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The “Tolerant” Islam of the Crimean Tatars

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By:Srdja Trifkovic | July 27, 2015

The post-Maidan Ukrainian government is often criticized in Poland and Russia (a rare point of convergence) for indulging in historical revisionism over the controversial role of Stepan Bandera during the Second World War, and in particular for glossing over his followers’ slaughter of hundreds of thousands of eastern Poles, Jews, and other minorities in Galicia and Podolia under the 1941-44 German occupation.

An even more egregious revision of history is presented in an article that reached me on July 24, courtesy of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the form of its online magazine called Ukrainian Week. “The roots of moderate Islam of the Crimean Tatars are buried in the history of this people” is the headline of a long essay penned by one Hannah Trehub. After breaking away from the Mongol Golden Horde in the 15th century its rulers supposedly “did not carry out forced islamisation of the population, which at the time included Tengriists, Christians and Judaists among others… This period saw the formation of the unique Turkic-Muslim culture, which had a considerable influence on Crimea and the adjacent territories up until 1917”:

The Mongol and Ottoman empires, as well as the Crimean Khanate within them appear to be rather diverse countries in terms of ethnicity and religion, countries, the rulers of which were devoid of religious fanaticism. Even proclaiming Sunni Islam as the official religion of the state they did not carry out sweeping systemic Islamisation of the followers of other religions populating the land, they realized that religious conflicts would only weaken the state.

The Crimean peninsula had always been not on the outskirts of the Muslim world, the author claims, but rather one of its cultural and education centers, at the crossroads of the pathways from countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, of Turkey and Persia, “which allowed acquiring and accumulating knowledge, and having own input both in theology and law, as well as in science [yet] unfortunately, not many in today's Ukraine know about this”:

Crimea had its Islamic universities, the madrasas. Zincirli Madrasa is the famous one, but there were more… In the 15-16th centuries emerged the first generation of native Crimean Tatar scientists. They seek opportunities to move to other Muslim education centers overseas, in particular to Istanbul. … Ever since Crimea was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1784, Crimean Tatars were devoid of statehood and their religion no longer served as an instrument of politics… That is why the Crimean Islam is a European one, to a great extent a cultural one. The ideas of the ISIS and caliphate for this very reason are seen by them as something far-out.

What the Ukrainians do know, however, is that the economy of the Muslim-ruled Crimea was founded and operated on slave trade. Capturing, enslaving, or else murdering millions of inhabitants of today’s Ukraine, southwestern Russia and Moldova, to be precise.

The term “the Crimean Raids” is common to Ukraine’s, Russia’s, and Poland’s history. They started when the Crimean Muslims became independent of the Mongolian Golden Horde in 1441 and they continued, under the Ottoman rule, on an almost Untitled-1annual basis, until Catherine the Great conquered the peninsula and established Russian rule in 1774. A detailed chronology of those raids is available to the curious. Two recent studies, by Japanese historian E. Matsuki and Mikhail Kizilov of Oxford University, are worth checking. They and other authors have conclusively established that the main income of the Crimean Khanate came from raids upon the territories of adjacent countries and from the trade in slaves captured during these military campaigns.

The ?rst major Tatar raid for captives took place in 1468 and was directed into Galicia, giving rise to an old Polish proverb came into being: “O how much better to lie on one’s bier, than to be a captive on the way to Tatary.” As early as 1521, S. Herberstein, Emperor Charles V’s ambassador to Muscovy, wrote about Crimean Khan Mehmet Ghirey’s slave-hunting expedition:

“He took with him from Muscovy so great a multitude of captives as would scarcely be considered credible; they say the number exceeded eight hundred thousand, part of whom he sold in Kaffa to theTurks, and part he slew. The old and infirmed men, who will not fetch much at a sale, are given up to the Tatar youths, either to be stoned, or to be thrown into the sea, or to be killed by any sort of death they might please.”

A Crimean Muslim author, Haci Mehmed Senai, thus mentioned that after a successful raid into Poland and Ukraine during the Chmielnicki rebellion (1648) each Tatar soldier killed 10-15 captives for his own amusement.

Mikhalon the Lithuanian wrote around 1550 in his book De moribus Tatarorum Lituanorum et Moscorum: “The Crimean Tatars have much more slaves than livestock and supply them to other lands. Many ships loaded with arms, clothes and horses came to them one after another from beyond the Pontus and from Asia, and left with slaves… These plunderers … also have slaves for their own estates and to satisfy at home their cruelty and waywardness. We often find among these unfortunate people very strong men, who, if not castrated, are branded on the forehead or on the cheek, and are tormented by day at work and by night in dungeons.”

Marcin Broniewski (Broniovius), who was an envoy of the Polish King Stephen Batory to the Crimean Khan in 1578-79, described how the Crimean Tatars conducted their military raids, captured and tortured their prisoners. Winter, when all marches, rivers, and muddy roads were frozen solid, was the usual time for raids. They avoided battle, moving quickly from one place to another and trying to seize as many captives and as much booty as possible, while plundering and burning everything they met on their way. During a raid, each Tatar had two or more horses for increasing the army’s mobility.

According to Broniewski, the Crimean Tatars did not till the land because slaves were so cheap and plentiful. The Crimean vizir Sefer Gazi Aga thus noted that the slaves were often “a plough and a scythe” of their owners. Most terrible, perhaps, was the fate of the galley-slaves, whose su?erings were poeticized in many Ukrainian folk songs (dumas). The Turkish word “kadirga” (galley) morphed into katorga, became a synonym for “prison” in the Russian language. The captives were exported to the markets of the Ottoman Empire under dreadful conditions.

The Tatar-Muslim Crimean raids, justified under the Sharia law, were a key drain of the human and economic resources of both Russia and Poland, engaged as they were in fighting each other in the 17th century. Those incessant raids  prevented the settlement of the “Wild Fields” (dikoye pole) of today’s Ukraine and southwestern Russia until the late 18th century. Only a hundred years after Catherine took Crimea, that region was the breadbasket of Europe. According to a Russian tzarist-era historian, “If you consider how much time and spiritual and material strength was wasted in the monotonous, brutal, toilsome and painful pursuit of these wily steppe predators, one need not ask what people in Eastern Europe were doing while those of Western Europe advanced in industry and commerce, in civil life and in the arts and sciences.”

Alan Fisher, a leading authority, estimates that some three million Slav captives were taken from the borderlands by the Crimean Muslims from the 15th century until the Russian conquest. Even at the end of the Tatar-Muslim rule, in the mid-18th century, at least 150,000 peasants were enslaved in the immediate decades before the Russian conquest. To put things in historical perspective, the (Muslim) Arab slave trade with Africa is estimated to have affected 10 to 18 million persons over a much longer period. Thousands of Christian female slaves and captured children were converted to Islam every year. Soon these neophytes forgot about their origins and their o?spring were often unaware of their Christian past. Their descendants in the Crimean Khanate were called by a generic term çora, a slave no longer, but of inferior social status.

Most of the military-age Muslim men of Crimea took part in these campaigns, which was the mainstay of their economic activity for centuries. Enriched in the slave trade, they did not produce anything of lasting value, artistically, intellectually, or architecturally. Many among their descendants enthusiastically greeted the Germans in 1942. and fought on their side for the Nazi “New Europe.” The SS paradigm of the Slavic Untermenschen fitted in well with their  collective memory.

So much for the U.S-sponsored new Ukrainian history: political necessities of the moment recreate a “tolerant Muslim” Crimean dreamland for the people whose forebears were its victims. A nation of 40 million still in search of itself deserves better. Ukraine needs a sober account of its past in order to resolve the horrible present. Its government’s promotion of politically expedient myths do not contribute to that objective.

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