Mr. Krganov, do you think that Russian Muslims should also hold a trust experiment like the one done by Muslims in London and Paris?

- The experiment in London was staged by Muslim students from a local university. They were inspired by a similar stunt in Paris when a Muslim blindfolded himself and asked passersby to hug him if they trust he is no terrorist. ‘I’m Muslim and I trust you. Do you trust me enough for a hug?

The video had more than 15 million views. Dozens of Parisians hugged the guy, some even cried. It came as response to growing Islamophobia after the Paris terror act on November 13 when militants shot dead more than a hundred people. Afterwards the man, who has not been identified, lifted up his blindfold and said: "I would like to thank every one of you for giving me a hug. "I'm a Muslim, but that doesn't make me a terrorist - I never killed anyone. I feel deeply for all the victims families. I want to tell you 'Muslim' doesn't necessarily mean 'terrorist'."

How old were you when you realized you wanted to become a man of religion? Were you influenced by the family or was it your decision only?

- It was May 11, 1991 when my home village of Shygyrdan unveiled a new mosque where I was honored to read a poem from an ancient book. I had known the prayers before because my grandmother, Fatima, taught me how to pray but it was since that day that I began to attend the mosque regularly. Naturally, my relatives did have some influence over me, too. The early 1990s were marked by a spiritual and religious revival of the country, with new mosques built and opened.

What is your book ‘Some Wahhabi Misperceptions’ about?

- The book brings together some well-known deviations by pseudo-Salafi groups in terms of Islamic teaching as handed down to posterity by imams Abu Mansur al-Maturidi and Ashʿari.

In his book Kitab al-Tauhid, Abu Mansur al-Maturidi looks at Divine Essence, at the Attributes of God affairs of prophethood, the issues of al-qadaa wal-qadar, major sins and their perpetrators.

This year, Saudi Arabia allowed Russia to use the 2015 Hajj quota. Did it mean that the Muslim Religious Board saw many more applications for pilgrimage?

- In 2017, Russia’s Hajj Mission issued Russia’s Muslim Board 500 seats. Thanks to cooperation with the Muslim Religious Board of Tatarstan we organized Hajj for Russian Muslims in a very efficient way. There were many applications but due to quota limits we were not able to accommodate everyone’s bid. But we will continue to offer our services going forward.

It’s the fourth time that you have been appointed to Russia’s Public Chamber. What Islam-related issues come to the foreground most often? Which debate proved most challenging for you personally?

- At the Public Chamber, I serve as deputy chairman of the Commission on harmonizing ties between ethnic and religious groups and also deputy chairman of the Coordination Council on Counter-Terrorism and head of the working group on countering pseudo-Islamic extremism.

We debate and take action on different aspects of religious issues like the headscarf ban in schools and colleges, or extra prayer rooms for migrants, and many others. We deal with petitions from ordinary people and believers. Set up in 2015, the Coordination Council on Counter-Terrorism assists regional authorities, media and fellow members of regional public chambers in identifying and cracking down on terrorist ideology.

We go out to Russia’s regions to hold events and projects together with public interest and youth organizations, law enforcement agencies, legislators and migrant communities. We have drafted guidelines and produced videos on counter-terrorism.

The minds of our people, especially younger ones, are under an unprecedented information attack in terms of their religious beliefs. Some forces are playing on the feelings of religious people, brainwashing their minds. We need to work with other traditional religions to adapt our narrative and find new and effective ways to counter the propaganda of pseudo-religious extremism.

We hold regular debates on these issues with representatives of traditional religions, scholars and experts at the roundtables at the Public Chamber, international conferences, and meetings at the OSCE, UN and CIS working meetings.

Could you tell us about the operations of the working group on countering pseudo-religious extremism?

We have drafted a guidance on how to best counter pseudo-religious extremism and work with religious organizations. We plan to circulate this publication among regional authorities and members of regional public chambers. The working group was also behind another publication, ‘ISIS As A Threat to Humanity’.

Our group’s focus is on methods to fight off attempts to recruit young people in the terrorists’ ranks. Our vision is to generate alternative youth subcultures with a positive agenda as a counterbalance to the evil sects. We need to rely on youth icons like celebrated athletes, popular music performers, and young public figures to define a relevant agenda and overcome the generation gap.

As part of the effort, the Public Chamber held a youth forum on religious diversity and ethnic unity in April 2017. Following the event, we decided to establish a single youth group uniting representatives of several religions called the Inter-Religious Youth Association.

You have three nice children. Will anyone follow in the footsteps?

- My path is not a profession, it is a vocation. It means a person has to make a choice for themselves and it must be a balanced one. It is important, though, that whenever you are you comply with Sharia law and our national culture.

Could you share the details of your recent visit to the US? How was your meeting with the Russian ambassador to the US? What is the relationship between American Muslims and representatives of other religions in the US?

- My working visit to Washington DC was an excellent opportunity to check out what is real and what are myths around Donald Trump’s policy and equality between different ethnic and religious groups.

I would say American Muslims are cautious and are waiting for where things would unfold. They remember Trump’s anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric all too well. Some of the people I talked to, including those who serve in mosques, are afraid to leave the country to go on pilgrimage because they might not be allowed back. Washington mosques simply do not have enough space to accommodate all those who have come for prayer. The Jewish, Catholics and Protestants that I talked to did demonstrate solidary and support for Muslims.

Santa Clara, a place in California, saw a protest when young, middle-aged and elderly people, including believers and non-believers, held their hands in unity around a mosque in an attempt to draw the attention of the local authorities to what they feel is a wrong policy towards Muslims.

I told many people about the attitude to Muslims in Tatarstan, Caucasus, about the newly opened Bolgar Islamic Academy and institutions that support Islamic culture and education. Many people including Imam Muhammad Musri, President of American Islam, a national Muslim organization,  were surprised and even somewhat jealous. One of the local imams told me that they could only dream of such a policy.

Lack of compromise, double standard policy towards ethnic and religious equality without due regard to the moral side of the story, might eventually mean more trouble for the Trump administration.

Geneva recently hosted a roundtable on traditional religions and humanitarian diplomacy in the Syrian crisis under your chairmanship. Do you feel the ground is ready for a peace settlement?

- Syria is one of the bedrocks of our civilization and the birthplace of religions.

The dark forces have been ignoring the negotiations and began using arms and pseudo-religious sects and joined notorious terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS and that led to violence and confrontation.

Today, it is up to the Syrian people to choose their form of governance, to decide whether they want to be ruled by a monarch, president or parliament.

We have had similar experience of fighting extremism (which was not home-grown but brought in from the outside) in Russia’s Caucasus. Russia relied on civil society and state institutions to de-radicalize the region, and this experience could prove handy in resolving the Syria crisis.

Would you agree that Islamophobia has gained ground in public consciousness around the world today? What is being done or is planned to be done to curb or reverse this trend?

- Islamophobia is now invariably linked to terrorism. But this is completely wrong – it is not about Sufism, it is about Islam in general. That’s why we need to launch a massive education campaign to dispel those false stereotypes that exist around Sufis. There are myths because this issue has not been on the radar of researchers and there are many pseudo-mentors who preach bizarre ideas under the disguise of Sufism. In classic Islam, Sufism is invariably linked with religious studies. It has had a long history in our country. Initially, our predecessors accepted Islam from the Prophet Muhammad’s companions (peace and blessing be upon him) in Bolgar and later studied Sufi-style Islam under the guidance of mentors from Central Asia where this line of teaching was popular. The entire Tatar national culture is built around Sufism. It is our job to revive this culture and bring it back to modern-day Muslims. We need to do some serious research into the role of Sufism in the life of Russian Muslims and re-claim our history.

There is another point I would like to make. Young Russians feel a deficit of healthy activities, and this void is filled with opposition and radical ideas. We need to restore the traditions of dialogue between cultures and religions and create a barrier-free environment for young people of every nationality and faith to communicate. We might need to re-use the practice of International Friendship Clubs at our educational establishments. This kind of multi-culture platforms could help bring down tension and xenophobic sentiment in Russian society.

We need to speak out about the need for state support for counter-extremism activities. Moscow needs more mosques and an Islamic Cultural and Education Center that would launch an awareness raising campaign among believers. The Center’s operations could bring together Muslims and non-Muslims alike and help cut the level of enmity towards each other. As long as the vacuum is there, the dark forces will continue to recruit young people and brainwash them with appealing slogans that have nothing to do with Islam.

Extremist propaganda could be only countered with a systemic and balanced policy of promoting traditional Islamic values and the basics of our religious school of thought.

What kind of relationship do Muslims and Christians have in Russia today? Have you heard about any incidents? What action needs to be taken to promote a stronger cooperation?

- Traditionally, Russia has been a place where representatives of traditional religions have lived side by side in peace. We are seeing major headway in reducing the level of xenophobia. There are, however, instances that are difficult to resolve without new laws and regulations.

What do religious organizations do to fight extremism and terrorism?

- it is impossible to counter extremism and terrorism on your own. Russia has managed to establish efficient coordination between government and civil society and is taking concerted action to fight the global evil. It is a united force regardless of religious or social identity.

What is your assessment of the Arab League’s recent summit? Is there a formula to bridge the divide between Muslims?

- At least, there is a desire to have more unity. The world is complex and depends on so many factors. Muslims could unite if they truly follow the noble ideals of the Quran and the Sunnah.

Ekaterina Podkolzina, editor-in-chief, RIW Group’s website.