From [Self]Humiliation to Dignity: the Discourse of the Muslim Tatars of the Russian Empire of the Early Twentieth Century (As Covered by the Journal “Shura” (1908–1917))

The periodical press of the Muslim Tatars of the Volga-Urals region of the Russian Empire, which was being published between the two revolutions of 1905 and 1917, was a social mechanism that allowed geographically dispersed communities of the Muslims of Russia to organize a platform for public discussions of various urgent contemporary issues. The newspaper “Waqyt” and its supplement journal “Shura” connected with the name of Rizaetdin Fakhretdin (1859–1936) who was a prominent publicist, scholar, theologian, public figure and future mufti of the Soviet Republic, became such a platform for discussion of various issues.

One of the main problems of that time the authors of the journal “Shura” saw in the humiliated situation of the Muslims around the world. By the beginning of the twentieth century part of the Muslim Tatars of the Russian Empire had already had the opportunity to move around the territory of Russia itself and different regions of the Ottoman Empire, Western Europe and the Americas, comparing the living conditions of the Muslims in different regions of Russia (the Volga-Urals region, Crimea, Central Asia, the Caucasus) with the state of affairs in Muslim and non-Muslim communities. At the same time there was also a kind of time travel. So, for example, there was a comparison of modernity with the first centuries of Islam, about which the collective memory brought the best memories: the Muslims had not yet drowned in stagnation and ‘asabiyyah (the term used by Ibn Khaldun to refer to the links within one community, which in turn are strong in the nomadic period of society and are weak in the imperial one) of the Muslim community of the first centuries of Islam had not yet suffered; on the contrary, in state affairs, military affairs, science Muslims were superior to Europeans, comparison with whom then was one of the main ways of knowing themselves.

Trying to find their place in the “coordinate system” of peoples / nations (milletler), the authors of the journal “Shura” divided them according to the principle of attitude toward progress (taraqqi): “we” are backward and they” are developed nations. The backward nations, where, in most cases, Muslims in general, and Muslims of the Russian Empire in particular, were included, were in a humiliated situation. Speaking about the humiliation, it should be emphasized that the authors of the Tatar Muslim periodical press first of all discussed the financial and economic humiliation, the backwardness” in the issues of education and upbringing of the new generation as a reason for the humiliation of Muslims, the backwardness” and humiliation of women in the family and society, avoiding political topics. As Avishai Margalit notes, humiliation is more easily recognized than respect. This thesis explains that the authors of the articles primarily described specific areas in which the humiliation of contemporary Muslims was manifested. The solution of a set of social problems was to lead the Muslims out of a humiliated situation. In this connection, the authors considered the experience of the developed” peoples to be important in the movement towards a society of dignity. The nations of Western Europe, North and South America, and also, in some cases, the inhabitants of Istanbul, were usually referred to as the developed” peoples (when it was appropriate to oppose the Muslims of Russia and the Muslims of certain provinces of the Ottoman Empire in some issues).

Interestingly, when speaking of the humiliation of Muslims, the authors often meant self-abasement, namely, they considered their own humiliation as a result of their own actions. And only occasionally, referring to the political and economic humiliation of foreign Muslims, the actions of developed” peoples were also considered to be the reasons for this state of affairs.

Criticism of the old, backward”, humiliated and special interest in the new, progressive” and dignified in the lives of other Muslims was due to the fact that at the beginning of the 20th century the Muslim Tatars of the Russian Empire experienced extensive socioeconomic and cultural reforms that were based on criticism of Old, and were interested in the new experience of solving similar social problems by other Muslims. Thus, the perception of Islam, both their own and the other, was realized through the prism of the dichotomy the old [that is to be destroyed] and the new [that should be built]”.