The Curious Absence of Violent Ethnic Conflict

March 14, 2010

“And do not dispute with the followers of the Book except by what is best, except those of them who act unjustly, and say: We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our God and your God is One, and to Him do we submit.” Qur’an 29:46

Religion and ethnic conflict seem to go hand in hand in the popular imagination. After the Cold War’s end most conflicts appear to have a religious angle, even if a minor one. Indeed some, having watched Francis Fukuyama’s confident proclamation of the “end of history” crumble, have decided that religious extremism and conflict coupled with ethnic prejudice is the strongest threat to the Western world; how else to explain American fear of “Islamofascism” and European unease with Muslim immigrants? When media report on conflict, the competing groups are identified along religious lines as often as they are along ethnic lines, suggesting that, in the minds of the media at least, the two are synonymous. The shriller voices even suggest that religio-ethnic conflict is an inevitable and meanacing byproduct of the modern age, manageable– only just– through draconian safety measures and requiring forceful interventions around the globe where tensions flare up. I would like to suggest that this is a flawed reading of the world and the discrete situations that fuel ethnic conflict.

The Russian Federation sees its fair share of ethnic conflict. During the 1990s and early 2000s the ongoing conflict in Chechnya took up almost as much airtime as the economic situation in the country. The religious difference underpinning the two combatants was never far from the lips of commentators, with the Muslim Chechens fighting the alternately atheist/Christian Russians. The strife in Chechnya made it easy to believe that ethnic Russians were everywhere oppressing minority ethnic groups within the country and only the Chechens had the audacity to revolt, but a close look belied that point. The Russian Federation contains within its borders twenty-one Autonomous Republics which, as the name suggests, have a high degree of autonomy from the rest of the country. Each of these republics is administered largely by the ethnic minority that the republic takes its name from. The degree of local control varies from republic to republic, but the result is similar to the UK’s policies towards Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The vast majority of these republics are peacefully administered, as evidenced by their absence from the news headlines.

One republic in particular stands out as bucking conventional wisdom vis a vis religion and ethnic conflict. The largest minority ethnic group in Russia are the Tatars and they are almost all Muslim. An eight hour train ride east of Moscow will lead to the capital of Tatarstan, Kazan. This region of the country has a long and checkered past, but now it is administered in peace with Tatars living alongside predominantly Orthodox Christian Russians. Kazan was the site of a massive battle in the 16th century which saw Ivan the Terrible overthrow the Kazan Khanate and begin the eastward expansion of Imperial Russia. Life under the Tsars was not easy in Tatarstan and it did not improve tremendously under the rule of the Communist party in the USSR. Even earlier in Russian history the roles had been reversed with Moscow princes paying tribute to the Tatar rulers, remnants of the Golden Horde. Clearly there is much room for ethnic animosity relating to historical events. So why is violent ethnic conflict absent from Tatarstan, and how can ethnic peacemakers learn from the methods employed in Tatarstan?

The question is obviously a difficult one, and I do not set out to propose a universally generalizable theory of ethno-religious reconciliation. Understanding why violent conflict does not occur, however, can be just as valuable as understanding why it does occur, and the case of Tatarstan will give ample evidence contra the conventional wisdom. At this point, my reading pushes me down several paths. Tatars hold comfortable majority within their jurisdiction, making discrimination on the part of Russians difficult. The Tatar Republic is also one of the most economically prosperous regions of Russia, unlike many places in which ethnic conflict takes place. Finally, despite long standing historical tensions between Russians and Tatars, the Tatar religious stance has remained one of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. In short, Tatars in Tatarstan have demographic, economic, and religious stability, all of which combine to tamp down ethnic tension.

In studying this question I have had a difficult time finding literature dealing directly with the situation in Tatarstan. This likely has to do with the peace the region has enjoyed over the past century. I have found Azade-Ayşe Rorlich’s book The Volga Tatars: A Profile in National Resilience to be very helpful. Rorlich and Ravil Bukharaev’s Islam in Russia: The Four Seasons have been relevant mostly when dealing with the religious underpinnings of the peace in the region. Of course, as in any society, religion encompasses much more than what goes on strictly in the centers of worship, and for the Tatars an Islamic identity informs their education and their politics. It is from Rorlich and Bukharaev that I take my assertion that religion is a contributor to peace in Tatarstan, contrary to what might be expected when observing inter-ethnic interaction. Jessica Stern’s Terror in the Name of God also provides a useful framework for understanding circumstances in which religious and ethnic militancy can erupt, and allows me to see where the Tatar experience diverges from the path that Stern lays out.

By pursuing this thesis I hope to trouble the absolutist claims bandied about by many in the political spotlight, particularly neo-conservative political interpretations of ethnic and religious conflict. I also want to see whether or not any of the circumstances prevailing in Tatarstan can be successfully transplanted anywhere else in the world. If the methods used by the Russians and Tatars to maintain peaceful ties can be used elsewhere– perhaps even within Russia– then this would serve as a way to change the discussion on conflict management and conflict intervention in cases of ethnic conflict. The debate over methods of conflict intervention and management very often focuses on narrowly political and economic factors, leaving out, or making secondary, the questions of identity that religion can create between ethnic groups in conflict. If these religious differences are taken account of, they are often subsumed under a political or economic rationale. I hope to show that this accounting of religion is ultimately not sufficient for understanding the presence or absence of violence in ethnic relations.

In order to fully explore the questions raised by my thesis, I need to have an understanding of the history of Tatarstan and the interactions between the Russians and the Tatars in particular. Accordingly, part one of my dissertation will focus on this. I will look at the ways the Tatars treated the Russians during their time of ascendancy and the psychological scars it left of the Russian psyche, and then I will turn my attention to the ways the Russians have treated the Tatars now that the tables are turned. Within this I will look at the ways that the Tatars have adapted to changing Russian attitudes towards them and the ways that the Tatars have selectively gathered more independence for themselves within the Russian framework and the setbacks they have encountered along the way. Jaroslaw Pelenski’s Russia and Kazan: Conquest and Imperial Ideology will provide me with a firm grasp of the Russian side of the equation, as the book outlines the ways that Russian rulers, particularly during the time of Ivan the Terrible’s conquests, spoke of the Tatars and Tatarstan. Again, Rorlich and Bukharaev’s books will form the backbone of understanding the Tatar point of view. These books explain the ways that Tatars adapted to Russian rule once they were conquered and the ways that they went about reclaiming and maintaining their culture in the face of a hostile imperial power. Once I have set the historical stage I will focus on the present and the ways that these historical forces work themselves out in everyday life in Tatarstan. This examination will take two parts: the first will be a study of news reports and demographic and economic data, the second will be the result of interviews with authorities on Tatarstan, academics, politicians, journalists, activists, religious leaders, etc.

In studying the demographics and economic numbers I hope to be able to gain an understanding of the population changes over time and the proportions that currently hold sway and the economic conditions in Tatarstan, which will give me a good idea of how those numbers effect the lives of everyday citizens. I already have a few Western resources on Tatar demography from the Cold War, and current demographic information is readily available online. News reports will allow me to understand how the media, and by proxy the average citizen perceives ethnic relations. Reports of clashes and the way they are diffused will give a good indication of the broad contours of Tatar-Russian interaction. My interviews will enable me to get an experienced, professional view of the situation, enabling me to add more detail to the broad contours that demographics and news reports provide. I will focus in my interviews on instances of conflict and cooperation, ways that groups promote cooperation, and potential hotspots of trouble in inter-ethnic relations. The human element of these interviews is an important one, as it can provide context and sensitivity to conditions on the ground that bare numbers can lack. In addition these subjects will be intimately involved and invested in the future of Tatarstan and may be able to give a take on matters within the area that ordinary research would not be able to turn up.


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