Monthly Archives: November 2015

Muslims in Latvia

Latvian translation of the Quran.

The refugee crisis in Europe has also affected Latvian society. Latvia as EU country is taking part in handling the crisis and has agreed to accept to host at least 776 refugees from Syria, Libya and other countries. Meanwhile the country is already holding a large number of refugees who managed to cross the Latvian border. They are from various Muslim countries including Afghanistan. In following years Latvia might experience an influx of Muslim immigrants in form of refugees or work seekers. Although by no means Latvia is one of the most desired places for Middle Eastern refugees, on the contrary Latvia with its economic issues and rough climate is one of the lest desired. Also the knowledge and contact between Latvia and Middle Eastern Muslim countries have been limited. But, that does not mean that this will be first time in Latvian history when a new ethno-religious community will emerge. Muslims in small numbers have lived in Latvia since 19th century and their presence has increased in last two decades. This is a story about first Muslim communities in Latvia and how they evolved in the restored independent country. The therm Muslim is used here as for followers of Islam. The Islam is transnational religion, and various national groups practicing Islam who had lived and lives in Latvia are described here. Lastly the phenomena of last twenty years is the growing numbers of Latvian converters who will be mentioned here in the end.

Before Crusades at 8th to 11th century trough Viking traders the Arabian silver Dirhams reached Latvian territory bringing first artifacts of the emerging Muslim civilization in Baltic pagan lands. First direct contacts with Muslims in Latvian territory goes back to 13th century when the Tatars of the Golden Horde took part in raids against Livonia hosted by Russian Duchies. During the Livonian War (1558-1583)  it said that around 40 000 Tatar and Russian soldiers under the command of the Han Shahghali and later Simeon Bekbulatovich took part in the Muscovite invasion. Many centuries later during Russian-Turkish war on 1877, hundred Turkish prisoners of war were brought to Cēsis and Līvāni district. The land where they were settled became known as the Turki parish. 26 Turks died of illnesses and bad weather, but others survived and settled in the city of Cēsis. There they opened Turkish Bakery.   The Turkish cemetery was opened in Cēsis and has been preserved and restored by the help of the Turkish consulate. Turkish cemeteries have been built elsewhere in Latvia, where mostly Turkish war prisoners were taken.

Tatar community in Latvian territory emerged at the last half of the 19th century, mostly from immigrants who came to industrialized cities like Riga, Jelgava and Daugavpils. On 1890 the local Tatar leaders mullah Muhamet Shakir Abdul Arapov, Abdulla Myazhitov and Kurma Hamet Ishniyezov pleaded to establish Muslim cemetery next to Catholic cemetery in Pletenberg street (now Aizsaules street). On 1902 first Muslim congregation was established. The local imam  was Ibragim Davidov, who soon opened the first house of prayer. According to the 1897 all Russia census there were 1 541 Tatars living in Latvian parts of the Russian empire. 920 of them served in the Russian army. There were also small amount Bashkirs and Kyrgyzs who also served in the army. 3/4 of the local Muslims were illiterates and mostly were peasants. The Muslim soldiers after the end of duty headed back to home. Some few tens of Muslim civilians lived here permanently who mostly were small time traders. 564 Tatars lived in Daugavpils that had major Russian war fortification’s. On 1913 510 Muslims mostly soldiers  lived in Riga and close areas. Most of them lived in Moscow District in Riga and mainly spoke in Tatar or Turkish. According to their reports on 1914 their congregation had 1000 members. However, if excluding the temporary soldiers the Muslim community in Riga and elsewhere was much smaller.

The First World war made most members of the Muslim community to leave Latvia. The imam Ibragim Davidov who was promoted  mullah left Riga on 1917 after Germans captured Riga. Because Russia entered war against Ottoman Empire, there were repressions against few of the Turks. Turkish Bakeries were closed in Rīga and one Turkish house owner was arrested. During the War for Independence some Tatars previously fighting for the Red Army were conscripted into Latvian Armed forces. Around 25 Tatars served in the Latvian army up to 1920. Some of the Muslims came back to Latvia after the end of the war. The Latvian army even issued order for few of the Muslim soldiers to give holidays during Kurban Bayrami (Eid al-Adha)  celebrations. On April 1920 Tatar Hassan Haretdinov-Konikov  came to Riga from Finland and tried to acquire the objects belonging to Riga House of Prayer. He insisted all the Muslims of Riga have relocated to Finland. The 24 consecrated carpets and Quran  was not given to him by Latvian authorities because the Riga congregation was not legally closed and its members might come back. Then Hassan Haretdinov-Konikov unsuccessfully pleaded to the Ministry of Justice to build Mosque in Riga.

On July 1920 the Riga Muslim Council elected Turkish cafeteria-bakery owner  Shakir Husnetdinov as deputy imam. On 1928 he was officially appointed by Latvian Spiritual affairs council as permanent imam of Riga. The prayers and ceremonies were held in the imams apartment at the Marijas street 48. Although Hustedinov was not allowed to register marriages despite many pleas to the Latvian authorities. On 1920 there were 115 Tatars and 19 Turks. There were 130 registered Muslim men (2 of them Latvians) and 32 woman. On 1925 census 9 Poles were registered as Muslims. On 1935 just 66 Muslims were counted in the last national census before world war. The Riga congregation had only 42 members left. 39 Tatars, 28 Turks, 17 Persians, and 1 Syrian were counted in the census. Comparing to other minorities such as Jews who were 4% of the state population the Muslim minority in Latvia was overly marginal.

On 1940 Soviets occupied Latvia. Some of the Muslims were repressed. Tatar Abdula Husnetdin disappeared. One Tatar of noble ancestry was arrested in hotel “Roma” cafeteria and tried to poison himself to avoid arrest. The Nazi occupation did not make remaining Muslims flee. on 1943 40 Tatars and 35 Turks were registered  by Nazi authorities. Some of them were prisoners of war from the Red Army. Germans also brought some Tatars to Latvia for work.  Mullah Shakir Husnetdinov continued to serve as leader of the community. As the soviets came back most members of the interwar community left Latvia including  Shakir Husnetdinov. Trader Alimzhan Husnetdin with his Latvian wife spent first post war years in Latvian refugee camp in West Germany. Almost all original interwar Latvian Muslim community was lost, only few remained.

The new wave of Muslim immigrants emerged during Soviet occupation and was part of the overall influx of the immigrants from the Soviet Union. First who came after the war were retired Soviet soldiers and officers with their family. Few of the Crimean Tatars who were deported on 1944 after being rehabilitated moved to their army relatives in Latvia. On 1959 census there were 1 811 Tatars, also people from soviet Central Asian republics and Caucasus came.   The number of the Tatars grew steadily: on 1970 2 671, on 1979 3 764, on 1989- 3 168. New Azeri and Chechen communities emerged along with those of Central Asia. One part of them were Russianized, spoke Russian and had abandoned the Muslim traditions.   Others still kept their identity and traditions. Crimean Tatar Refat Chubarov was a long time director of the Latvian State Archive. Currently he is a Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People and lives in exile after Russian occupation of Crimea.

The religious practice in many cases were kept unofficially as the soviet authorities regarding  religious organizations issued restrictive measures. There were now official house of prayers, rituals were carried out in private apartments.  On 1958 the mother of Riga Muslim Congregational council chairman Rufiya Sheviryova who was member of the Jēkabpils district soviet managed to establish a Muslim Cemetery in the Jēkabpils next to Jewish cemetery. Before that the Muslims were laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery causing protests.

After the regain of independence many Muslims left Latvia for their ethnic homelands. The size of Tatars dropped from 3 168 in 1989 to 2 164 in 2011. 2765 Azeris lived in Latvia on 1989 but dropped to more a half four years later. Large numbers of Crimean Tatars returned to Crimea. Remaining Tatars and Azeris have established cultural societies. The “Ideļ” for Tatars and “Azeri” for Azeris.  The Chechen Diaspora became active because of Chechen War of Independence. Their representatives tried to convince Latvian authorities to recognize the Republic of Chechnya and open its embassy albeit unsuccessfully. The “Chechen Mafia” scare has been present in Latvia, as some Chechen businessman have been accused of criminal actions. They also been attributed to have political influence on some of the Latvian political parties. However, none of the Caucasian Muslim communities have ever posed serious threat to Latvian state and society.

 As Latvia became member of EU, some sparked fear of the influx of economical immigrants from Turkey and other Muslim lands. That did not happen, most representatives of the Middle East  states are foreign exchange students and small number of permanent settlers. In recent years illegal immigrants who  crossed Latvian-Russian or Latvian-Belarusian border from various countries as Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Pakistan, Syria and others have been living in detention centers. Small numbers of them have asked for permanent stay in Latvia, as they view Latvia as transit point to other EU countries.  They have general problems learning Latvian and find work. If the state is considering to settle immigrants currently displaced in other EU countries, serious considerations needs to be taken of how to integrate them, teach Latvian language and involve them in to jobs. Permanent living in migrant center and constant living on small state benefits will cause long therm problems.

The presence of Islam as religion in Latvia has been so far mostly invisible. The only House of prayers are located in  Rīga, Brīvības street 104.   First Muslim congregation in Riga was Ideļ established on 1993.  Muslim congregations were established also in Jēkabpils and Daugavpils. The Riga Imam since 1997 is Tatar Midhat Satdanov. There is 15 Muslim congregations in Latvia with no united umbrella organization. On 2005 the Lebanese Christian Arab doctor Hosam Abu Meri established Latvian Arab Center who unites the members of the Latvian Arabs, who are around 120 people currently in Latvia as claimed by the center webpage.  On 2011 The Latvian Islamic Center was established with Zufars Zainullin as the chairman. On 2013 he was replaced by Imran Oleg Petrov. 2015 he was replaced by Hamza Jānis Līciņs. The members and visitors of this center is mostly foreign students and Latvian convertees. The number of ethnic Latvians converted to Islam is small, but some of these members consider them more religious then their native Muslim counterparts.

The influence of the Muslim culture on Latvian  nation has increased in last two decades. The Kebab shops are common sight in Riga, Middle Eastern motives can be seen in Latvian music and art. There is fairly common interest in Islamic culture. The University of Latvia has opened Asian Study Chamber with the leading expert on Islamic culture professor Leons Taivāns.  The Holy book of Quran has been translated twice in Latvian. Egypt and Turkey are common tourist routes for Latvians. Generally Latvians are no stranger to Islamic culture. There also been many cases of mixed marriages and international contacts. However, the ongoing war on terrorism and recent refugee crisis has sparked the rise of islamophobia within Latvian society.  Fear that terrorist acts that took place in Europe may take place in Latvia, fear from more immigrants of unknown culture have divided the Latvian society. The division is also boosted by far right nationalistic party who is in the government.

Latvia has always been a multicultural country. The history shows that Muslims were rather marginal and silent part of the diverse nations in Latvia. It could stay like this or is about to change. The historic Muslims in Latvia where Turks and Tatars and Caucasians. The tides of history may bring numbers of newcomers from Middle East a region that Latvia yet has very low connection. Latvian society has been tolerant and accepting and xenophobic at the same time. Muslims in Western Europe went trough decades to integrate and its apparent that full integration has not yet taken place. For Latvia it will take tens of more years. Currently Latvian society is not ready for new influx of newcomers from Muslim world. So if Latvia do face such new of migration it will be one of the grandest challenges of our times. Lets us remind however, that looking back at Latvian-non-Latvian relations; the relations where not without issues and misunderstandings, but always common ground was reached between the two sides. Latvians must accept Muslims, but Muslims despite our cultural distances must accept Latvians and their way of life. This is the life long challenge for all of us.

Selected Sources:

Valters Ščerbinskis. Ienācēji no tālienes: Austrumu un dienvidu tautu pārstāvju Latvijā no 19. gadsimta beigām līdz mūsdienām. http://providus.lv/article_files/1111/original/Ienaceji.pdf?1326908271

Inga Reča. Islāms Latvijā. http://apollo.tvnet.lv/zinas/islams-latvija/289138

Valters Ščerbinskis. Islāma vēsture Latvijā. http://www.islam.lv/lv/islam_in_latvia/history/

Islāmticīgie Latvijā – kas un kādi viņi ir? http://www.ir.lv:889/2015/10/20/islamticigie-latvija-kas-un-kadi-vini-ir

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