Islam Around the World: The Baltic States
The Baltic states are three countries in northern Europe located along the coast of the Baltic Sea from the Gulf of Finland (Finland) to the Bay of Gdansk (Poland), namely Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. On the land side, they border on Russia and Belarus while in the north Lithuania is adjoined by the Russian Kaliningrad region and Poland. Muslims constitute a minority of the population in these countries (on average, no more than half a percent in each country, and in Estonia a tenth of a percent), however, the Muslim community plays an active social role and is noticeable in the public life of the Baltic countries. Most of the Muslims in the Baltic regions belong to the Hanafi madhhab of Sunni Islam, however, there are also a small number of Shiites. The relations between all Muslims in the Baltic countries are peaceful and open, for example, this finds ample testimony in Estonia, where there is not a single mosque and prayer meetings have to be held in private premises where Sunnis and Shiites pray together, a fact impossible to imagine anywhere else in the world.
A common distinguishing feature of the Muslims of the Baltic countries, as well as of the whole of Europe, is that the majority of their Muslim population are representatives of the indigenous Muslim peoples who migrated to Europe for one reason or another. In Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, such people are Tatars. Another feature for the Baltic states and Europe is the growing number of newly converted representatives of European nationalities, and often Muslims of European descent occupy leading roles in communities and Muslim organizations. And finally, the Muslims of Europe are distinguished by their openness and peacefulness in relation to the rest of the citizens of the countries where they live, for they feel themselves part of the nation of their country and share their social and cultural values.
In Lithuania, the main ethnic composition of Muslims is represented by the Lithuanian Tatars. They moved to Lithuania in the 15th century CE. Back then the Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas took into service the Tatars from the Golden Horde and the Crimea which at the time had borders reaching the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, who fled to Lithuania together with the remnants of Mamai’s troops defeated in Russia, gave them land and entrusted the protection of the borders of his principality to them. The Tatars carried out military service in Lithuania, the regiments of the Lithuanian Tatars were in the army of Napoleon and in the Russian army. Tatars eventually stopped using the Tatar language and completely switched to Lithuanian. Lithuanian Tatars still revere the Grand Duke Vytautas (1350-1430) as their patron. A mosque in Kaunas is named after him; a monument to him stands in the village of Raiziai, 70 km south of Kaunas, a place of compact settlement of the Lithuanian Tatars. In 1995, the Lithuanian government recognized Islam as one of the country’s traditional religions. Since then, the Lithuanian Muftiate has received financial support from the state. The Lithuanian muftiate, headed by Mufti Romas Yakubauskas (Ramazan Yakupoglu), is carrying out a great deal of educational and book publishing work in the country.
In Latvia, the Muslim community was formed after Turkish soldiers taken prisoner by the Russian army after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Plevna in 1877 were deported here. Many of them remained to live in Latvia and founded the Muslim community that still exists today. In Soviet times, Tatars and Chechens also moved here. In Latvia, a country with a population of 2 million people, 10,000 of whom are Muslims, there are 15 Muslim public organizations. The whole country knows such figures as Imants Kalnins, a famous composer who converted to Islam in 2012 and translated the Holy Quran into Latvian, journalist Robert Klimoviç, who converted to Islam from Catholicism, and Imam Oleg Petrov, who converted to Islam from Orthodoxy, as well as the Mufti of Latvia of Tatar origin Zufar Zainulin.
Estonians have long remained idolaters. In the 13th century CE, the German Teutonic Order attempted to forcibly Christianize the Estonians, but the country’s population remained apathetic towards the new religion. At the end of the 19th century, Tatars began to settle in the Narva region, and in the 1990s of the 20th century, Azerbaijanis and Chechens moved here. They formed the modern Muslim community in Estonia. Despite its small size, the Muslim community is actively preaching Islam among Estonians, opening public Islamic organizations, and establishing ties with Arab countries. The Mufti of Estonia Ildar Muhametşin hopes that with their help (in particular, with the help of Saudi Arabia) it will be possible to implement the plan to build a mosque in Estonia.