The Ossetians in North Ossetia–Alania have primarily been Christian for the past millennium, but some are Muslim. In a majority of cases, the Digors, an Ossetian subethnic group, are associated with Islam. The Muslim community in the republic was weakened when a large portion of Muslim Ossetians left their homeland for the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century (Darial-online.ru, 2008).
The dismantlement of the Soviet Union and the overall revival of Islam across the entire post-Soviet space did not pass North Ossetia–Alania by. In 1994, the Spiritual Board of Muslims of North Ossetia–Alania was officially established. Today, 25 mosques and 27 Muslim organizations operate in the republic. While Muslims comprise only about a quarter of the population of North Ossetia–Alania, the republican Muslim community publishes the Golos Islama newspaper (Islamosetia.ru, December 2015), holds competitions of Koran readers (Islamosetia.ru, January 9) and engages in other activities similar to Muslim communities in regions where Muslims comprise the majority.
Five years ago, the Russian public’s attention was riveted to the Muslim community of North Ossetia after the republic’s former young mufti, Ali Yevteyev, who was an ethnic Russian but a native of the republic, admitted in a May 2, 2010, interview that in the mid-1990s he met Ibn al-Khattab, the Saudi-born militant of Circassian background who founded the military training camps for rebels in Chechnya in the 1990s. Yevteyev also said that he personally knew the leaders of the armed opposition of Kabardino-Balkaria and had learned from them (Portal-credo.ru, May 13, 2010). Even though Yevteyev spoke of his past in the interview, people in Russia and North Ossetia perceived his words as being quite aggressive. Perhaps, Yevteyev’s remarks would not have been seen as hostile had the Islamist underground movement not tried to engage the Ossetian Muslims in their struggle, and even established a separate Velayat Ossetia. Yevteyev was forced to resign in May 2010 after a year and a half in his position, and later moved to Egypt.
Hajimurat Gatsalov replaced Yevteyev as North Ossetia’s mufti (Ekhokavkaza.com, July 16, 2010). The authorities agreed upon the choice of the mufti. After the scandalous behavior of Yevteyev, the republican authorities did everything in their power to ensure that an experienced man oversees the activities of the Muslims in the republic. People realized that the mufti, who had no formal religious education (Gatsalov has a diploma from a local agricultural college), would be a nominal mufti. Muslims in the republic nonetheless held Gatsalovin in high esteem because of what he did to return the former Shia mosque of Vladikavkaz to the Muslim community, but as a Sunni mosque. During the Soviet period, the Shia mosque was converted into a planetarium. Gatsalov did not cause trouble either for the police or for the authorities, but needed deputies with religious education in order to have influence on young Muslims. However, some forces—probably people in the Russian security services—apparently did not like that. In December 2012, the North Ossetian mufti’s deputy, Ibragim Dudarov, was killed (Gazeta.ru, December 27, 2012). A year and a half later, on August 2014, the man who replaced Dudarov, Rasul Gamzatov, was also killed (Rg.ru, August 18, 2014). Mufti Gatsalov could not hide his emotions at the time, saying that he believed the same people who had killed Dudarov also killed Gamzatov. It is not surprising that both slain deputies of the mufti were well-trained Muslim preachers who were popular among the youth.
After the death of the two deputy muftis, fears rose about the safety of the mufti himself. A website affiliated with the police posted a warning that “perhaps, it is time to kill [literally: ‘feed with lead’] Gatsalov.” Gatsalov publicly complained about the threats, but his adversaries became even more hostile in response. According to the mufti, he received an email on January 5 demanding that he resign for reasons of health. If Gatsalov did not obey or attempted to leave the republic, the authors of the email said, they would pursue and kill him (Kavtoday.ru, January 9).
On January 11, Gatsalov filed an official complaint with the authorities about the death threats. The Muslim cleric stated that “there is no radicalization in the republic, but the fight with Islam still goes on. No one has investigated the killings of my deputies and so on” (Kavpolit.com, January 8). Thus, the republican mufti admitted that some forces in North Ossetia are trying to hold back the development of Islam in the republic. The website that launched the attack on the mufti published materials aimed at undermining his reputation. In particular, they accused him of being a Wahhabi, admiring the ousted Yevteyev, being friends with jihadists, embezzling funds, etc. (Kavkazpress.ru, January 12). In reality, the material against Gatsalov published by the controversial website only indicates that its authors have nothing significant that would allow them to launch criminal investigation against him and undermine his reputation among the Muslims of republic.
It is hard to predict how the attacks by anonymous forces in the republican government against Gatsalov will end, but the story indicates who is behind the murders of Muslim clerics in the North Caucasus: indeed, not all of the murders of Muslim clerics should be attributed to the militants, because the security services sometimes operate under the guise of militants, especially when they want to eliminate unwanted individuals.