Several days ago, in conversation with Financial Times journalist Guy Chazan, Mustafa Dzhemilev, a Soviet-era Crimean Tatar dissident and the former chairman of the Crimean Tatar representative body warned that a bloody jihadist uprising will erupt if Crimeans dare to join Russia in the upcoming referendum:
"We have Islamists, Wahhabis, Salafis, groups who have fought [with the opposition] in Syria. They say: 'An enemy has entered our land and we are ready'. We can't stop people who want to die with honour."
Now, this is not some marginal radical or young hothead speaking, but a member of the Ukrainian legislature, and a figure lionized in Ukraine and abroad as a respectable, wise, and moderate elder statesman. Even Vladimir Putin reckons with Dzhemilev, as is evident from the long phone conversation they had recently, in which Dzhemilev warned Putin that "the issue of the territorial integrity of our country is very important".
Meanwhile, Crimean Tatars marched in pro-Maidan demonstrations while chanting the slogans of Ukrainian neo-nazis accompanied by lusty howls of "Allah Akbar!" This hearkens back to the widespread Crimean Tatar collaboration with the Nazi invaders when their religious and secular leadership praised the "holy war of the Germans". Wehrmacht Gen. Erich von Manstein testified to the Crimean Tatars' pro-Nazi zeal in his memoirs:
"The Tatars immediately took our side. They saw in us our liberators from the Bolshevik yoke, especially since we respected their religious customs. A Tatar delegation came to me, bringing fruits and beautiful handmade embroideries for "Adolf Effendi", the liberator of the Tatars."
In addition to enthusiastically assisting the German and Romanian invaders with massacring Crimean Jews and hunting down anti-Nazi partisans, Crimean Tatars joined a specially created SS Regiment: Tataren-Gebirgsjäger-Regiment der SS (The Tatar Mountain Jager SS Regiment), akin to the numerous SS divisions, regiments, and brigades made up of Soviet and Balkan Muslims.
In recent years, dozens, if not hundreds of Crimean Tatars fought in the jihadist campaign against Bashar Assad. On April 25, 2013, a Crimean Tatar jihadist known as "Abu Khaled" blew himself up in Aleppo. The second-in-command of the predominantly Chechen, Russian-speaking group of jihadists in Syria called "Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar" is yet another Crimean Tatar: Abdul Karim Krimsky ("The Crimean"). Reportedly, Crimea became a favored transit point for jihadists traveling to Syria.
For years, Islamism and sharia law was making inroads into the Crimean Tatar community. In a case, which several years ago shocked the whole world, a young Crimean girl was stoned to death by three Islamist teenagers for dressing stylishly and participating in a beauty contest. Bihal Gaziev, a sixteen year old Slavic boy who was raised by a Tatar family and converted to Islam, admitted to murdering her for violating sharia law. But the Ukrainian authorities quickly backtracked on the Islamist angle. Instead, they started claiming that the brutal murder of nineteen year old Katya Koren had nothing to do with sharia law and the radicalization of the Crimean Tatars. Predictably, the noxious Dzhemilev called media reports of the girl's murder "a kind of provocation". And if he is a "moderate" representative of the Crimean Tatars, then what can one expect from the radicals?
Eugene Girin is a New York-based attorney and commentator.