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Russia-Ukraine war: Mufti dons combat fatigues to fight Putin and avenge Syria

Said Ismagilov says there is 'Quranic justification' for Muslims to battle Vladimir Putin's forces
Said Ismagilov, centre, poses with fellow members of Ukraine's Territorial Defence Forces (Facebook)

Said Ismagilov, mufti of the Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine and one of the country's top Islamic leaders, has traded in his traditional robes and headdress for combat fatigues.

His social media pages show pictures of him posing with fellow members of the Territorial Defence Forces in Kyiv, which he said he joined on 24 February - the day Russia's full scale invasion of Ukraine began.

The images are quite different from the charity functions and talks at business schools he'd been conducting before the invasion.

As an ethnic Tatar who was born in the eastern city of Donetsk - at that time still part of the Soviet Union - Ismagilov has more than one personal investment in Russia's war.

'We have been in a state of brutal war for more than two weeks. I don’t even remember what day of the week it is'

- Said Ismagilov

The Crimean Tatars came under direct Russian control in 2014 following the invasion and forcible annexation of the peninsula, while Donetsk was soon after captured by Russian-backed separatists, who have fought a years-long conflict with Kyiv.

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Despite his connections to these regions, the fog of war has made it hard for Ismagilov to keep track of his communities there.

"We have been in a state of brutal war for more than two weeks. I don’t even remember what day of the week it is, and what date is on the calendar right now. In war, time turns into one continuous stream and never seems to end," he said.

"Therefore, I didn’t have time and opportunity to monitor what is happening in the temporarily occupied territories of Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk, so I don’t have information about the current conditions of Muslim people living there."

Said Imagilov's military dog tags (Facebook)
Said Imagilov's military dog tags (Facebook)

There has been a groundswell of support seen across Europe for Ukrainians struggling under Russian bombardment.

The daily images of towns and cities reduced to rubble and thousands upon thousands of civilians fleeing for safety has provoked outpourings of aid, donations, volunteers and has even prompted some Europeans to take up arms and head to face Vladimir Putin's forces head-on.

It is not unprecedented, even in recent years: the war in Syria saw huge numbers flocking to join different factions in that conflict, whether the pro-Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian opposition or the Islamic State (IS) group.

Many of those who joined the fighting in Syria also came into direct conflict with Russia as well, with Putin's air force intervening to prop up President Bashar al-Assad's government and raining down destruction on Syrian communities.

For Ismagilov, there is a religious basis for Muslims to follow the call of Ukraine's president and again take up arms against Russia. Not least as "revenge" against the country's actions in Syria.

"This is the choice of each individual Muslim whether he wants to go to Ukraine to fight against the Russian invaders," he told Middle East Eye

"However, there is a Quranic justification in favour of such a choice."

Translation: "If three Tatarines are gathered, it's already a battalion!"

Though he has yet to take part in any fighting, the horrors that have been inflicted on Ukraine - with two and a half million people already having fled the country, according to the UN, and thousands believed to have been killed - makes the choice between action and inaction clear for him.

"Russia has attacked our country, bombing and shelling civilians, killing women and children, destroying houses, hospitals and infrastructure," he said.

'A state of brutal war'

The number of Muslims living in Ukraine is hard to verify, though Ismagilov said there were around one million in 2016, with Crimean Tatars making up the largest single group.

Those who still remain in Crimea have complained of persecution by the Russian authorities. Numerous activists, journalists and lawyers belonging to the community have been detained and harassed in the peninsula since the Russian takeover, often under suspicion of "terrorist" activity.

Islam is also the second largest religion in Russia, though the community's relationship with the government has been less than harmonious.

'I advise [pro-Putin Muslim leaders] to take off and throw their turbans in the dump, because they have no moral right to be called religious leaders'

- Said Ismagilov

Most notoriously, Putin oversaw the destruction of much of the Muslim-majority republic of Chechnya in the 1999-2009 Second Chechen War, allegedly leaving tens of thousands of civilians dead - though that war provoked a considerably more lukewarm response from western leaders than Ukraine's conflict.

Considering the number of Muslims who have died as a result of Putin's wars and the ongoing treatment in Crimea, Ismagilov doesn't mince words about the Russian Muslim leaders who have publicly proclaimed their support for Putin's "special military operation" in Ukraine.

"I have open disrespect for Russia's Muslim religious leaders, who have approved of this war, because they are not on the side of truth and justice, but on the side of criminal power, and have blessed the killing of us and our children. I will never forgive them," he said.

"I advise them to take off and throw their turbans in the dump, because they have no moral right to be called religious leaders."

Mixed messaging

Ukraine is not the first conflict in eastern Europe that has seen an influx of foreign fighters.

During the war in Bosnia, which began in 1992, Muslim volunteers flocked to the country to aid the Bosnian Muslims in their conflict with the Croats and Serbs.

Though many of these "mujahideen" fighters were hailed as protectors of Bosnian Muslims, a number would later form links with al-Qaeda, with the organisation's founder Osama bin Laden having provided support for a number of volunteers.

Russia has already attempted to play on the fear of foreign Muslim fighters supporting Ukraine.

Last month, two weeks before the invasion, Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Director Sergey Naryshkin claimed that he had reports of "multinational jihadist militant squads" being prepared (possibly with western consent) in Ukraine.

A number of European governments have already got themselves in a bind over the issue of Ukrainian volunteers.

Who are the Crimean Tatars? The Turkic Muslim minority loyal to Ukraine
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The UK provoked confusion shortly after the conflict began when Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told the BBC that she "absolutely" would support British citizens who wanted to heed President Volodymyr Zelensky's call for foreign fighters.

Despite this, the advice listed on her own ministry's website warns British nationals that if they "travel to Ukraine to fight, or to assist others engaged in the conflict, your activities may amount to offences against UK legislation and you could be prosecuted on your return to the UK".

Numerous volunteer fighters who travelled to Syria have already been prosecuted and British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has pushed back on Truss's comments, saying there were "better ways" to support Ukraine.

The UK has also faced controversy on its refugee policy. Unlike the rest of its former fellow EU members, the country still requires Ukrainian refugees to apply for a visa to enter.

Ukraine's neighbours, particularly Poland, have so far earned widespread praise for accepting more than a million refugees from Ukraine - though some have noted that they weren't so generous to the Syrians fleeing Russian bombs, as well as other Muslims escaping conflict.

Ismagilov, however, said he wasn't aware of any double standards on the acceptance of refugees.

"All I know is that all people who have left Ukraine are temporarily admitted to neighbouring countries, regardless of their religion," he said.

"I would like foreigners who come to fight for Ukraine to look at the scale of the destruction and human tragedy that Russia has brought with it to our land. This would give them an understanding of the extent of our pain and suffering."

As for himself, he had no plans to join his fellow Ukrainians in exile.

"I will stay in Kyiv until our victory in this war - I do not plan to go anywhere."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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