by Roy Bar Sadeh, Yale University

In May 1930, al-Manar (‘The Lighthouse’),[i] a Cairo-based monthly, published a letter from the headquarters of the “Independence Committee of the Idel-Ural” (ICOI). Signed by the ICOI and crafted by Ğayaz İsxaqıy (also known as Möxämmätğayaz İsxaqıy; 1878-1924), a Mishar Tatar who escaped the Soviet Union to Western Europe in 1920, the letter decried Soviet repressions against Muslims. It read as follows:

‘And now, the Russian nation has begun to assemble around fundamentalist communism in the same way as it once assembled around fanatical Christianity. [This communism] seeks to make greater Russia communist and to insert thirty million Muslims into the new Leninist religion. It wants to cut [Russian Muslims] off from their thousand-years-old religion and Islamic customs and thus it demolishes the Muslim communities who live there and destroys their Muslim civilization. [Oh] the world of Islam! No Muslim land, either politically independent or under the rule of any European government, has ever witnessed such oppression as that in Russia.’[ii]

Commenting on the letter, the editor of al-Manar, the Ottoman-Syrian-born Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935),condemned what he perceived as the international indifference to the Soviet attack against Islam. He argued that Russian Muslims “have moved from the tyranny of the [Russian] emperors to the tyranny of bolshevism, which outmatches the former in its cruelty and power of enslavement.”[iii] While Rida had initially considered the Soviet state as a possible ally against Anglo-British colonial expansion in the post-Ottoman Arab states, he now viewed the Soviet Union as an ever more vicious enemy of Muslims worldwide.

However circuitously, the letter gestured at the notion of “minority rights,” deeming  Muslims in the Soviet Union a persecuted group in need of international protection from the Soviet state’s violation of their cultural and religious rights (huquq). It was no mere coincidence that the letter gestured at “minority rights,” a category internationalized after World War I via the Geneva-based League of Nations’ (LON; 1919-46) “Minority Protection Treaties.” These treaties gave minorities, mainly in the new Central and Eastern European ethnonational states, the right to petition the LON in instances where the states to which they were subject violated their cultural or religious rights. However, the LON never universally implemented the treaties. Implementation still largely depended on the “goodwill” of Britain and France, in accordance with their particular imperial interests.

My interest in the ICOI’s plea to protect the rights of Soviet Muslims is not simply a function of its connection to the history of the LON’s “Minority Protection Treaties.” In fact, the ICOI’s letter did not define Soviet Muslims as an aqaliyya (“minority”), the term which became during the interwar period the common Arabic word for defining a numerically small community or group requiring the protection of the state or international bodies. Rather, it is ICOI’s lack of utilization of “minority” and its members’ attempt to circumvent the LON’s “protection,” while indirectly engaging with the principle of “minority rights,” that demands our attention.  But what kind of international mechanism of “minority rights” did the authors of the letter have in mind?

By focusing on this moment in the early 1930s, I would like to explore how the activism of Soviet muhajirs (“emigrants”; a term employed to describe Muslims who fled the Soviet state) intersected with the global moment of “minority rights” in the transnational Arabic press. I suggest that highlighting muhajirs’ activismcan reveal new insights about their contribution to various regional global debates about “minority rights” and its alternatives.

But first, some context. The 1917 October Revolution and the ensuing Russian Civil War (1918-1921) triggered an international refugee crisis. Between one and 3.5 million people fled former Tsarist territory to various regions across the globe.[iv] Tagged as “Russian refugees,” these displaced peoples included not only Russians, but also Armenians, Ukrainians, Latvians, Georgians, Lithuanians, Muslims (e.g., Tatars, Bashkiris, Turkmans, Turkestanis), Jews, and others.[v] Refugee” became the common term for displaced populations, though “refugees” themselves rarely used the moniker.[vi] The Nansen Passport (1922-1938) emerged as the first travel document for stateless people. Named after Fridtjof Nansen, the High Commissioner for Refugees, this travel document was created by the LON following the Soviet state’s decision in 1922 to revoke the citizenship of the nearly one million people who fled its territories.[vii]

            Scholars have extensively researched the history of Jews and Russians who fled the Soviet state, but much less about other groups, such as the muhajirs. The latterhave beenmainly studied through case studies from interwar Afghanistan and Turkey (two main sites of refuge) and the Arabian Peninsula, a key center for scholarly networks from both Soviet and Chinese-controlled Central Asia.[viii] While this important scholarship explores questions of religious revival, scholarly exchanges, memory, nation-building, and Pan-Turkism, I would like to suggest that there was also an international legal aspect to this history. In fact, the history of “minority rights” came to be entangled with the multifaceted history of Soviet muhajirs.

            To demonstrate this point, I would now like to turn to the Jerusalem General Islamic Congress of 1931, which so far has been studied primarily by historians of the Middle East and the British Empire. The Congress was initiated by Haj al-Amin Husayni (the Mufti of Jerusalem) and Shaukat ʿAli (the leader of the mass South Asian movement of the AIKC—the All-India Khilafat Committee). Drawing 130 delegates from 22 political entities that spanned from the Indian subcontinent to the Balkans, the congress primarily aimed to mobilize transnational Muslim support to protect Muslim holy sites in Palestine amidst increasing Zionist activities in Jerusalem. Yet scholars have shown that the congress also addressed other issues, such as the Hijaz Railway and the establishment of an international Islamic University in Jerusalem.

Consider the aforementioned Ğayaz İsxaqıy. İsxaqıy attended the congress alongside two other prominent muhajirs, the Tatar Muslim scholar and globetrotter Musa Jarullah Bigiev (1875-1949) and the Avar anti-Soviet leader Saʿid Shamil (1901-1981). Bigiev represented the Muslims of East Turkistan and Finland—two regions he was tied to through various scholarly networks—in the conference. As for Shamil, he was the grandson of the renowned anti-colonial leader from Dagestan, Imam Shamil.

            Hardly passive participants, the trio sought to use the congress to inspire awareness about—and activism to improve the conditions of—co-religionists in the Soviet Union. İsxaqıy encapsulates this goal. In 1931, he published from Jerusalem a 16-page pamphlet in Arabic, which he entitled “An important message to the General Islamic Congress in Jerusalem about the State of the Muslims in Russia.” The pamphlet framed Muslims across the Volga-Urals, Turkistan, Crimea, and the Caucasus as peoples subject to ongoing Tsarist and Soviet (he defined both as “Russian”) violence.[ix] Yet İsxaqıy saw the late 1920s as unprecedented in the geographical span and severity of the atrocities. He described the closures of mosques and Islamic seminaries, the mass imprisonment and deportation of Muslim scholars, the banning of religious publications, and other atheist forms of oppression.

            In light of Soviet actions, İsxaqıy recounted how he and fellow muhajirs from the Volga-Ural region sought to raise international concerns about the plight of their Soviet co-religionists. However, he lamented that such activism only stirred European newspapers and political and religious leaders. He noted sadly:

‘Neither the King of the Hijaz [and Najd], his highness and protector of the two holy cities [of Mecca and Medina], Ibn-Saʿud, nor the religious scholars of al-Azhar and other parts of the world, listened to the wailing of 30 million Muslims [in the Soviet Union] or provided them with any moral support.’[x]

            In part, as he argued, this was because the Soviets hid their crimes by “sparing [some] mosques in its big cities, such as [St.] Petersburg, Kharkiv, and Moscow.” The illusion of active religious life in these sites, İsxaqıy contended, caused Muslim visitors and diplomats to assume that the rights of Muslims in the Soviet republics were protected.

The global Muslim public, İsxaqıy argued, had to act. He was adamant about the need for Muslims to model their activism on that of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Catholic Pope who, he claimed, had tempered Soviet policies against Christian rituals and clerics. With this in mind, he held that Muslim-majority sovereign states bore direct responsibility for the fate of their oppressed co-religionaries.

            This position had historical precedents from the late nineteenth century, to be sure. The Ottoman Empire had positioned itself—amidst increasing European interventions on behalf of Ottoman Christians—as the protector of all Muslims, for example.[xi] However, İsxaqıy’s position was also rooted in the context of his time. In an interview with the Jerusalem-based Palestinian daily al-Jamiʿa al-ʿArabiyya (1927-36) in 1932, he warned readers not to put their trust in European powers. He warned his readers that the European powers plotted to instrumentalize the nakba (catastrophe or disaster) of Soviet Muslims. As he claimed, these powers propagated that the example of Soviet Muslims proves that Muslims are better off under colonial rule or “trusteeship.”[xii]

            İsxaqıy’s criticism made little change, however. Muslim sovereign countries, such as the Saudi state[xiii] and Afghanistan, did not make serious moves to improve the state of Soviet Muslims, even if they accepted thousands of muhajirs into their territories. Eventually, as İsxaqıy claimed, it was only muhajirsactivism in European capitals that helped to reopen a small number of mosques in the Volga-Urals and allow the return of a few exiled imams to the region.[xiv]

            İsxaqıy’s activism in Jerusalem did play a role in transforming the views ofsome major Muslim thinkers in the post-Ottoman Arab Middle East. The Ottoman Syrian-born Druze prince Shakib Arslan (1869-1946) is a case in point. Known for his anti-colonial activism and prolific writing, the latter visited the Soviet Union twice during the 1920s. Arslan, like the aforementioned Rida, had initially considered Moscow as an ally against the Anglo-French colonial order in the Middle East and lauded the erudition in Islamic sciences and classical Arabic he saw among Tatar Muslims in Moscow. Recanting these views in 1932, Arslan now lauded İsxaqıy for informing the participants of the Congress in Jerusalem about Soviet crimes against Muslims. He contended that these Soviet policies of the late 1920s were similar to those adopted by Britain, Italy, and France in their colonial possessions. He concluded that Bolshevism could not be harmonized with Islam. Identifying Soviet policies as the tyranny of the majority, he remarked that Islam alone is capable of balancing peacefully the inequalities between rich and poor.[xv]

            Arslan’s statements demonstrate the scope of Soviet muhajirs’ activism and its role in mobilizing transnational support from major Arab intellectuals. Like İsxaqıy, Arslan feared that European colonial powers would turn the plea to protect the rights of Soviet Muslims into a discursive instrument for deepening their control over the Middle East. Therefore, instead of relying on colonial support, both İsxaqıy and Arslan sought to create an alternative Muslim international activism to transcend the League’s mechanisms. After all, the interwar history of “minority rights” was not only about the great power politics and protection of certain rights but also about the recovering and reclaiming of agency by minorities themselves.

[i] I would like to thank Paolo Sartori, Thomas Welsford, and Taylor Zajicek for their insightful comments and editorial suggestions.

[ii] For the complete article, see Muhmmad Rashid Rida, “ahwal muslimi al-russiyya”, al-Manar 31 (May 1930): 70-75.

[iii]  Ibid., 75.

[iv] For example, see Claudena M. Skran, Refugees in Inter-War Europe: The Emergence of a Regime (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 33, 62 (footnote no. 9).

[v] See, for example, Ibid., 31-41; Sara Koplik, “The Demise of Afghanistan's Jewish Community and the Soviet Refugee Crisis (1932- 1936), Iranian Studies 36, no. 3 (2003): 353-379; Peter Gatrell, A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia during World War I (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 193-194.

[vi] Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” in The Jewish Writings, 264-274.

[vii] William E. Conklin, Statelessness: The Enigma of International Law (Oxford: Bloomsbury, 2014), 104 [footnote no. 45].

[viii] See, for example, the post by Filip Khusnutdinov:

[ix] Ğayaz İsxaqıy, Risala Kkhatira ila al-muʾatamar al-Islami al-ʿaam al-munʿakid fir Bayt al-Maqdas ʿan al-Muslimin fi al-Rusia (Jerusalem: Matba’at Dar al-Aytam, December 1931). I do not have information on whether the pamphlet was originally written in Arabic or not. One, however, can assume that it was translated from Turkish or Tatar as most of İsxaqıy’s writings are not in Arabic. I thank Or Pitusi for sending me a scanned copy of this pamphlet.

[x] Ibid., 14.

[xi] For two recent studies on Late-Ottoman engagement with International Law, see Michael Christopher Low, Imperial Mecca: The Ottoman Hijaz and the Indian Ocean Hajj (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020); Lâle Can, Spiritual Subjects: Central Asian Pilgrims and the Ottoman Hajj at the End of Empire (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020).

[xii]  Ğayaz İsxaqıy, “al-Islam wa al-Bulshafiyya,” al-Jamiʿa al-ʿArabiyya (May 26, 1931): 1.

[xiii] Saudi Arabia only ceased its relations with Moscow in 1938.

[xiv] İsxaqıy, Risala, 15. It is, however, difficult to assess the exact impact of muhajir activism on Soviet domestic policies and further research is needed to verify it.

[xv] Shakib Arslan, Mufakiru al-Islam lam yatasamahu maʿa al-Bulshafa lakin al-istiʿamar al-Gharbi al-ghashim kana aʿzam, al-Jamiʿa al-ʿArabiyya (March 7, 1932): 1,4