Islamic Justice through Nonviolence: Mustafa Dzhemilev and the National Movement of Crimean Tatars

Mustafa Dzhemilev. Westerners rarely associate public Islam with nonviolent political movements. Nevertheless, Muslims have a long history of peacefully working for social change. The Chisti Sufi order has pursued pacifism and social justice for centuries. Gandhi’s right-hand-man, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, is far less celebrated than his Hindu counterpart. Sénégal’s non-violent revolutionary leader, Amadou Bamba, is rarely discussed in the West. Groups such as the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights work tirelessly for peace and social justice yet are constantly overshadowed by militants and suicide bombers. Now, with the Winter Olympics being staged in Sochi, Russia, global attention is on Chechnya and Dagestan, Islamist separatist regions 280 miles away. A mere 200 miles from the Olympic games, however, is the Crimean peninsula, home to Mustafa Dzhemilev, one of the most remarkable and least known heroes of Islamic nonviolence.

Mustafa Dzhemilev has been the leader of the National Movement of Crimean Tatars since 1989 and of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People since 1998. He was among the nearly 200,000 ethnic Crimean Tatars exiled by Stalin to central Asia under false pretext in 1944. As the catalyst behind the Crimean Tatar National Movement, Dzhemilev has remained committed to the principle of absolute nonviolence. He has endured arrests, imprisonments, and exiles and has resisted his adversaries through hunger strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, international publicity, and tireless political campaigning. Under his leadership the Crimean Tatars—who constitute an ethnic (Tatar) and religious (Muslim) minority on the Crimean Peninsula—have recovered a number of basic human rights.

In fact, Dzhemilev was formally nominated to receive the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize and has won numerous other humanitarian awards. He now focuses on a range of issues confronting Crimean Tatars, including Crimean-language education, Muslim religious rights, social and political discrimination, restoration of lands, preservation of ethnic identity, healing in the aftermath of the deadly Soviet cleansing, and the continued diaspora of many tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars. In Dzhemilev’s words, the movement has made surprising progress: “My biggest dream was to die in freedom, not to be buried with a [bullet] in my head. I didn’t believe much that I [would] return [from exile to Crimea].” At the same time, Dzhemilev believes that there is still an equality gap that begs nonviolent political and social action until the realization of the “complete return of the Crimean Tatar people to its historical motherland and restoration of its rights.”


On May 18, 1944, Joseph Stalin initiated the Sürgün—the forced deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar population to Central Asia under the pretext that some Crimean Tatar leaders had been collaborating with the German Third Reich. In reality, Stalin expelled the Crimean Tatars in order to ensure that ethnic Russians constituted a majority on the peninsula, an agenda that the Kremlin has maintained even following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Historians estimate that between 20 and 50 percent of the deposed Crimean Tatars perished either during the deportation or within a year thereof. In 1961, Dzhemilev co-founded the Association of Crimean Tatar Youth, which six years and numerous arrests later would realize the Supreme Soviet Council’s retraction of the deportation decree, conceded to have included “unwarranted indictments hastily extended to the entire Tatar population of Crimea.” The struggle for repatriation continues to this day, and Dzhemilev has been the face of the movement for half a century. Today, roughly half of the Crimean Tatar population resides in Crimea (where they make up 12 percent of the population compared with 58 percent Russians and 24 percent Ukrainians) while the majority of the diaspora lives in Uzbekistan. Both within and outside of Crimea, the Crimean Tatars suffer from disproportionate levels of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and harassment.

Dzhemilev in Exile

Mustafa Dzhemilev was not immune to the injustices committed against the Crimean Tatar people, having spent approximately 15 years in prison camps for alleged crimes against the Soviet state. While in exile in Uzbekistan, he frequently led boycotts, marches, conscientious objection, and other nonviolent displays of noncooperation. While in prison for this dissent, he often protested his detention with obstinate hunger strikes (one famously lasting 303 days during which he was kept alive through force-feeding). His movement had two stated objectives: “to return Crimean Tatars to their homeland and to regain the autonomy Crimea had before 1945.” After Dzhemilev’s 1986 release (mediated by Ronald Reagan) from a hard labor prison camp, Dzhemilev ensured that he and 250,000 other Crimean Tatars were able to return to their ancestral homeland. The principled resistance which characterized Dzhemilev’s advocacy in Uzbekistan continued when he moved to Ukraine, and his nonviolent methods immediately caught the attention of the local Soviets to whom such a methodology was completely foreign. Political historian Kurtmolla Abdulganiyev notes of the Crimean Tatar National Movement that, “in the history of the USSR, the movement stands out for its dedication to the principle of non-violence, the consistency and duration of its struggle for minority rights, and its unique institutional framework.” As a result of Dzhemilev’s vision of peace through justice, Abdulganiyev further comments that, “Crimean Tatars [were] the only Soviet nationality, which, through the process of defending its rights, developed a democratic, quasi-parliamentary system of self-government and political representation.”

Dissolution of the Soviet Union

Dzhemilev has identified a number of factors that he believes point to the continuing injustice experienced by Crimean Tatars following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Of primary concern is the large Crimean Tatar population still in exile in Uzbekistan and Russia and the difficult path to Ukrainian citizenship for those who do return to Crimea. Another issue confronting Crimean Tatars is the problem of so-called samozakhvats—Crimean people who either cannot afford housing or cannot obtain legal permits to construct their own homes and therefore illegally squat on unoccupied lands. The fourth problem on which Dzhemilev focuses is that of cultural attrition, which takes place in the dimensions of religion, political representation, and language. The number of mosques in Crimea has decreased by more than 90 percent from the roughly 1,500 which existed during the height of the Crimean Khanate. Furthermore, those mosques that do remain are increasingly the targets of radical extremists (such as the Khyzb ut-Takhrir) who seek to replace Crimean Tatar mullahs and imams with reactionary Islamists. The Ukrainian press also stigmatizes the Crimean Tatar religiosity, frequently conjuring vague and sensationalized warnings that the Crimean Tatars comprise an unchecked Muslim population with militant aspirations that threaten to turn Crimea into Ukraine’s Chechnya.

In addition to a struggle for religious identity, Crimean Tatars face the challenge of marginal enfranchisement and political representation. Though they comprise more than 12 percent of the Crimean population, they hold only 4 percent of governmental administrative positions. Dzhemilev seeks to increase Crimean Tatar participation in both Crimean and Ukrainian politics through his role as Chairman of the Mejlis, an unofficial civil structure which claims authority over all Crimean Tatars and which functions as an intermediary between its constituents and the Ukrainian administration. Additionally, Dzhemilev advocates for the human rights of Crimean Tatars and other oppressed minorities from his seat on the Verkhovna Rada, or Ukrainian parliament.

Another crucial element in the preservation of Crimean Tatar ethnic identity is the survival of the Crimean Tatar language. UNESCO classifies the language, which was an official tongue in Crimea prior to the 1944 deportation, as being on the verge of extinction. Dzhemilev claims that 90 percent of Crimean Tatar children attend Russian-language schools and that even in the few Crimean Tatar schools instruction in Crimean Tatar is rare. According to Dzhemilev, “A total [linguistic] Russification is going on.” He asks what value there is in return from exile if the culture is not preserved: “If we are doomed to lose our identity on our land and to become Russians, why did we come back and become victims of our struggle?”

Mustafa Dzhemilev has devoted his entire adult life to the nonviolent project of rehabilitating Crimean Tatars in the peninsula. It is doubtful that the movement would have accomplished so much, and with the complete absence of organized violence, had it not been for Dzhemilev’s visionary leadership.

Assessment and Future Potential

Though Dzhemilev is approaching retirement, his legacy is still being forged. He has employed countless nonviolent strategies, individual and collective, in seeking justice for the Crimean Tatars. He has been an outspoken political advocate for countless minority groups and is known for humanizing even ‘enemy’ majority opponents. Due to his sacrifice and his commitment to democracy, peacebuilding, and justice, hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars now reside in Ukraine. At the same time, an enormous diaspora remains in Uzbekistan, those who do live in Crimea face blatant discrimination and bleak economic conditions, and the very cultural identity of Crimean Tatars is threatened by Russian policy, Ukrainian pressure, and Islamicist co-option. Clearly there is more to be done, but fortunately the National Movement of Crimean Tatars is committed firmly to the irreducibility of nonviolence and justice. In the words of Mustafa Dzhemilev, “When violent means are used innocent people die, and no just cause can justify the taking of innocent lives.”