Russian Converts to Islam Promote Tolerance

By Nathan Gray

Staff Writer

Taras Cherniyenko looks like a typical young Russian
banker: neatly dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and
necktie, with a thin beard and short hair.

Sitting in a cafe on Ulitsa Sretenka, he told the
story of how a spiritual discovery that began in his
early teens led to his conversion to Islam and the
adoption of the name Abdul Karim.

Now Cherniyenko is the vice chairman of a new
organization of ethnic Russian converts to Islam, the
National Organization of Russian Muslims.

The values that Islam offers as guidance, such as the
restriction on alcohol consumption, are values he and
his colleagues in the group wish to share with Russia
as possible solutions to problems that the country

"One can say that drinking vodka or wine is a
significant aspect of Russian culture, yet I can be a
good Russian while not drinking alcohol," Cherniyenko
said. "Most of the social problems in Russia are
caused by alcohol consumption.

"If we can introduce some Islamic social values to
Russia, society and the country will become stronger."

When Cherniyenko tells Russians he is Muslim, they
react mostly with curiosity, he said. Many ask him why
he chose to convert, not out of rudeness but out of

"I am not counting the hard-core nationalists, of
course, but those are maybe only 5 percent," he said.

"I grew up in a rather liberal environment in St.
Petersburg," he said. "My parents encouraged me in all
of my studies, which included different religions and

"I learned to read the Torah in Hebrew, the Gospels in
Greek. I did not study Hindu texts as much,
unfortunately, but I did read them."

Cherniyenko's study of different religions led him on
a search for a faith whose interpretation would
coincide with his own.

"For me, to understand Jesus' passions, one had to
understand them as a man's passions," he said. "I was
searching for a faith that, rather than rejecting
Jesus or worshipping him as a god, would recognize him
as a man -- a pure, sinless man, but a man. That led
me to Islam."

The number of Russians who convert to Islam is quite
small, said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the
Carnegie Moscow Center. "I would count them in the
dozens, at most," he said.

Vladimir Divakhov, a spokesman for the Moscow
Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, agreed,
saying that the church has no stated policy on
Russians converting to Islam. "The situation arises
very rarely," he said. "Most often, Russian converts
to Islam have been Russian women who marry Muslim men.
It occurs very infrequently, however."

Cherniyenko estimated that the membership of the group
stands at about 2,000, in approximately 20 of the
country's regions. He cautioned, however, that since
the organization has not yet applied for registration
with the Justice Ministry, no formal list of members

There are 19 million Muslims in Russia, making Islam
the country's second-largest religion, behind Russian

Russian conversion to Islam is not always viewed
neutrally. In an April 2003 interview with the web
site, Gusman Iskhakov, the mufti of
Tatarstan, expressed his displeasure at the idea of
Russians converting.

"A person must remain himself. He was born, that is
his homeland, his nation. He must not change his
nation, his religion, his name every year," Iskhakov
was quoted as saying. "The Russians who convert to
Islam are not very reassuring. They are usually more
aggressive, and their mentality is completely

But a spokesman for Iskhakov's office clarified the
mufti's remarks, saying that the reporter made them
sound more negative than they were intended to sound.

"The mufti said simply that it would make him happier
to see more Tatars, Muslims, return to the practice of
Islam," the spokesman said by telephone from Kazan.

Cherniyenko dismissed Iskhakov's reported concerns
about the susceptibility of Russian converts to
extremism. Another goal the group has is to develop
discipline among Muslims, he said, and to prevent them
from falling into extremist and militant groups.

Cherniyenko sees Iskhakov's statement as not merely a
usurpation of spiritual authority that ultimately
belongs to an individual Muslim, but also a
deprivation of a constitutional right.

"The Constitution of the Russian Federation gives
every citizen the right to worship according to the
dictates of his conscience," he said. "When the mufti
of Tatarstan says [that Russians should not convert to
Islam], he is taking away a right we have under the

Farid Asadullin, assistant to the head of the Council
of Muftis of Russia, offered a more neutral position
than that reported by

"Conversion to Islam is a personal choice," he said.
"Our task is to encourage a proper understanding of
Islamic teachings. We will work together with such an
organization as the occasion requires, because they
are our spiritual brothers."

As for the group's future, "we hope that we will
extend beyond Russia into all of the countries of the
former Soviet Union," Cherniyenko said. At the
founding meeting in Omsk in June, there were
representatives of Russian Muslim communities in
Kazakhstan, and the group has been in contact with
potential members in Ukraine.

Fundamentally, the common thread among the
organization's membership and among all Muslims is
spirituality. Cherniyenko's prayers usually have two
parts, he said, the first being a prescribed prayer,
required of all Shiite Muslims. The second can be
about anything a person might be feeling on any
particular day.

"Mostly, I pray for my mother, my family, and peace
and prosperity for the Muslim community," he said.

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