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Russia: Unreasonnable “accommodations”

Friday 24 February 2017, by siawi3


Hijab Ban in Remote Russian Village Turns Into National Stand-Off

A headscarf ban introduced in a tiny village school in the Republic of Mordovia has made national headlines.

Jan 26, 2017 — 19:54
Update: Jan. 26 2017 — 16:21

By Ola Cichowlas

When authorities in the Republic of Mordovia banned headscarves from a tiny school in the Tatar village of Belozerye, they probably didn’t realize it would make national headlines. But before long the conflict between the school and local authorities had grown into something else, pitting Russia’s Education Ministry against Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov and the country’s Tatar Congress. The Kremlin was forced to comment.

The scandal in the village school began in late December with the arrival of a new director who set new rules. Schoolgirls were banned from wearing Islamic headscarves in class. Teachers were told to follow secular dress codes or resign. Both teachers and pupils protested, accusing authorities of discrimination on religious grounds. A group of schoolgirls have stopped attending classes in protest.

The school’s employees say the decision came not from the director herself by from the local branch of the Education Ministry.

According to local reports, a commission from the Republic’s capital Saransk traveled to the village before the New Year, and accused the teachers of promoting religious education at the expense of other classes. Soon afterwards, the school’s director was removed.

It was not the first time authorities tried to ban headscarves in the Belozerye school. In 2014, the Mordovian government introduced new laws about school dress codes, which initially included a ban of mini-skirts, piercings and hijabs. A compromise was eventually reached between village elders and authorities: Belozerye’s schoolgirls would be allowed to wear “light” headscarves, it was decided.

This time, however, the decision was overturned.

First World Cup Victim

Mordovian authorities, meanwhile, say they acted within a broader programme of fighting extremism in the republic ahead of the FIFA 2018 World Cup. The republic’s capital Saransk is one of eleven Russian cities that will host the football championship.

Local media say the conflict might have been started by security forces. Belozerye, according to reports, has long been under the watchful eye of the FSB. Local pro-government papers have even dubbed the village “Mordovia’s Khalifat.” Izvestia Mordovii, a newspaper mouthpiece for the local authorities, has claimed that as many as 20 Belozerye villagers had traveled to join Islamist groups in the Middle East.

In November 2016, Saransk authorities arrested three villagers for links to Syria and Iraq. And in late 2015, a former imam in the village was arrested on extremist charges, sentenced to five years in a penal colony.

Authorities say these men were educated in the village school. They claim the school had photographs of girls in hijabs posing with machine guns, which the teachers deny.

Moscow Gets Involved

As tension between Belozerye and Saransk escalated, Russia’s Education Minister Olga Vasilyeva was forced to intervene. In a press conference, she expressed her support for Mordovian authorities. “Truly religious people do not emphasize their faith with paraphernalia,” Vasilyeva said.

Vasilyeva’s statement provoked anger in Russia’s Muslim republics. Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov got involved in the debate via his favorite channel of communication: Instagram.

Siding with the village schoolgirls, Kadyrov accused the education minister of “imposing personal opinions on millions of citizens.” He asked a question: “My three daughters wear headscarves at school and have great grades. Does Olga Vasilyeva demand that they take them off?”

Russia’s Congress of Tatars also slammed the ban and demanded Mordovian authorities overturn their decision. “Authorities are inciting conflict in one of the most successful and flourishing Tatar villages in the country,” read their open letter, addressed to the head of the republic.

The letter added that the women of Belozerye have long been practicing national Tatar traditions, and wore headscarves even in Soviet times, “when the country was ruled by an ideology of state atheism.” It was, the letter concluded, “outrageous that the administration of Mordovian authorities are putting pressure on defenseless women.”

It remains to be seen if the ban will hold. President Putin’s official spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, compelled into making making a statement on Thursday, said the Kremlin was not minded to get involved in the dispute.

“We would not want to become a side in this discussion at the given moment,” he said.



Hijab Politics: A Tiny Russian Village on the Frontlines of Religious Dispute

A ban on Islamic headscarves in Mordovia has ignited a nationwide debate over the line between religion and state

Feb 21, 2017 — 15:00
Update: Feb. 21 2017 — 14:26

By Eva Hartog

Yelena Galyuk’s daughter was 14-yearsold when she started wearing the hijab to school.

Two days later, her parents were called into the principal’s office. “We were told there were two options: either take the headscarf off or take her out of school,” says Galyuk.

Already in her teens — and having spent much of her childhood at her St. Petersburg school — her daughter did not want to leave. So every day for her remaining years there, she took off her hijab at the school gates.

“For Muslims, it’s the equivalent of walking in your underwear,” her mother told The Moscow Times.

The family learned their lesson. They moved their other daughter to a private school when she reached the age of ten. Another Muslim mother who faced similar problems, took her children out of school and homeschooled them herself.

These rules are not unique to St. Petersburg schools, they occur across Russia, but most of the time they go unnoticed. Then, every so often, a scandal thrusts Russia’s troubled relationship with hijabs back into the national spotlight.

Most recently, that spotlight moved to Belozerye, a village deep in the Mordovian republic with a predominantly Muslim Tatar population. Late last year, a local principal there introduced a ban on headwear for teachers, most of whom wore plain white headscarves. Those who refused to comply were threatened with dismissal.

Leaked audio recordings suggested the order had come from the regional branch of the education ministry as a security measure ahead of the 2018 World Cup. Later, media reports claimed officials had taken their cue from the FSB after several Belozerye residents joined militant fighters in Iraq and Syria.

“The authorities were concerned,” says Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the SOVA think-tank, which monitors extremism. “Law enforcement sees headscarves as a sign of Salafism,” he said, referring to an ultra-conservative form of Islam.

State television clearly laid out the incriminating evidence: eight mosques for only 3,500 villagers, residents linked to extremist activity, and photos — allegedly found in social media — of girls in full hijabs posing with Kalashnikovs. It all suggested headscarves were the everyday manifestation of the “Mordovian Caliphate.”

But Belozerye residents have angrily dismissed that depiction of their town.

“Just because we don’t sell vodka here and our children go to school with their heads covered, we’re being called extremists!” an angry father told cameras outside the Belozerye school.

“People have been wearing headscarves for generations,” lawyer Marat Ashimov told The Moscow Times. “It was even accepted in Soviet times.”

The debate over headscarves is familiar territory for Ashimov. Several years ago, he was among those who appealed a regional hijab ban for Mordovian schoolgirls at the Supreme Court, arguing it encroached upon Muslims’ religious rights under the Russian Constitution. The appeal was dismissed.

Since then, politicians have deferred to the ruling when asked whether hijabs should be allowed. “We don’t want to take sides in the discussion at this moment,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said when asked for his view on the Belozerye scandal.

That, combined with a law dictating that state schools must be secular, seem to suggest hijabs are forbidden in Russian classrooms.

But outside the courtroom, things are less black and white. In a significant portion of the country, schools turn a blind eye to the handful of students who wear the hijab. In others, like in Belozerye before the latest uproar, a compromise has been reached on the type and color of hijabs allowed. And yet, in other Muslim regions, like the republics of Chechnya or Dagestan, wearing hijab is little short of a requirement.

In fact, in 2010, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov praised men who attacked women in Chechnya with paintball pellets for not covering their heads.

Occasionally, such differences in implementation can stir up the kind of regional and religious discord the Kremlin has tried hard to keep under control.

Following the Belozerye scandal, Education Minister Olga Vasilyeva stated that true believers did not need “religious attributes.” That comment sparked an aggressive backlash from Grozny.

“It’s astonishing that the minister is imposing her personal view on millions of citizens,” Kadyrov wrote on his Instagram. His own daughters would never take off their hijabs, he added. A Chechen parliamentarian took the conflict even further, accusing Vasilyeva of “fascism.”

While the Kremlin promotes official secularism, incidents like this only fuel the perception among Russian Muslims that they are being singled out. Мuslim leaders argue that the Jewish community has not faced problems regarding kippahs, or that many students wear Orthodox crosses.

Disgruntled Muslim parents also point to the piercings, short skirts and low cut shirts and blouses seen on other students. “And then they say it is my daughter who is inadequately dressed!” says mother Galyuk, an ethnic Russian who converted to Islam as an adult.

According to Alexei Malashenko, a scholar in residence at the Dialogue of Civilizations think tank, Russian officials’ intervention in situations like Belozerye creates “artificial and unnecessary conflict.”

“Headscarves are being politicized in a way that pits identity against supposed attacks on that identity,” he says. “The state is interfering with religion, and it shouldn’t.”

Malashenko cites a situation in the early 2000s when a number of Russian Muslims refused to be photographed for their IDs without their veils. “The Interior Minister said: take the picture in whatever way you want. And the problem disappeared,” he says.

In Belozerye, the issue is unlikely to disappear. Despite the scandal, video footage from the village shows students and teachers continuing to wear their headscarves.

Perhaps the only tangible result of the ban is that some families have taken their children out of the educational system. Faced with a choice of school or the hijab, the answer for many Russian Muslims is all too obvious.



4,000 Russians Now Fighting in Syrian Insurgency, Says Putin

Feb 23, 2017 — 20:23
Update: 20:23

Rwa Faisal / AP

Thousands of Russians are still fighting for militant forces in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested on Thursday.

Speaking to a gathering of naval officers returning from the region, Putin said military intelligence believes as many as 4,000 Russians remain in Syria. A further 5,000 fighters from former Soviet states are also believed to be fighting.

The Russian president gave no sign as to how exactly the figures break down. There are at least nine significant groups still fighting in the conflict, which is now entering its sixth year.

Russia has been involved in a military campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad since September 2015. Russian organization and firepower have been behind increasingly confident operations to retake ground lost to opposition forces.

Putin defended the controversial operations. They had, he said, “dealt a blow to international terrorism.” Russia stood alone in this fight, Putin added, hampered by resistance from “so-called partners” in the West.

Later on Thursday, the president announced that he had plans to strengthen Russia’s military further.

The priorities for new investment would be strategic nuclear defense and aerospace defense forces, he said.