North Ossetia’s Muslim Minority Fights a Negative Image of Islam in the Republic

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 175

North Ossetia's mufti Ali Evteev

On September 17, the Spiritual Board of Muslims of North Ossetia issued a special statement after a small quantity of explosives was found at a local mosque. The statement condemned the incident as a provocation, especially given that it took place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The mosque, which is being restored, is located in Beslan, the town where over 330 people died in an attack by Islamist insurgents in 2004, so the general public and Muslim community in particular are very sensitive to controversial incidents connected to religion. The statement also pointed out that the North Ossetian mufti Ali Evteev had received anonymous threats (, September 17).

The explosives were discovered at the mosque on September 10, shortly after another suspicious item was found and blown up by the security services in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia’s capital (, September 7). Ever since the November 2008 attack by a female suicide bomber that killed eleven people in Vladikavkaz, the police and public have become particularly concerned about suspicious items found on the streets.

Terrorist activities in Russia as a whole and the North Caucasus in particular, have often been linked to regional insurgents. In North Ossetia, any linkage between Islam and terrorism can potentially be very damaging because, unlike in other North Caucasus republics, religious boundaries in North Ossetia divide the Ossetian people. One of the controversies between the Muslim and Christian communities took place when the Russian Orthodox Church tried to destroy the school in Beslan that was the scene of the September 2004 tragedy and build an Orthodox Church on the site. These plans were drawn up despite the fact that many or even the majority of those killed in the attack were of Muslim origin. The project was eventually abandoned under pressure from the relatives of the victims and it was decided that the school would be left as it is (Vremya Novostei, September 1).

According to the North Ossetian mufti, about 30 percent of the republic’s population is Muslim and 70 percent is Christian (, August 2). Contrary to the situation in other republics in the North Caucasus, where the indigenous population is Muslim and only the ethnic Russian population is Orthodox Christian, in North Ossetia the Ossetians themselves are divided between Orthodox and Muslims. Moreover, North Ossetia’s two main sub-ethnic groups, the Iron and Digoron, are also each divided between Muslims and Orthodox Christians. Sociological estimates of the religious composition of North Ossetia give different figures: only 7.5 percent of the population is estimated to be Muslim, while 51 percent are Orthodox Christians and 20 percent are adherents of traditional beliefs (, Religious Situation in Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, February 2009).

Despite the claims by sources in the North Caucasus insurgent movement about the existence of the Ossetian jamaat Kataib al-Khoul, it is highly unlikely that there is a significant organized group of active insurgents among ethnic Ossetian Muslims. Insurgent websites claimed that the Ossetian jamaat was behind the killing of the mayor of Vladikavkaz in November 2008, as well as the bombing of a minibus several weeks earlier and several other attacks before that. However, these announcements were so contradictory that they appear to have had very different authors (North Caucasus Analysis, Volume 10 Issue 12, March 27, 2009, "Was the FSB Behind the Murder of Vladikavkaz’s Mayors?"). Oblique evidence that Kataib al-Khoul is more of an imaginary group than a real one came from the Kavkaz Center website, which published the decree by Dokka Umarov, the head of separatist Caucasus Emirate, "abolishing" North Ossetia and merging it with neighboring Ingushetia, which is a smaller territorial unit (, May 11). Umarov must have been disappointed with the so-called Ossetian jamaat, given that he decided to abolish the republic.

While Ossetian Muslims appear to be on the defensive, their positions within society are certainly not hopeless. The head of North Ossetia, Taimuraz Mamsurov, has Muslim origins, although he is not known for being an ardent Muslim. Still, his grandfather was reportedly the imam at the same mosque that is currently undergoing reconstruction (RIA Novosti, April 30). The only representative of North Ossetia in the Russian State’s Duma, Arsen Fadzaev, is also a Muslim, as are a number of other top officials.

North Ossetia has the reputation of being the most pro-Russian region among the republics of the North Caucasus. Even the mufti of North Ossetia, Ali Evteev, has a Russian father and an Ossetian mother. Yet some Russian specialists on Islam regard Evteev as a mild Salafi, so that is he is not considered as belonging to the traditional Islam that predominates in the other North Caucasus republics. Evteev received extensive Islamic education in the Middle East and is considered to be more educated than any of the other North Caucasian muftis.

Evteev came from an alternative North Ossetian Muslim youth society that was opposed to official Islam and forcibly abolished by the authorities in 2005 – a situation that could be found elsewhere in the North Caucasus (, Islam in North Ossetia, February 2009). It is only in North Ossetia, however, that a member of a youth group which had been opposed to traditional Islam took over the office of the official Islamic authority. When it happened, in March-April 2008, a number of traditional Islamic muftis in the North Caucasus even declared Evteev a Wahhabi as a way of toppling him. Yet, despite the attack, he remained in the office (, April 23, 2008). While Evteev readily repeats the Kremlin’s propaganda clichés about the West stirring things up in the North Caucasus to create trouble for Russia, he also appears to be a persistent preacher who tries to strike an alliance between Muslims and Christians. He has said, for example: "We, Christians and Muslims, have the same opponent – the unbelieving people" (Osradio, August 2).

There have been no serious clashes on religious grounds in North Ossetia so far, but the potential for them remains as religious identities strengthen and the mechanisms for peacefully resolving existing contradictions are degraded by corruption and a lack of democratic participation.