On May 20, Ali-Khadzhi Yevteyev stepped down from the position of North Ossetia’s mufti following a media campaign against him. On May 2, the Regnum news agency published an interview with Yevteyev that included very critical remarks about the role of the Russian Orthodox Church and the government in North Ossetia. In addition, Yevteyev confessed to being a very radical Muslim in the past, having extensive contacts with the Kabardino-Balkarian insurgent leaders, Musa Mukozhev and Anzor Astemirov, and even being trained at the paramilitary camps run by Khattab. The Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office branch in North Ossetia launched an investigation into the mufti’s interview to find out whether it was subject to Russia’s highly restrictive anti-extremism legislation (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, May 20).
Many Muslim leaders expressed their disappointment with Yevteyev’s divisive remarks, while he offered official apologies for hurting the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church and said the interview was supposed to have been an off-the-record talk with the journalist, Yana Amelina (www.regnum.ru, May 13).
Meanwhile, the Co-Chairman of the Russian Council of Muftis, Mukaddas-khazrat Bibarsov, declared that Yevteyev‘s removal would benefit the insurgency in the North Caucasus. “The [Russian] state policy on overcoming the prolonged crisis in the [North] Caucasus might be under question,” Bibarsov stated (www.ansar.ru, May 18).
Yevteyev, 36, has a Russian father and an Ossetian mother. He converted to Islam at the age of 22. First, Yevteyev studied at a well-known Salafi institution in Uchkeken, Karachaevo-Cherkessia. “All my associates who were there with me were either killed or left the country for good,” he admitted. Then he studied for four years at the Al-Azhar University in Egypt and subsequently at the Al-Madinah International University in Saudi Arabia (www.regnum.ru, May 2).
Some secular Russian observers defended Mufti Yevteyev. “The Mufti [Yevteyev] says that jihad (which can be translated as ‘zeal,’ ‘diligence’ or ‘fight for the faith’) is a necessary part of Islam and is subdivided into 14 stages, one of which is armed jihad. Then it follows that a Muslim has the right to defend his house, property, honor and religion, which is understood under the definition of armed jihad. What is so seditious about it? Replace the ‘Muslim’ with ‘human.’ Is the defense of dignity, property and honor a call to extremism? Soviet soldiers who resisted the fascists must have been also extremists then,” said political scientist Sergei Reznik (Interfax, May 21).
Muslims comprise a sizable minority in the predominantly Christian North Ossetia. Estimates of their population vary from 15 percent to 40 percent of the population. A conflict between the Muslim and Christian communities would jeopardize the security situation in the only republic of the North Caucasus that has been relatively calm over the past years.
According to Mufti Yevteyev, the number of Muslims among ethnic Ossetians has been artificially lowered, and he claims it could be as high as 80 percent. He stated that despite the South Ossetian government’s firm stand against allowing any Muslim community to function on its territory, it would happen soon or later. Yevteyev boasted of bringing all 21 existing Muslim jamaats in North Ossetia with their mosques under his rule, something that hardly can be said about any other republic of the North Caucasus (www.regnum.ru, May 2).
All official muftis in the North Caucasus are often seen as clerics closely associated with the government and that is what makes them unacceptable for the Muslims who seek independence from the annoying oversight of the state.
Yevteyev said in his interview that he purposely talked about jihad often because many young people were confused about its nature. He said that 98-99 percent of the parishioners of Vladikavkaz’s central mosque are under 30 years old. Yevteyev revealed the radical views he held when he was younger, when he and his friends were preparing to fight in Chechnya against Russians and dismissed all official Muslim bodies as “infidel.” At the same time, Yevteyev tacitly acknowledged that as North Ossetia’s mufti he worked under the close surveillance of the government. According to Yevteyev, North Ossetia was the only republic in the North Caucasus that achieved the goal of keeping the youth from going into the forests. “I understand that I am the experimental, test alternative for those who are now examining the situation. I very much hope to hold ground, to succeed. I hope I will be one of many who will correct the situation in the North Caucasus and in Russia as a whole” (www.regnum.ru, May 2).
Highlighting an implicit or explicit agreement between the Muslim leadership of North Ossetia and the security services, Yevteyev said: “I am very much hoping for the understanding of both the political leadership and that of certain services responsible for safety. They have worked out schemes that are long since outdated, but they do not want to get rid of them, because they have responsibilities and their careers” (www.regnum.ru, May 2).
In the same interview Yevteyev also revealed that after the current head of North Ossetia, Taimuraz Mamsurov, who is of Muslim origin, came to power in 2005, the Muslim community of North Ossetia started to receive more support from the state.
As the Muslim community in North Ossetia is in the minority, unlike in other North Caucasian republics, this might lead to closer cooperation among the republic’s Muslims and even to a closing of ranks among them.
Whatever is the end result of the row about the North Ossetian mufti’s frank interview, it will certainly contribute to the rise of North Ossetian public awareness of their religious identities. In the worst-case scenario, the scandal might even lead to a radicalization of the younger generation of Ossetian Muslims that will develop along the same lines as in Kabardino-Balkaria and elsewhere in the North Caucasus.