities that will then be recognized as the household deities.” Alcohol consumption, particularly of millet beer, plays a prominent social role: “Weddings, mourning, gift exchanges, and conflict resolution involve consumption of alcohol, especially the Limbu traditional beer popularly known as thee which is drunk from a container called tongba.” Limbu cuisine is especially interesting, meriting its own later GeoCurrents post. As a foretaste, it is notable that the Limbu are perhaps the most “lichenophilic” (lichen-loving) people in the world.

A relatively cosmopolitan people, the Limbu have spread widely across the globe. Their main social-service organization in Nepal, the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung, has branches in the UK, the United States, the UAE, Israel, Hong Kong, South Korea, Germany, Portugal, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, and Macau. Among the main aims of the British branch of the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung are “To plan and carry out appropriate programmes in order to wipe out superstition and ignorance of people about health problems both in UK and Nepal [and] to work for human rights, indigenous rights, and women and child rights.”

Why the important Limbu people have been largely ignored and generally excluded from historical and geographical accounts of Nepal will be the subject of another GeoCurrents post.

The Fascinating but Forgotten Limbu People of Eastern Nepal and Their Unique Religion Read More »

Pentecostalism, Fermented Milk, and Coffee in Ethiopia’s Sidama Region

Several recent posts have mentioned the recent growth of Pentecostal Christianity in Ethiopia, noting that a significant portion of the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, now follow the faith. Pentecostalism originated in Los Angeles, California in the early twentieth century and is now growing explosively in many parts of Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Most Ethiopian Pentecostals are members of smaller ethnolinguistic groups that are concentrated in the southern highlands. One of these is the Sidama, Ethiopia’s fifth largest group, numbering some four to five million. After a long period of lobbying and protests, the Sidama were finally granted their own semi-autonomous region in 2019. According to Ethiopia’s 1994 national census, 67 percent of the Sidama then followed Protestant Christianity, with the rest being divided among followers of traditional beliefs (15 percent), Islam (7.7 percent), Catholicism (4.6 percent), and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity (2.3 percent). The 2007 census, however, found that 84.4 percent of the people in the Sidama region were Protestants. The MapPorn map posted below indicates that over much of the Sidama Region the figure is over 90 percent.

Christianization of the Sidama people was a complicated process involving several missionary groups. It seems that the region’s different Protestant denominations have recently converged on the highly emotional (or spiritual) mode of worship associated with Pentecostalism. According to the Christian proselytizing organization called the Joshua Project:

The Sidama were evangelized in the early-mid 1900s by Kambata* Christians and later, by Norwegian and Danish Lutheran and SIM missionaries. The first Kambata missionaries were martyred by the Sidama, but the Kambata persevered and finally, a small group of Sidama Christians resulted. Now, Sidama is largely Christian including a number of Orthodox. Nearly a tenth are Muslim, non-Christian cults, and traditional religionists. The main churches, in order of size are: Mekane Yesus (Scandinavian Lutheran roots), Kale Hiwot (SIM, Baptist roots), Orthodox, Hiwot Birhan (Swedish/Finnish Pentacostal roots), Mulu Wengel (Full Gospel roots), and Catholic. Over the past 10-15 years, most Protestant churches have adopted a charismatic/pentecostal, style of worship. Youth choirs are influential in the church and keyboards are the choice of musical instruments of church worship.

The Sidama people are significant in other respects. Their land is one of the mostly densely populated parts of Ethiopia, yet they have not suffered much from famine or severe malnutrition, owing largely to their stable crop, enset (see the previous post on this crop). Fermented cow’s milk is another important part of the Sidama diet. Although fermented dairy products are often associated with Central Asia, they are also widespread in Africa, particularly Ethiopia. As one article on the subject notes, “In Ethiopia, a large proportion of milk is consumed in the fermented form through the application of traditional fermentation methods. The main fermented milk products include ergo (sour milk), ititu (milk curd), ayib (cottage cheese), neter kibe (spiced butter), kibe (traditional butter), aguat (whey) and arerra (sour defatted milk).” As most Ethiopians, like most Mongols. are lactose intolerant, fermentation is needed to make milk digestible.

The Sidama region is also noted for its fine arabica coffee, the main local cash crop. Coffee is Ethiopia’s most important export by a wide margin, and the Sidama Region produces over 40 percent of the marketed national crop. When global coffee prices drop, hardship comes to the Sidema people.

It is possible that the Sidama people were associated with the domestication of the coffee plant. The first commercial coffee plantations were probably located in Yemen, but the southern highlands of Ethiopia has the best claim to being the site of origination. One prominent but evidently apocryphal legend links coffee consumption to a ninth-century Ethiopian goatherd who noticed how frisky his animals became after eating the plant’s berries. Other stories connect coffee to the Oromo people. An Atlantic article on coffee domestication cites “a tradition of an Ethiopian tribe, the Galla, who regularly consume ‘energy balls’ made by blending animal fat and macerated coffee cherries” (“Galla” is an Amharic term for the Oromo, but is now avoided for its pejorative connotations). A Wikipedia article on the history of coffee claims that “according to one legend, ancestors of today’s Oromo people in the region of Jimma in Ethiopia were the first to recognize the energizing effect of the coffee plant.”

The main problem with these latter two accounts is the fact that the Oromo did not enter the Ethiopian highlands until the early modern period, whereas coffee was probably consumed and cultivated much earlier. The Sidama themselves had to flee from their original homeland, located further to the east, to avoid being assimilated by the Oromo in the sixteenth century (many of them probably were). Further to the west, the Jimma area, noted by Wikipedia as a possible locus of coffee domestication, was the site of the Kaffa Kingdom of the Kaffa people. This kingdom was partially overrun by the Oromo in the eighteenth century and then finally conquered by the Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Empire in the late nineteenth century. The Kaffa people, who now number a little less than a million, are also heavily dependent on coffee cultivation, and also suffer when global prices drop.

*The Kambata are another ethnic group of the Ethiopia’s southern highlands.

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Religion, Ethnicity, and Conflict in Ethiopia and Eritrea

Some journalists and scholars have tried to link conflicts in Ethiopia and Eritrea to religious divides that are either insignificant or nonexistent. The most egregious example was that of Samuel Huntington in this famous (infamous?) book, The Clash of Civilizations (1996). Huntington portrayed the war that was then being waged between Ethiopia and Eritrea as a religious/civilizational conflict, one pitting Christian Ethiopia against Muslim Eritrea. Maps based on Huntington’s work thus depict Eritrea as a Muslim country (see the figure below). Most actual assessments, however, find that Eritrea is roughly half Muslim and half Christians, although some sources claim that the country is roughly two-thirds Christian, with almost 58 percent of its people adhering to the Oriental Orthodox Tewahedo Church. But nothing is clear about Eritrean demography; figures for the country’s total population range from 3.6 to 6.7 million.

 

The current Tigray War in northern Ethiopia is based largely on ethnic politics but has little to do with religion. The Tigrayans are overwhelmingly Ethiopian Orthodox, but the Amhara, often regarded as their main opponents, mostly follow the same religion. To be sure, a sizable Muslim Amhara minority does exist, but this religious division does not play a role in the current conflict. Ethiopia’s Amharic-speaking Muslim population is concentrated in the South Wollo Zone, where almost three quarters of the population follows Islam. This Muslim Amhara area is easily seen on a fantastic map of religion in Ethiopia made by an anonymous cartographer and posted on the MapPorn section of Reddit. In the figure posted below, I have lightly edited this map to highlight the Tigray and Amhara regions.

The Oromo, forming Ethiopia’s largest ethnolinguistic group, have played a major role in the country’s recent political dramas. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, is Oromo, but the militant Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) has sided with the Tigrayan rebels against the government. Abiy seeks pan-Ethiopian civic nationalism, whereas the OLF champions Oromo self-determination and contains ethno-nationalist elements that would prefer independence. Despite such political divides, Oromo ethnic identity remains strong. Yet the Oromo are deeply split by faith. In the Oromo Region (Oromia), which is roughly 88 Oromo-speaking, 48 percent of the population follows Islam, 30 percent Ethiopian Orthodoxy, and 18 Protestant Christianity, mostly Pentecostalism (Abiy Ahmed is a devout Pentecostal). As the MapPorn religion map shows, different parts of Oromia have distinct religious complexions, with some zones heavily Muslim, others heavily Orthodox, others heavily Pentecostal, and others mixed. In the far south of the region, however, most people evidently follow Waaqeffanna, the indigenous Oromo faith. It is not coincidental that this area is commonly regarded as the original homeland of the Oromo people. As the Oromo moved north into the Ethiopian highland in the early modern period, they assimilated local populations into their ethnolinguistic group, but were themselves often religiously assimilated into the Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox communities of the people that they were assimilating. (Pentecostalism came later.)

The Wikipedia article on Oromia claims that three percent of its people follow Waaqeffanna, the indigenous religion. Standard sources hold that only around a half a percent of Ethiopia’s total population adheres to “traditional” faiths of all varieties. I suspect that the actual figure is much higher. As the MapPorn map indicates, many of the peoples in the southern part of the highly diverse SNNPR Region (Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples) follow traditional religions. Pentecostalism Christianity, however, has been spreading rapidly here in recent years. Indigenous faiths might disappear, but revivals are always possible.

Religion, Ethnicity, and Conflict in Ethiopia and Eritrea Read More »

Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is NOT Eastern Orthodox, But It Did Influence Protestantism

Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian county, with around two-thirds of its people belonging to a Christian church. Roughly 44 percent follow Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity (the Tewahedo Church), and little over 20 percent belong to a Pentecostal denomination.

Many sources erroneously depict the Tewahedo Church as part of the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity, putting it in the same category as Greek Orthodoxy, Russian Orthodoxy, Serbian Orthodoxy, and so on. Even highly reputable publications such as the Pew Research Center make this error (see the figures posted below). In actuality, Eastern Orthodoxy is much more similar to, and historically intertwined with, Roman Catholicism than it is with Ethiopian Christianity. Eastern Orthodoxy did not split from Roman Catholicism until 1054 CE, and even then the divorce was more a political than a religious matter. (The main theological disagreement stemmed from a single Latin term, filioque.*) The Ethiopian Church spilt from the main Christian stem much earlier, in 451 CE. It did so as a result of theological decisions reached at the Council of Chalcedon. At issue was the relationship between the human and divine natures of Jesus. The council decreed that Jesus is one person in two natures, whereas the Ethiopian church insisted that Jesus is fully divine and fully human in one nature. Although this distinction now strikes most Christians and non-Christians alike as insignificant if not beside the point, such Christological controversies mattered a great deal in late antiquity.

The Ethiopians were not the only Christians to reject the decisions made at Chalcedon. The Armenian Apostolic Church and the Coptic Church of Egypt also maintained that Jesus has a single nature, as did several other eastern sects. Today these churches are grouped together under the category of “Oriental Orthodoxy” – not to be confused with Eastern Orthodoxy. More properly, they are described as constituting Miaphysite Christianity, a term that capture the crucial “one nature” aspect of their theology. The Ethiopian Tewahedo Church is most closely connected to the Coptic Church of Egypt, as both follow the Alexandrian Liturgical Rites (so too does the Eritrean Tewahedo Church, which split from that of Ethiopia in 1991 on geopolitical grounds.)

Arguably, the Tewahedo Church has closer ties with Protestant Christianity, especially Lutheranism, than it does with Eastern Orthodoxy. As the figure posted below shows, Martin Luther was influenced by Ethiopian Christianity, arguing that it adhered more closely to the original teachings than did Roman Catholicism. Luther evidently had close contacts with an Ethiopian cleric named Michael the Deacon, and they discovered that they agreed about many issues of religious belief and practice, if not on the nature of the Trinity.

 

Ethiopia has an unusual cultural/religious link to England, Catalonia, and the Republic of Georgia, as each polity has the same patron saint: George. Saint George is famed for killing a dragon in all four lands, but, unsurprisingly, he is given a very different physical appearance in Ethiopian religious art than in that of Western Europe.

*As is explained in the Wikipedia article on the term, “In the late 6th century, some Latin Churches  added the words “and from the Son” (Filioque) to the description of the procession of the Holy Spirit, in what many Eastern Orthodox Christians have at a later stage argued is a violation of Canon VII.”

Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is NOT Eastern Orthodox, But It Did Influence Protestantism Read More »

Iran’s Striking Decline in Religiosity

The GAMMAN survey on religious beliefs in Iran, discussed in yesterday’s post, has some interesting and unexpected results. According to conventional sources, over 90 percent of Iran’s people follow Shia Islam; according to GAMAAN, only around a third of the Iran people actually believe Shia doctrine. Most of the rest are supposedly either non-religious or religiously heterodox in one way or another. If these results are accurate, Iran is much more similar to Europe in terms of religiosity than it is to most other Middle Eastern countries. Although the GAAMAN results may be exaggerated, it is clear that many Iranians have turned away from religion. They have done in part because of the brutality and incompetence of their country’s theocratic government. Tensions with the Arabic-speaking world also seem to play a role. Many Iranians stereotype Arabs as prone to religious extremism, and some blame them for politicizing Islam and thus contributing to the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution. This attitude puts pressure on Iran’s own Arab minority, and in turn pushes them to respond. As reported in the Wikipedia article on Iran’s 2016 pro-monarchical Cyrus the Great protests:

Despite the anti-Arab slogans chanted by some, a perception by many Iranians that Arab cultural dominance has entered Iran through the government’s political Islam, Iranian, Arabs, traveling from as far west as Khuzestan, gathered in support of the protest, chanting slogans in Arabic in support of indigenous minorities and the use of their native languages, which has often been repressed by the Iranian government in favor of Persia.

The GAMAAN survey puts Iran’s Sunni Muslim minority at five percent of the total population, which is similar to the conventional figure. If these figures are correct, Sunni religious beliefs in Iran have not appreciably declined, unlike those of the Shia community. As can be seen on Michael Izady’s map of religion in Iran, Sunni Islam is followed mostly by members of ethnic minorities: Baluchs in the southeast, Turkmens in the northeast, and Kurds in the northwest. Note also that Izady pegs Iran’s Sunni population at 11 percent. Other sources suggest that it could be as high as 25 percent, a figure that, if true, is concealed by the Shia establishment. If these higher numbers are accurate and if the GAMAAN figures are also correct, then Sunni Islam has also experienced a pronounced erosion of belief in Iran. If this is indeed the case, I suspect that the drop in Sunni religiosity is most pronounced in the Kurdish northwest. The Kurds in general are a relatively secular people who are also inclined to religious heterodoxy.

The most surprising aspect of the GAMAAN survey is the prominent position of Zoroastrianism. It found that almost eight percent of Iran’s people claim to follow this faith, which had been the predominant religion of Iran before the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. According to official statistics, Iran’s Zoroastrian community is tiny: roughly 25,000 people out of a national population of almost 87 million. It is inconceivable that millions of Iranians have converted to this venerable but dwindling faith, commonly regarded as in some danger of extinction. But increasing numbers of Iranians do express solidarity with, and interest in, Zoroastrianism. They do so both to distance themselves from the Shia clerical regime and to show their loyalty to a deeply rooted version of Iranian nationalism. Zoroastrianism has also seen something of a revival among the Kurds of Iraq, and perhaps in Central Asia as well.

The Iranian government is not happy about the revival of interest in Zoroastrianism. According to a recent article in Swarajya magazine, it is “the religion that the Iranian mullahs fear the most.” Iran’s theocratic regime is also worried about Yarsan, a mystical faith with some connection to Zoroastrianism that is followed by up to one million Iranian Kurds. As IranWire recently noted, “Official report calls Yarsan religious minority a ‘security threat.’”

Iran’s Striking Decline in Religiosity Read More »

Could Iran’s Government Fall?

In lecturing last night in my Stanford University Continuing Studies (adult education) class on the current protest movement in Iran, I asked one big question and provided three different possible answers. The question was: “Could massive, determined and prolonged protests bring down the Iranian Government?”

The first answer was “extremely unlikely.” Massive protests have been occurring almost continually in Iran since the so-called Green Movement of 2009, but none has shown any sign of appreciably weakening the Iranian government. In comparative terms as well, protest movements rarely result in such a major change. Repression generally works well in quelling dissent, and the Iranian government is more than willing to use harshly repressive measures. It also has a huge internal security apparatus ready to carry out its directives.

My second answer was, “certainly possible.” Massive protest movements have in the past brought down governments, the most compelling example being the “Islamic Revolution” of 1979 in Iran itself, which took down the repressive regime of the Shah. After a little more than a year of huge protests, strikes, and civil disobedience, the government was no longer able to function. It therefore essentially disbanded itself without facing an actual armed rebellion or possible foreign intervention. Even if hundreds of protests are brutally repressed and therefore seem insignificant, one successful movement can topple a regime and thus change the course of history. In retrospect, such an event can seem inevitable.

My third answer was “likely, sometime within the next twenty years.” My reasoning here is based on both the determination of the Iranian protesters and the high level of support that they seem to be getting from the population at large. The government’s increasing repression and elimination of the country’s veneer of democracy in favor of complete theocracy is also pushing Iran to the tipping point. Before 2021, moderate and even relatively liberal candidates often won Iranian presidential elections, giving the people some hope for reform from within. In 2021, however, the major reformist figures were barred from competing. As a result, relatively few Iranians bothered to vote. Yet it still seems that extensive manipulation of the vote was necessary to ensure a solid victory for the regime’s favored candidate, Ebrahim Raisi. An extreme hard-liner, Raisi openly brags about his key role in the execution of between 2,800 and 30,000 political prisoners in 1988.

As a result of such developments, support for the current Iranian regime seems to be evaporating. The main demands of the protestors have thus changed from redress of grievances to wholesale political transformation. More important in the long run, evidence also indicates that the Iranian people are not just abandoning faith in their government, but also faith in the religious beliefs that underlay the Islamic Republic. Although conventional assessments hold Iran to be an overwhelmingly Shia Muslim country, a recent survey indicates that this is no longer the case.  Instead, the country has shifted in decidedly secular direction. A 2020 article in The Conversation, based on research conducted by The Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN (GAMAAN) contends that only a around a third of Iranian citizens now follow Shia Islam. The rather astounding results of this research project can be seen in the two figures posted below. (Some of the oddities found in the pie chart, such as the high figure for Zoroastrianism, will be discussed in tomorrow’s post.)

If these findings are accurate, it becomes questionable whether Iran’s nakedly theocratic regime can persist for long. In such circumstances, heightened repression could easily result in increased opposition. Eventually, the dam will break. Such a momentous event will probably not happen in a few months, but within a few years or at least a few decades, Iran will probably undergo another protest-led revolution, this one of a secular and democratic nature.

Could Iran’s Government Fall? Read More »

The Geography of Religion in Montana (and the Rest of the US)

The map of religious adherence in the United States defies some common perceptions. Membership in a religious organization, for example, is shown as higher rate in southern New England than in the eastern part of the so-called Bible Belt. The data used to make these maps, however, are not necessarily accurate, and they do not measure the intensity of religious belief. Religious adherence, moreover, has been declining almost everywhere over the past several decades. But the basic patterns depicted in these maps are still worth examining. As they show, membership in an organized faith is highest in the central part of the country, especially the northern and southern Great Plains, and in the LDS (Mormon) region of Utah and eastern Idaho. It is lowest in central Appalachia and the greater Pacific Northwest, including western Montana.  Colorado, Maine, and the lower peninsula of Michigan also have low rates of membership. In the southeast, religious adherence is low in counties with large Black populations.

Montana is revealed as a religiously divided state. Many counties in the northeastern and north-central parts of the state have very high adherence rates, while many in the west-central and south-central regions have very low rates. Demographic history plays a role here. Northeastern Montana was heavily settled by Norwegian farmers, a group that historically had high rates of (Lutheran) religiosity. In several northeastern counties, Lutheranism is still the dominant faith. Most of the first Euro-American settlers in the rest of Montana were ranchers and miners, groups that generally had low rates of adherence. In the copper counties of Silver Bow (Butte) and Deer Lodge (Anaconda), however, relatively devout Irish Catholic workers later gained demographic domination. These are now the most religious counties in the western part of the state.

Roman Catholicism has been historically mapped as the leading faith over almost all Montana except the northeastern Lutheran belt. More recent maps, however, show Mormonism as the top religion of several western counties. These areas have not historically been mapped as part of the LDS cultural zone. More recently, geographer Paul F. Starrs has remapped the Mormon cultural region to account for its expansion. He now includes southwestern Montana’s Beaverhead Country within its outer sphere. More than 11 percent of Beaverhead’s residents belong to the LDS church. Statewide, the figure is roughly five percent, making it Montana’s second largest faith (after Roman Catholicism). Montana currently has the country’s seventh highest percentage of LDS member – or eighth, if one includes territories (American Samoa).

The Geography of Religion in Montana (and the Rest of the US) Read More »

Cannabis Legalization and the Electoral Geography of Montana

As one of the maps in the previous post shows, cannabis (marijuana) use is higher than average across most of the Western states – with the signal exceptions of Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. Not surprisingly, these are the only Western states in which non-medical cannabis use remains illegal. Cannabis legalization began in the West (Colorado and Washington) but is now more firmly instituted in the Northeast. In general, this pattern reflects political inclinations. The Northeast is a generally Democratic-voting region, and Democrats are much more likely to support legalization than Republicans. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, 83 percent of Democrats support legalization, as do 71 percent of independents. Republicans, by contrast, are almost evenly split, with 49 percent opposing legal status.

Only two reliably Republican-voting states have fully legalized cannabis: Montana and Alaska.  It is not coincidental that both are in the West. Western conservatism leans in a more libertarian direction than Southern or Midwestern conservatism, with the important exception of the deeply religious LDS (Mormon) region centered on Utah and eastern Idaho. Although cannabis is now allowed across Montana, sales are prohibited in counties that opposed legalization. These counties can hold their own referendums on retail sale.

 

Geographical patterns of support for cannabis legalization in Montana are similar to those of the West as a whole. As the paired maps show, Democratic-voting counties all supported the 2020 I-190 Montana Marijuana Legalization and Tax Initiative, whereas the state’s overwhelmingly Republican counties (more than 80 percent Trump vote) opposed it. But several strongly Republican counties (70-80 percent Trump vote) did vote in favor of the initiative, albeit by relatively narrow margins. These counties are concentrated in northwestern Montana. In the east, all strongly Republican counties except Valley voted against legalization.

 

 

 

 

Differences in religiosity might help explain these patterns. As the Gallup poll also shows, people who regularly attend religious services are less likely to support cannabis legalization than those who do not – although a bare majority of regular attendees (52 percent) still favor legality. As it turns out, western Montana is less religiously inclined than eastern, and especially northeastern, Montana. In the northeast, heavily Republican but cannabis-supporting Valley County is distinctly less religious than its neighbors. But other countries defy this pattern, including deeply religious but legalization-supporting Sheridan County and heavily non-religious but legalization-opposing Carter and Petroleum counties.

Religious affiliation across Montana will be considered in more detail in the next post.

Cannabis Legalization and the Electoral Geography of Montana Read More »

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 2)

[Part 1 can be read here. Thanks to Iryna Novosyolova for a helpful discussion of some of the issues discussed in this post.]

 

In 2014, the Russian Federation acquired another Muslim group that may prove troublesome both within Russia and globally: the Crimean Tatars. According to the 2002 Russian census, there were only 4,131 Crimean Tatars living in the country, concentrated in Krasnodar Krai in southern Russia; the March 2014 annexation of Crimea, however, brought with it some 245,000 Crimean Tatars. The referendum, which allegedly showed an overwhelming desire of the people of Crimea to join Russia, was boycotted by Crimean Tatars (various Ukrainian and international media sources reported at the time that 95-99% of Crimean Tatars did not take part in the referendum; see here, here, and here; while Russian media stated that the proposed boycott did not take place). Also, reports surfaced in the social media and Ukrainian news outlets that Russian (para)military personnel were confiscating and tearing up passports of potential voters of Crimean Tatar background (see here, here, here, and here).

Crimean Tatar MapCrimean Tatars have good reasons for viewing the Russian annexation of their homeland with suspicion and worse: since the Crimean Peninsula was first made part of the Russian Empire in 1783, Crimean Tatars have been subjected to massacres, exiles, discrimination, and deportations. By 1897, they constituted only 34% of the peninsula’s population. After the Bolshevik Revolution, persecutions of Crimean Tatars continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, marked by widespread imprisonment and execution. The confiscation of food to supply central Russia resulted in widespread starvation. According to some sources, half of the Crimean Tatar population was killed or deported between 1917 and 1933. Persecution reached its culmination on May 18, 1944, when the Soviet government deported the entire remaining Crimean Tatar population to Central Asia as a form of collective punishment for alleged collaboration with the Nazis during their occupation of Crimea in 1941-1944 (the reality of this purported collaboration is discussed in my earlier post). The deportation process, as described by the victims in their memoirs, was horrific. More than 32,000 NKVD troops participated in this action. The deportees were given only 30 minutes to gather personal belongings, after which they were loaded onto cattle trains and moved out of Crimea. The expulsion was poorly planned and executed; the lack of accommodation and food, the harsh climatic conditions of the destination areas, and the rapid spread of diseases generated a high mortality rate during the first years of exile. It is estimated than nearly half of the deportees died of diseases and malnutrition, causing Crimean activists to call it an instance of genocide. Even after Crimean Tatars were officially “rehabilitated” in 1967, they were not allowed to return to their homeland until after the fall of the USSR because, as some scholars explain, Crimea was seen by Soviet leaders as too geopolitically and economically crucial. Although many Crimean Tatars have returned to the peninsula since 1991, few managed to move into the areas of their historical settlement. Prior to the deportations, the majority of Crimean Tatars—members of the Tat and Yalıboyu subgroups—lived in the mountainous central and southern parts of Crimea and on the southern coast. These areas, and particularly the coastal region, are climatically favorable, protected by the east-west running mountains from frigid northern winds. But upon their return, most Crimean Tatars had to settle in the less desirable central and eastern parts of the peninsula.

The resentment is further fueled by a new wave of repressions since the 2014 annexation. Many Crimean Tatar activists have been prosecuted by Russian authorities: some face criminal charges in Russia and hence cannot go back to Crimea, others have been subjected to unjustified searches and seizures of their property. As noted in Lily Hide’s article in Foreign Policy,

“The new regime has banned leading Crimean Tatars from the peninsula, and instigated politically motivated court cases against others. It promised to make Crimean Tatar one of three state languages, then reduced hours of Crimean Tatar instruction in schools, closed down ATR, the Crimean Tatar television network owned by Islyamov, and has regularly raided Tatar households and religious institutions in search of ‘extremist’ material. Until a January 2016 visit by a Council of Europe envoy, the new authorities refused to grant access to Crimea to international monitoring organizations and the U.N., though human rights violations have been extensively documented.”

The initial reaction from Crimean Tatars has been “to resist through peaceful means”, says Hide. For example, a long-term media campaign led by Serhii Kostynskyi of Ukraine’s National TV and Radio Committee aimed to “expose human rights abuses and win back Crimea with ‘soft power’”. However, such attempts to draw the attention of international and domestic media to Crimea have been a limited success. The continuing fighting in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine has deflected the attention of both politicians and the media, locally and internationally. Moreover, the majority of Crimea’s Russian-speaking population are happy to be part of Russia, even if it brought the peninsula little economic or social development. Thus, Crimean Tatars, who constitute a minority in their historical homeland, have little support within Crimea and have to look for an alliance elsewhere. As noted in Hide’s article, “Crimean Tatar activists and Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary groups” have joined forces in “leading a low-level insurgency against the Russian annexation”. In the fall of 2015, the two groups together imposed a unilateral “trade blockade of the peninsula, stopping traffic, demanding to see travelers’ documents and confiscating goods”; in November 2015, “unknown saboteurs cut four nearby power lines providing electricity to Crimea, leaving the entire peninsula in the dark”. Many Crimean Tatar activists realize that joining forces with the paramilitaries and adopting their tactics “meant giving up the moral high ground”. But Hide cites Evelina Arifova, one of Crimean Tatar activists pushing for a trade and electricity embargo on the peninsula, as saying: “Without their radicalism, we wouldn’t have achieved anything”.

This conclusion in favor of radicalism can be based not only on Kostynskyi’s less-than-successful media campaign in Ukraine on behalf of Crimean Tatars, but also on the contrasting experiences of Muslim groups in the North Caucasus, particularly the Chechens and the Circassians. When I mention the two groups in my classes, I typically get many nods of recognition for the first group and mostly blank stares for the second. As mentioned above, the Circassians, like the Chechens, were subjected to a prolonged war with the Russian Empire and ultimately the majority of them were expelled from their ancestral homeland. The exiled Circassians—those who survived the brutal expulsion—found new homes throughout the Ottoman Empire, especially in present-day Turkey, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. Yet unlike the Chechens, today’s Circassian activists chose to follow a peaceful, non-violent path for maintaining their ethnic identity and culture, seeking recognition of the genocide committed against them, and campaigning for Russia to allow some of them to return to their homeland in the Northwest Caucasus (the latter issue is particularly relevant for the Circassians in war-torn Syria). The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, where the Circassians’ ancestors were boarding the Ottoman ships, offered them an excellent opportunity to draw international media’s attention to their cause. And yet, most mainstream media organizations downplayed or ignored the Circassian issue, as discussed in detail in Martin Lewis’ earlier GeoCurrents post. The Chechens, in contrast, have gained much more media attention. “They got their PR campaign together”, a student in one of my adult education classes once joked. “By blowing stuff up”, I replied. Here, I agree with Martin Lewis that the media is to some extent complicit in driving nationalist movements to become more radicalized and more violent. As Lewis puts it, “if news source chose to highlight violent responses while ignoring non-violent ones, a perverse message is seemingly sent: ‘If you want our attention, kill someone!’”. While Crimean Tatars have not yet been involved in violence against persons, they are evidently prepared to blow up power lines and destroy goods. It is, however, a step in the radical direction.

Several other factors suggest that we might see a rise in violence perpetrated by Crimean Tatars and an internationalization of their more militant activists. Unlike the Chechens and the Volga Tatars, the Crimean Tatars do not constitute the majority or even a plurality in their region. It is therefore hardly likely that they will be able to gain much cultural or economic autonomy, regardless of whether Crimea remains under Russian control or is transferred back to Ukraine—and independence is entirely out of the question. In fact, the vector of Russian policy with respect to Crimean Tatars is clear from the recent persecutions of the Crimean Tatar activists, including the exile of their leader, 72-year old Mustafa Jemilev, a veteran of the dissident movement. Jemilev is now banned from Crimea by Russian authorities, while his wife remains in Crimea and his son is in prison in Russia. While for now Crimean Tatars align themselves with Ukrainian paramilitaries, it would not be surprising if the more militant wing of their movement begins to look for alliances in the larger Muslim world.

krimea3The comparison between Tatarstan and Chechnya above also suggests that stunted economic and social development facilitates radicalization of Muslim groups. While the authors of a recent article in Foreign Affairs William McCants and Christopher Meserole focus on “political culture”, they too admit that economic factors play a role, particularly the high degree of unemployment. As many other authors have suggested, high unemployment among young males creates a demographic base for jihadi recruiters to draw upon. By all accounts, Crimea was economically underdeveloped already on the eve of the Russian annexation in March 2014, even according to Russian sources such as Russia Today, a media outlet that peddles pro-Putin state-sanctioned propaganda in English. According to their article “Crimea’s economy in numbers and pictures”, published on March 15, 2014, Crimea’s budget deficit at the time constituted $1 billion, while the republic’s annual GDP was only $4.3 billion (see image on the left, reproduced from the Russia Today article). By 2018, Crimea expected Russian investment of about $5 billion. Yet Crimea also had a lot to lose by severing its ties with Ukraine: on the eve of the annexation, 90% of water, 80% of electricity, 60% of primary goods, and 70% of tourism came from Ukraine. The Russia Today article hypothesized that “if Crimea becomes a part of Russia it’ll become a more attractive holiday destination for Russia’s population of 142 million, whose per capita income is more than three times that of Ukrainians”. However, in reality, the hostilities turned off tourists and the logistical difficulties in getting to and from the peninsula with a ferry caused a further drop in Russian tourism. As reported by Segodnya.ua, “almost 60% of tourists from Russia do not consider the resorts of the annexed Crimea … to be a decent replacement for Turkey and Egypt”. Thus, although Sergey Aksyonov, Crimea’s prime minister and an advocate of joining Russia, had hoped that breaking away from Ukraine would transform the economy for the better and would turn the peninsula into another Singapore, this has not happened. The economic sanctions imposed by the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, and several other countries directly against Crimea and Crimean individuals have further inhibited tourism and infrastructure development.

eng_ukraine_mapThe political and economic problems, as well as direct persecutions, have caused many Crimean Tatars to leave the peninsula; according to BBC.com, 10,000 Crimean Tatars have been forced out of Crimea and moved to Kherson, Lviv, Zaporizhye, and Kiyiv districts of Ukraine (see map on the left from travel-tour.com.ua). This mass displacement parallels what had happened in Chechnya in the wake of the two Chechen wars. Thus, the destruction of family and community ties as a result of this relocation may bring Crimean Tatars to the point where religious identity would matter more than ethno-linguistic identity. As is, only a small minority of Crimean Tatars speak their indigenous language, which is considered to be endangered: although it is taught in several schools, it is mostly spoken by older people, according to the Ethnologue. Islam, on the other hand, has always been an important part of Crimean Tatar identity. Historically, Crimean Tatars were described as “diligent Muslims”, but while some important Muslim traditions—charity, fasts (including that of Ramadan), and pilgrimage to Mecca—were strictly observed, others were downplayed or ignored. For example, the German geographer Gustav Radde, who visited Crimea in the mid-1850s and wrote an ethnographic treatise about Crimean Tatars, informed his readers that Crimean Tatars drank vodka and a low-alcohol homebrew, though not wine. Another Islamic proscription that was generally ignored by Crimean Tatars is the ban on gambling, playing cards and dice, which were considered acceptable and indulged in widely, Radde wrote. Yet the treatment of women and the family law in traditional Crimean Tatar society, as described by Radde, is reminiscent of what is practiced in the most strictly Islamic countries. Thus, although Crimean Tatars today have certainly not seen the de facto implementation of Sharia law that has been experienced in Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov, including polygamy and enforced veiling, they could move in the more radical Islamist direction, especially as dislocation, persecutions by Russian authorities, and the continuing loss of their indigenous language make Islam the linchpin of their identity.

All in all, Chechnya has experienced significant radicalization and internationalization of its rebels, Tatarstan seems to be experiencing the same phenomena in a milder form, and the Crimean Tatars may be beginning to move in the same direction. Such developments may be driven as much by Russia’s repressive policies and the international media’s silence on non-violent protests as by internal causes such as economic and social underdevelopment. I think the conclusion of the authors of the Chatham House summary about the North Caucasus applies as well to Crimea:

“The causes of radicalization in the North Caucasus mean the situation is unlikely to change until Russia itself changes and Moscow is able to offer an alternative vision to the people in the region. If religious repression continues, so will the insurgency.”

“Russian political culture” may yet prove to be as deadly as the French one, albeit not by banning the veil but by allowing it—and by leaving little room for moderate Muslim identity based on history, culture, traditions, and language rather than jihad.

 

 

 

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 2) Read More »

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 1)

[Thanks to Iryna Novosyolova for a helpful discussion of some of the issues discussed in this post.]

 

A recent article in Foreign Affairs listed the use of the French language as the best predictor of a country’s rate of Sunni radicalization and violence, and particularly of the percentage of a country’s Muslim population that joins in the international Jihad. According to ICSR estimate, of all Western European countries France has supplied the largest number of foreign fighters to ISIS in absolute terms, whereas Belgium leads in per capita terms (40 per million population). The authors of the Foreign Affairs article, William McCants and Christopher Meserole, claim that Francophone status is a better predictor of foreign fighter radicalization than wealth, education or health levels, or even Internet access. The French language itself, the authors state, is obviously not to blame, but is rather a mere proxy for the “French political culture”. Policies such as the French ban on face covering (adopted in September 2010), which prohibits wearing niqābs, burqas, and other veils covering the face in public places, are said to create a fertile ground for drafting recruits into the militant Islamist movement.

religion in russiaBut France and Belgium may not be the only countries where the assimilatory or discriminatory policies adopted by the state encourage the radicalization of the Muslim population. In fact, Russia has been experiencing the same phenomena: a growth of violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists at home and an increasing recruitment for Jihad outside Russia. As mentioned in an earlier GeoCurrents post by Evan Lewis, Russia has been one of the top recruiting grounds for ISIS. According to ICSR estimate, some 800-1,500 foreign ISIS fighters came from Russia. In absolute numbers, this estimate surpasses the corresponding numbers for United Kingdom (500-600), Germany (500-600), Belgium (440), and possibly even France (1,200). Another recent source cites Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs official Vladimir Makarov as saying that 3,417 Russians have been recruited by ISIS to fight in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, a major increase from the 1,800 Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in September 2015. According to Makarov, some 200 of these Russian ISIS fighters are new converts to Islam who “do not come from the regions where this religion is traditional”. Cases such as that of Varvara Kraulova, a student who attempted to cross into Syria to join ISIS in the summer of 2015, are widely publicized in the media (see, for example, here and here), but they constitute a minor fraction of Russian citizen who have pledged themselves to the so-called Islamic State. As noted in the report on foreign fighters compiled by the New York-based Soufan Group in December 2015, the overwhelming majority of the Russian ISIS fighters come from traditionally Muslim areas of Russia, especially from the Northeast Caucasus (Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan). Other areas with large and historically rooted Muslim populations, such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in the Middle Volga region, have also provided substantial contingents of ISIS fighters, as did the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. According to Voice of America, Russian-speaking jihadists from the former Soviet republics have formed their own community within ISIS, located in Al-Raqqah (the de facto capital of ISIS), with schools and even prayers in Russian.

Russian authorities primarily adopt a punitive approach to the problem, conducting criminal prosecution of ISIS fighters upon their return to Russia. According to Russia’s Chief Prosecutor Yury Chayka, 650 criminal cases were open against Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in November 2015; by March 2016, this number was up to over 1,000. Attempts are also made to drive recruitment down by publicly humiliating those who join in the form of “shame boards” that feature “photos of those traitors [who] dishonor” their names, their families, and their clans by joining ISIS. The anti-terrorism forces also work with the religious authorities in the North Caucasus to certify imams based on their attitudes towards terrorism, reports the Kavkaz-uzel.ru (“Caucasian knot”) website. Yet such anti-terrorism measures seem to be less than consistent, according to the September 2015 Roundtable Summary by Chatham House, as “the Russian security services mostly appear to be looking the other way when North Caucasian fighters travel to Syria, possibly because these potential troublemakers are at much greater risk in the Middle East than at home”.

Moreover, wittingly or unwittingly, Russian state policies also exacerbate the problem by creating a fertile ground for radicalization and jihad recruitment, especially among the youth, as reported by Kavkaz-uzel.ru. The Soufa Group report cited above also points out,

“the North Caucasus has a long history of Islamist extremism, and the increased flow of  fighters from this region is in many ways unsurprising. Local grievances have long been drivers of radicalization in the Caucasus, and as the strong centralized security apparatus of the  Russian government limits the scope for operations at home, the Islamic State has offered an attractive alternative”.

Russia has had a long history of exclusionary and discriminatory policies towards—and even wholesale deportations of—its Muslim populations. As noted in the Wikipedia article on Islam in Russia,

“the period from the Russian conquest of Kazan in 1552 to the ascension of Catherine the Great in 1762 featured systematic Russian repression of Muslims [in the Middle Volga region] through policies of exclusion and discrimination – as well as the destruction of Muslim culture by the elimination of outward manifestations of Islam such as mosques.”

Map of Circassian RepublicsWith the ascension of Catherine the Great in 1762, the focus of these policies shifted to the North Caucasus. Here  war was waged by the Russian state against the indigenous Muslim groups for a hundred years, until Chechnya was finally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1859, and most of the Circassians in the Northwest Caucasus were exiled to the Ottoman Empire in 1864. During the Soviet period, Islam, like other religions, was suppressed. During World War II, several Muslim ethnic groups, including Chechens, Ingush, and Crimean Tatars were deported by Stalin’s security forces from their homelands to Siberia and Central Asia. According to Stanford historian Norman M. Naimark, up to 40% of the Chechen nation perished in the process; comparable numbers in other deported ethnic groups died as well. In 1956, during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program, members of the deported ethnic groups who had not perished during their harsh exile were “rehabilitated” and some of the groups (for example, Chechens but not Crimean Tatars) were permitted to return to their homeland. Nonetheless, the survivors of the exile lost economic resources and civil rights, and continued to suffer from discrimination, both official and unofficial.

At the time of the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, several Muslim-majority republics within Russia, such as Tatarstan and Chechnya, asked for independence, yet the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation declared such attempts to gain sovereignty to be illegal. (Crimea, which had been part of the Ukrainian Union Republic within USSR, remained part of newly independent Ukraine.) In February 1994, Russia offered an autonomy agreement to Tatarstan and Chechnya, promising a broad range of rights and policy-making abilities, but stopping short of full independence. Tatarstan accepted the agreement but Chechnya did not, and the paths of their subsequent histories took different directions, as discussed in detail in my earlier posts on Tatarstan and Chechnya.

As HNN’s David R. Stone summarizes,

“the end of Moscow’s authority meant that the Chechen people, well-equipped with historical grievances to drive their discontent, found themselves in the Russian Federation due to the accidents of history and map, but badly wanted out.”

Over the course of the First (1994-1996) and Second (1999-2000) Chechen Wars, Chechnya was increasingly driven in the radical separatist direction. But the wars also resulted in the installation of a new puppet Chechen administration under the cleric Akhmad Kadyrov, who broke with the anti-Russian resistance movement, in part over its increasing religious radicalism, and began working with Russian authorities. His son, Ramzan Kadyrov, who took over after his father’s assassination in February 2007, continued the policy of apparent cooperation with Moscow, which pleased neither the Chechen separatists nor the Russian loyalists. But he has never been a “Kremlin puppet”, as some pundits have depicted him. Some observers, such as Viktor Shenderovich, even suggest that the younger Kadyrov may be to some extent the puppet-master, pulling the strings in Kremlin. His recent speech on February 23, 2016 (the 72nd anniversary of the Chechen deportation), in which Kadyrov laid a curse on Joseph Stalin and the chief of the Soviet security apparatus Lavrentiy Berya, certainly indicates that Kadyrov has his own agenda and does not always dance to Putin’s tune. Some pundits claim that the speech aimed to further fuel the popular campaign for Kadyrov to remain in power after his term ends later this year.

Still, Kadyrov has largely remained, in the words of journalist Yulia Latynina, “an all-powerful barbarian warlord at the court of a once-powerful but now rotten empire”, and a peculiar symbiosis of Russian and Chechen leadership has emerged in the wake of the two Chechen wars. The current Chechen government accepts that full independence from Russia may never happen, while Putin’s administration continues to use Chechen insurgents as the much-needed enemy figure. Since this situation does not please Chechen separatists, they continue their struggle by resorting to violence, both at home and in other Russian regions, even in Moscow itself. Chechen terrorists perpetrated several horrific terrorist attacks, most notably the October 2002 seizure of the Nord-Ost musical theater in Moscow, where over 800 spectators—many of them children—were taken hostage, and the seizure of an elementary school in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia on September 1, 2004. These terrorist attacks—and the botched rescue attempts by the Russian security forces—claimed the lives of some 130 hostages in the Nord-Ost theater, and 385 children and teachers in Beslan. These horrific terrorist attacks ended whatever hope might have still existed of winning broad international support for the cause of Chechen independence.

The death of the old-style Chechen nationalism during the rule of the Kadyrovs, father and son, the economic devastation of the republic that forced many residents to flee into neighboring regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan, and the rise of criminal gangs engaging in lucrative trade in people, weapons, oil, and drugs have all helped push Chechnya in a more radical direction. Historically, Islam in the North Caucasus was Sufi-oriented, tolerant in its practice, and not especially strict, but the pressure of war resulted in a surge of fundamentalism, as noted in a recent report on the North Caucasus by Konstantin Kazenin and Irina Starodubrovskaya, who claim that the Chechen wars not only gave some younger people in the region military training and battlefield experience, but also contributed to the inclusion of the North Caucasus in the global jihadist networks. Moreover, David R. Stone points out that “the traditional family and clan links that tied Chechen society together frayed and broke as a result of death and displacement”. Chechens who fled into other areas of the Caucasus found themselves in environments where ethnic and clan identity mattered less, and religious identity mattered more. As a result, many Chechen refugees were turned to radical Islam, “a vision that goes far beyond a concrete local struggle for specific, attainable goals to see instead a worldwide struggle between good and evil”. While refugees flowed out of Chechnya, foreign Islamist fighters flowed in to aid what they saw as a Muslim fight against the infidels, be they Russians, Americans, or even relatively secular Chechens. In the words of an Islamist militant leader Said Buryatsky, an ethnic Buryat and an ex-Buddhist convert to Islam,

“gone are the times when we fought for the freedom of Chechnya, for this pagan notion. Now we fight for Allah. Gone are the times when every Chechen was our brother. Now a Russian is our brother if he is a mujahideen, and a Chechen if he’s a kafir is our bitter enemy.”

Framed now mostly as an international radical Islamist movement, Chechen terrorism continues to hold its grip on Russia, perpetrating attacks such as the Domodedovo International Airport bombing in 2011, which killed 37 people, and supplying numerous foreign fighters for ISIS.

Tatarstan_locationTatarstan, which accepted the autonomy agreement with Russia in 1994, has been given many of the institutions of a full-fledged sovereign state, including a constitution, a legislature, a tax code, a national bank, and a citizenship system. At least in theory, it can conduct its own relations with foreign states and can set its own foreign economic policy and trade relations. But when push came to shove in the wake of Russia’s current confrontation with Turkey, which began in November 2015, central Russian government began to dictate to Tatarstan what it can do in relation to Turkey. For example, the Russian Ministry of Culture circulated a “recommendation” to all republics with Turkic titular populations, including Tatarstan, to break off relations with the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TÜRKSOY). It remains to be seen how long Tatarstan can manage to maintain its current “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” position in relation to Russia and Turkey. Because of its ambivalent situation, Tatarstan has also experienced some radicalization of its Muslim population, similar to what has been happening in Chechnya, albeit in a milder form. According to various sources, including the FSB, a substantial number of ISIS recruits—perhaps as many as 200 or more—came from Tatarstan and the other Middle Volga republics. Ironically, ISIS recruitment for the war in Iraq and Syria resulted in a sharp decrease in terrorist attacks within Tatarstan since the early 2014.

Also as in Chechnya, the focus of the militant movement shifted from ethnic to religious identity. Historically, Volga Tatars have been fairly moderate Muslims, yet they have succeeded in retaining their ethno-linguistic identity despite almost half a millennium of Russian rule: according to the 2002 population census, 96.3% of Tatars still speak their ancestral language, compared to only less than half of the Khanty people, a quarter of the Mansi, and 12% of the Itelmen. But in recent decades this situation has been changing, as more extreme forms of Islam have been gradually gaining ground in Tatarstan. The internationalization of Tatarstan’s Muslim culture has been studied in detail by Rais Suleimanov, an expert on influences of foreign Muslim groups within Russia, particularly in the Middle Volga region; his multi-part article on how “Turkish emissaries for decades influenced the minds and hearts of our [Tatar] compatriots” can be read here and a shorter version of it is found here. According to Suleimanov, religious ties between Tatarstan and Turkey, which began on the basis of the ethno-linguistic and cultural connections between the two peoples, have allowed a more internationalist form of Islamist ideology to penetrate Tatarstan.

Several factors, however, mitigate Islamist radicalization in Tatarstan. Compared to Chechnya, Tatarstan has both more de jure and de facto rights (for instance, only Tatarstan retained the right to call its head a President; Kadyrov is known simply as “the head of Chechnya”, not its president). Also, in sharp contrast to the war-torn Chechnya, whose economic and social development has been stunted by the armed conflict, Tatarstan ranks relatively high in terms of economic and social development indicators. For example, Tatarstan’s GDP per capita is more than 4.5 times higher than that of Chechnya. According to Rosstat data, average per capita income in Tatarstan in 2013 was 26,161 rubles per month, whereas in Chechnya it was only 17,188 rubles per month; moreover, nearly half of Tatarstan’s residents’ personal income comes from salary and business profits, whereas in Chechnya only about a third of personal income comes from those sources, with a bigger chunk (38.1%) deriving from “other sources of income”, including currency operations and “hidden” money streams. In Tatarstan more than three quarters of the population live in towns and cities, whereas in Chechnya only about a third  do. Unemployment is nearly 7 times lower in Tatarstan than in Chechnya (4% vs. 26.9%). An average Tatarstan resident enjoys 6 extra square feet of living space compared to Chechnya. The availability of physicians and nurses per capita is 1.5 times greater in Tatarstan than in Chechnya, and the percentage of students in higher education institutions in Tatarstan is twice that in Chechnya. It may be for those reasons that Tatarstan has supplied 5 times less foreign fighters for ISIS in absolute terms, and 15 times less in per capita terms than Chechnya.

(To be continued…)

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 1) Read More »

Tatarstan: A “Hostage of Freezing Relations between Russia and Turkey”?

[Many thanks to Ekaterina Lyutikova for most helpful discussions of some of the issues discussed in this post, as well as for the photos, some of which are used as illustrations below. I’m also grateful to Martin W. Lewis for helpful discussions and edits and for modifying the Wikipedia map of Percentage of Ethnic Tatars, used below.]

Tatarstan_location

Tatarstan has not been much of a geopolitical hotspot in recent years and has largely remained “under the radar” for most mainstream Western media. This may soon change, however, if the present trends continue. Rapidly worsening relations between Russia and Turkey, as well as Tatarstan’s ambivalence in relation to both, lead experts such as Rais Suleimanov to doubt its continued peaceful existence; the quote in the title of this post is from Suleimanov’s recent article titled “Tatarstan can not decide: is it a part of Russia or a governorate of Turkey”. (All translations from Russian in this post are mine.)

nutrition

As can be seen from the maps in the previous posts (see here, here, and here), Tatarstan is one of the most economically and socially developed regions of the Russian Federation. Although it lags in per capita GDP behind such resource-rich yet sparsely populated regions as Nenets Autonomous Okrug or Chukotka, Tatarstan registers lower alcoholism and crime rates, as well as longer life expectancy for both genders. According to maps reposted from Kommersant.ru, an average resident of Tatarstan receives a reasonably balanced diet (blue map), and the overall obesity rate in the republic is relatively low (orange map).

 

Russia_Percentage_students

According to the data from the Federal State Statistics Service, Tatarstan ranks 9th of 83 regions by the percentage of university students (4.7% of total population). Two of the country’s three dozen national research universities are located in Kazan, Tatarstan’s capital: Kazan State Technological University (founded in 1890) and Kazan State Technical University named after A. N. Tupolev (established in 1932). Moreover, Kazan (Volga region) Federal University, founded in 1804, is Russia’s second oldest university. The eminent mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky served there as the rector from 1827 until 1846, and the list of the university’s famous students includes Vladimir Lenin (expelled for revolutionary activity), Leo Tolstoy (quit his studies), and composer Mily Balakirev (graduated in 1855).

Kazan, TatarstanKazan, Tatarstan 2Further contributing to its livability is the extraordinary cleanliness of Tatarstan’s cities, towns, and villages, including its capital Kazan, a metropolis of nearly 1.2 million, as can be seen from the photos of city center on the left. The striking cleanliness of the Tatars, noticeable particularly in the lack of rubbish on the streets and the general appearance of houses and yards, has caught the attention of many a traveler to the region. A good example is Jonas Stadling, who wrote an account of the famine in Eastern Russia in 1892, published in The Century magazine (volume 46, p. 560). As Stadling wrote: “The Tatars made a very favorable impression by their cleanliness and politeness”. Similar mentions of exceptional cleanliness are made also in David Lewis’ After Atheism (p. 126), Paul William Werth’s At the Margins of Orthodoxy (p. 164), and in many other sources. dvornik-2The character of a Tatar yardman/caretaker, sweeping the grounds of some large building in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, makes frequent appearance in Russian 19th-century fictional and memoir literature, including Dostoyevsky’s works.* (The Volga Tatars’ ethno-linguistic “relatives”, the Crimean Tatars, made the same impression on travelers such as German explorer Gustav Radde, who traveled to Crimea in 1850s and noted the “special care about cleanliness of [Crimean Tatar] homes and bodies” in his ethnographic treatise about the group.)

Not only does Tatarstan manage to optimize economic and social development, but its economy is more balanced than that of Russian regions with higher per capita GDP. In the 1970s-80s, Tatarstan was one of the largest oil producing areas in the USSR, but starting in the mid-1990s, the Republic has managed to diversify its economy. Tatarstan’s overall GDP is less than a third of that of Tumen or Sakhalin oblast, but much less of it, only 21.3%, comes from natural resources (chiefly unrefined oil), compared to 54.6% in Tumen oblast, 61.6% in Sakhalin, or the whopping 71% in Nenets Autonomous Okrug. According to Deputy of the State Council of Tatarstan Rafael Khakimov, “since 1996 … we switched to the deep processing of oil, to the development of industry as a whole, to the high-tech manufacturing, aeronautics and IT‑technologies. We succeeded in doing that and today we depend on crude oil exports only minimally.” A substantial share of Tatarstan’s GDP comes from manufacturing (18.3% in 2012), trade and real estate operations (24.1%), construction (10.4%), and agriculture (6%). Several sources note a 5% growth in Tatarstan’s agricultural output in 2015, particularly in crop and milk production. (The latter makes sense since Tatarstan has the highest dairy consumption rate in Russia, 364 kg, or over 800 lbs, per capita per year.) Tatarstan was also ranked highest in “innovation activity” in 2015, well ahead of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, and Novosibirsk.

But Tatarstan’s economy may take a serious hit in the near future as a result of rapidly worsening relations between Russia and Turkey. A significant contributing factor to Tatarstan’s prosperity in recent years has been investments by Turkish businesses, to the tune of $1.5–2 billion, according to different sources (see here and here), which constitutes one fourth of all foreign investments in Tatarstan, and one sixth of all Turkish investments in the Russian Federation. Among those Turkish investments are “about a dozen of major enterprises built by Turkish investors … located in the Alabuga special economic zone” in north-central Tatarstan, notes Russian News Agency TASS. Unlike the case with many Chinese-owned business in Russia’s Far East, “98% of workers [in Turkish-owned businesses in Tatarstan] are Russian nationals”.

For the last 15 years, the relationship between Russia and Turkey has generally been very productive. But on November 24, 2015, the relations between the two countries took a nose-dive after Russia’s Su-24 bomber was shot down in Syria by an air-to-air missile fired from a Turkish F-16 fighter jet. Russia’s President Putin responded harshly, calling the attack “a stab in Russia’s back delivered by terrorists’ accomplices”, according to Russian News Agency TASS. Two days later, Russia introduced economic sanctions against Turkey, which prohibited “the imports of many Turkish food products including fruits, vegetables, poultry and salt and imposed a ban on hiring Turkish nationals”, as reported in The Moscow Times. According to an early RBC report, other measures considered by the Russian government include freezing of economic cooperation programs, restrictions on financial operations and commercial transactions, the revision of customs duties, and “interventions” in tourism, air transportation, and shipping. Several large-scale cooperative projects also fell under these restrictive measures: for example, the proposed “Turkish Stream” natural gas pipeline was suspended by Russia and subsequently terminated by the Turkish side. Similarly, the fate of what was to become Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, located in Akkuyu in southern Anatolia, is now unclear. The abovementioned RBC report concluded that these measures would “unavoidably hit both Turkish and Russian businesses”. Because of Tatarstan’s extensive economic ties with Turkey, it is liable to be among the worst-hit regions of the Russian Federation.

Tatars

However, Tatarstan’s relations with Turkey go far beyond their economic ties. Speaking of Turkey in December 2015, Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minnikhanov (note the title, more on that below!) reportedly said: “We are in the same language group, of the same religious identity”. The Republic’s titular ethnic group, the Tatars (or more precisely, the Volga Tatars), who constitute 53% of Tatarstan’s population, speak a Turkic language. According to the 2002 census, moreover, 96.3% of Tatars still speak their ancestral language, making them one of the most successful minority groups in Russia in preserving their linguistic identity.** Although little-known outside Russia (and indeed to many people in Russia), Tatar is the 7th largest Turkic language globally and the largest Turkic language in the Russian Federation. In fact, with over 5.3 million speakers, it is the 2nd most widely spoken native language in Russia. The Tatar and Turkish languages are traditionally classified as belonging to different branches of the Turkic language family (Kipchak and Oghuz, respectively); nonetheless, there are many linguistic similarities between them and the internal classification of Turkic languages remains controversial. While I disagree with Bernard Lewis, who wrote in The Middle East. A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years that “the differences between these various languages were no greater than between the vernaculars spoken in the Arab lands from Iraq to Morocco”, similarities between Tatar and Turkish are much greater than those between languages from different branches of the Indo-European family, such as English and Russian.

Another link between Tatars and Turks is that of religion: both groups are Sunni Muslims. Rais Suleimanov, an expert on influences of foreign Muslim groups within Russia, particularly in the Middle Volga region, has written extensively on how “Turkish emissaries for decades influenced the minds and hearts of our [Tatar] compatriots” (his multi-part article can be read here and a shorter version here). Moreover, the Grand Mufti of Tatarstan Kamil Samigullin studied in Turkey under Mahmut Ustaosmanoğlu, the leader of influential İsmailağa Jamia.

Yet historical and cultural links between Tatarstan and Turkey go deeper still. Symbolic of this connection is the planned installation of a monument to the prominent statesman and scholar Sadri Maksudi Arsal, a Tatarstan native who moved after the Bolshevik Revolution to Turkey where he worked as an advisor to the first President of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The monument was supposed to be opened in Kazan’s Istanbul (!) Park in December 2015 by Turkish President Recep Erdoğan. After the events in late November, Erdoğan’s visit was cancelled. Around the same time, the Yunus Emre Institute for Turkish Studies at the Kazan Federal University, opened as a Turkish “soft power” initiative in 2012, was closed. As part of the anti-Turkish measures, the Russian Ministry of Culture circulated a “recommendation” to all republics with Turkic titular populations, including Tatarstan, to break off relations with the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TÜRKSOY).***

As a result of this confrontation between Russia and Turkey, Tatarstan found itself between Scylla and Charybdis, and its response has been rather cautious and ambivalent. According to Rais Suleimanov,

most federal subjects [in the Volga region] exhibited solidarity with the federal center. The only exception was Tatarstan, which adopted a not-completely-loyal attitude in relation to the federal center, preferring not to spoil its relations with Turkey, simultaneously sending clear signals to Ankara: “we are not on the side of Moscow”.

Moreover, Suleimanov points out that Tatarstan’s “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” position has been in marked contrast to that of Bashkortostan, a neighboring region that also has a substantial Turkic-speaking Muslim population (in addition to its Turkic titular ethnic group, the Bashkir, Bashkortostan also has a significant Tatar population and a smaller group of Chuvash, which combined constitute 57.6% of the republic’s population). Yet, Bashkortostan’s authorities, Suleimanov says, “have chosen not to depart from the political line of the federal center”. After adopting a wait-and-see position for some time, Tatarstan ultimately refused to follow Minister Vladimir Medinsky’s “recommendation” regarding TÜRKSOY, and the Republic’s officials questioned whether the federal Ministry of Culture can “dictate” to regional cultural authorities. Tatarstan’s cultural authorities certainly have good grounds for their resistance, which can be understood through a brief historical excursion.

The Expansion of Russia

Tatarstan has a long history of being under Russian rule. After a brutal siege and assault, Kazan was taken in 1552 by Ivan the Terrible (Saint Basil’s Cathedral at the edge of Red Square in Moscow commemorates the event). The conquest of Kazan marked the second wave of non-ethnic-Russian territories annexed by Moscow (shown in green on the map on the left). (The first wave, shown in purple, included Finnic-speaking groups, such as Merya, Meschera, Murom, and Veps, which were largely absorbed in the 11-12th centuries, as well as the still-surviving Komi and Nenets populations.) Although technically a sovereign tsardom in personal union with Russia, Tatarstan was henceforth administered from Moscow. In 1708, in the course of Peter the Great’s administrative reform, the Kazan tsardom was transformed into a gubernia (governorate), to be administered by a governor sent from Saint-Petersburg. The first governor was Peter Apraksin, a close associate of Peter I, handpicked to oversee the strategically important area. At the time, Tatarstan supplied timber for naval use and horses for the cavalry, and its workshops on the Volga River built ships for Peter’s new navy. Revealingly, the Wikipedia list of governors contains no Tatar names. Quite a few of the region’s governors, however, were of German descent. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Tatarstan became an Autonomous Republic within the Russian Union Republic, but despite this title, it had little real autonomy. Several proposals were considered to upgrade its status to that of a union republic, but all were rejected. But despite their lack of self-rule for over four centuries, the Tatars managed to retain a sense of ethnic and cultural identity, and, as mentioned above, their indigenous language (nearly all Tatars speak it as their mother-tongue, compared to only less than half of the Khanty people, a quarter of the Mansi, and 12% of the Itelmen, according to the 2002 census).

On the eve of the fall of the Soviet Union, in August 1990, Tatarstan issued a Declaration of State Sovereignty, and after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 it continued on the course for separation from Russia. In a referendum conducted in March 1992, over half of the votes were cast for the independence, and in November of the same year a Constitution of the Republic of Tatarstan was adopted, declaring it a sovereign state. However, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation declared those documents to be illegal. In February 1994, Russia offered an autonomy agreement to Tatarstan, promising a broad range of rights and policy-making abilities, but stopping short of full independence. (The same agreement was offered to Chechnya, which did not accept it.) Tatar authorities accepted the deal, giving Tatarstan many of the institutions of a full-fledged sovereign state, including a constitution, a legislature, a tax code, a national bank, and its own citizenship system. The Kazan government can conduct its own relations with other subjects of the Russian Federation and even foreign states, and can set its own foreign economic policy and trade relations. But it remains to be seen how much actual economic independence will be allowed by Russia.

Tellingly, the head of state in Tatarstan is called “President”, again in marked contrast to Chechnya and other ethnic republics within Russia. (This would be analogous to having a “President of California” who would nonetheless be under the power of President of the USA.) While it may seem a trivial matter, labels can matter a great deal, and Tatarstan fought tooth and nail to preserve its right to call its head a President. A Russian law adopted in 2010, however, allowed for only one president—that of the Russian Federation. All internal republics, except for Tatarstan, switched to calling their heads of state glava, “head”. Tatarstan has ever since been lobbying to keep its “President”, most recently by using the 94.4% vote in favor of President Minnikhanov in the September 2015 election. (These election results may have been falsified, claims Rais Suleimanov.) While the issue has not yet been closed, it appears that Tatarstan has more leeway than Russia’s other federal subjects. This unbalanced situation “allows one to consider Russia an asymmetrical ethno-federation”, according to Suleimanov, thus forming another example of the “myth of nation state”, which GeoCurrents has written about extensively.

Kazan Kremlin

The currently brewing confrontation between the Kremlin in Moscow and the Kremlin in Kazan (see photo of the latter on the left) is not the only issue threatening Tatarstan. Suleimanov and other experts talk about a possibility, even likelihood, of exploding terrorist activity in the region. The most frightening scenarios involve an expansion of radical Islamism in Tatarstan and further forging of connections between such home-grown groups and extremist organizations based elsewhere in the Muslim world, including Hizb ut-Tahrir and ISIS.

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As indicated in ISW map of ISIS activity, discussed in an earlier GeoCurrents post, Russia has been one of the main sources of ISIS recruits. While many of them have come from the Caucasus region, a substantial number—over 200, according to some sources—are from Tatarstan and the rest of the Middle Volga region. Ironically, ISIS recruitment for the war in Iraq and Syria is said to be the chief reason for the sharp decrease in terrorist attacks within Tatarstan: while several brutal attacks shook the Republic in 2012 and 2013, there has been a relative calm in 2014-2015. But some of these ISIS fighters are now coming back from Syria to Tatarstan. Moreover, according to Suleimanov, in November 2015, ISIS propagandists released two videos in which Tatarstan is explicitly mentioned as a target of radical Islamists. Future developments in the conflict in Syria will, no doubt, have a critical impact on the situation in Tatarstan, which remains for the time being “a place to watch”.
___________

*One source even claims that the entire cleaning staff of the Winter Palace, over 100 people, consisted of Tatars.

**According to the same census, 96% of Tatars also know Russian to some extent.

***Although some anti-Turkish protests occurred across Russia, even in the Middle Volga region, many people felt that the Russian government’s reaction was too strong, leading several journalists and bloggers to post tongue-in-cheek proposals to “prohibit” or “rename” Turkish coffee, Turkish sweets, the espionage thriller (book and film) titled “Turkish Gambit” (set in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War), Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, and even the music group Turetsky Choir (whose director’s last name means “Turkish” in Russian).

 

Tatarstan: A “Hostage of Freezing Relations between Russia and Turkey”? Read More »