The Changing Landscape of Islam in North Ossetia

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 10 Issue: 7

One of the militants who participated in the September 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis—Vladimir Khodov—was a resident of the North Ossetian village of Elkhotovo. He was an ethnic Russian who converted to Islam and later worked as a cook in the detachment of Chechen militants led by Ruslan Gelaev. Khodov moved to North Ossetia in his childhood in 1979, when his mother, a resident of the Ukrainian town of Berdyansk, married Anatoly Khodov, an Elkhotovo native and an Ossetian. Who Khodov’s real father was is unknown, but he was raised in an Ossetian village by an Ossetian stepfather. The village of Elkhotovo is predominantly Muslim. The local mosque was built in 1902. According to village residents, Anatoly Khodov was a former military man who was respected and whose family was relatively well-off.

The first criminal search for Khodov was announced in 1998, when he was accused of rape. After that, however, he frequently visited Elkhotovo, and it was during this period that he decided to enter one of the madrassas in Dagestan. After graduating from the madrassa, Vladimir Khodov underwent a metamorphosis and joined the radical Muslims, who are colloquially called “Wahhabis” in the North Caucasus. He visited his mother in Elkhotovo regularly and spent many hours at the mosque every day. Since 2002, Khodov has been accused of organizing a February 2004 bombing in Vladikavkaz and a failed bomb attack on a train in the vicinity of Elkhotovo in May 2004. Nonetheless, this had practically no impact on his life in his home village. He lived there, albeit not on a permanent basis, but still quite often. The neighbors maintained normal neighborly relations with him. Then the Beslan tragedy took place, after which the local court ordered his mother to leave the village (Yury Kvyatkovsky, “Istorya sela Elkhotovo” [The history of the village of Elkhotovo], http://www.globalrus.ru/comments/138416).
 
Today it is well known that some Ossetian Muslims have joined the ranks of the North Caucasian Muslim resistance movement, and there are sufficient reasons to believe that the North Ossetian jamaat Kataib al-Khaul is responsible for the assassination of Vitaly Karaev, the mayor of Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia’s capital, on November 26, 2008 (http://www.kommersant.ru/theme.aspx?ThemesID=1004). Soon afterwards, or, to be more precise, early morning on December 31, 2008, Karaev’s predecessor as Vladikavkaz’s mayor, Kazbek Pagiev, was assassinated as well (http://www.kp.ru/daily/24224.3/425136/).

Little is known about the Muslims of North Ossetia outside its borders. However, according to the assessments of experts (in particular, the Ossetian sociologists Timur Dzeranov and Olga Oleinikova), approximately 15 percent of the population of the republic is Muslim. The central city mosque of Vladikavkaz was built in the early 20th century. The funds for the construction of the mosque were allocated by the Azerbaijani oil magnate Murtuza Mukhtarov, who was married to an Ossetian woman with the last name of Tuganova. The mosque was built in the Egyptian style and it is unrivaled in the North Caucasus in terms of its architectural features.

During the Soviet period, all mosques on the territory of North Ossetia were closed, but during the religious renaissance that arrived during the perestroika years and which continued after the breakup of the USSR, the religious life of Ossetian Muslims experienced a revival. On the one hand, the older generation of Muslim traditionalists was becoming increasingly active and their most vivid representative was Dzankhot Khekilaev, who died in the summer of 2004 (http://www.religare.ru/print14426.htm). On the other hand, thousands of young men in North Ossetia began actively following Islam and, in particular, its Wahhabi variety. This, in turn, led to the formation of two parallel Muslim structures in the republic. The Muslim traditionalists founded the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of North Ossetia in 1990, while Muslim youth began to build their own organization, which they called the “Jamaat” and which was officially registered as the Islamic Cultural Center in 1996. The young people elected Ermak Tegaev to be the chairman or Emir of the newly created entity. It should be noted that 40-year-old Tegaev had a criminal past and had spent 12 years behind bars during the Soviet period.

The composition of the Jamaat, according to its Vice Emir and imam of the Vladikavkaz central city mosque, Suleiman Mamiev, who met with this author on a number of occasions, included the Muslim communities of Beslan and Elkhotovo. The Ossetian Jamaat closely cooperated with the Jamaat of Kabardino-Balkaria, headed by the charismatic imam Musa Mukozhev, who was popular among village youth and who later became an outlaw and one of the leaders of the armed Islamic opposition in Kabardino-Balkaria. Suleiman Mamiev told this author that the Muslim community of Vladikavkaz in the early part of this decade numbered about 500 members and that a majority of them was ethnic Ossetian. Before the tragedy in Beslan, Vladikavkaz was teeming with many Chechen and Ingush students, but after the tragic events of September 1-3, 2004, many were expelled from colleges and forced to leave the city.

According to the North Ossetian Muslim newspaper Da’ua (http://www.al-azan.ru/site_news.php), on February 2, 2005, officers from the Directorate of the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation for the North Ossetia, in a joint operation with operatives from Interior Ministry’s Directorate for the Fight Against Organized Crime raided the house of the chairman of the Islamic Cultural Center, Ermak Tegaev. According to Da’ua, witnesses saw how law enforcement officers planted explosives in Tegaev’s residence and, based on the alleged discovery of the explosives, he was later arrested. When Ermak Tegaev was detained, he was found to be in possession of 270 grams of plastic explosive and three electric detonators as well as religious literature and instructional materials, including video- and audio cassettes of extremist nature (http://www.memo.ru/hr/hotpoints/caucas1/msg/2005/08/m49747.htm).

According to Ermak Tegaev’s supporters, and also other Muslims, his detention represented a special action aimed at destroying the Ossetian Jamaat and Islamic Cultural Center. Later, in August of 2005, the Sovietsky District Court of Vladikavkaz sentenced Ermak to two-and-a-half years in a forced labor camp and during the year after that the imam of the Vladikavkaz city mosque, Suleiman Mamiev, immigrated to Turkey together with his mother.

In April of 2005, Murat-khaji Tavkazakhov, a resident of the Kartsa suburb of Vladikavkaz, which is predominantly populated by Ingush, became the head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of North Ossetia. However, the ethnic Ossetian Tavkazakhov failed to improve Ossetian-Ingush relationships within the Muslim community of Ossetia. His close ties to the Ingush caused constant dissatisfaction among Ossetian Muslims (http://www.ingushetia.ru/m-news/archives/003572.shtml). In addition, many Muslims suspected him of being corrupt and misappropriating funds pouring in from various Muslim foundations and charities that support Islam in Ossetia.

In February 2008, Ali-khaji Evteyev was elected the new mufti of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of North Ossetia (http://www.islamnasledie.ru/interviews.php?id=920). He was born in Moscow in 1974 in an ethnically mixed family: his father was Russian, while his mother was Ossetian (her maiden name was Komaeva) and was originally from a family of Muslims. In early childhood Evteyev moved with his parents to Beslan, where he grew up. At the age of 22, he accepted Islam and in the late 1990s he took active part in the creation of the Ossetian Jamaat. As a matter of fact, he was among those who supported the election of Ermak Tegaev to the position of Emir. Later, in 2000, he became disillusioned with Ermak Tegaev and the Jamaat itself. He decided to travel to Cairo, Egypt, with Kumyks from North Ossetia. In Egypt he entered preparatory courses at the Muslim university of Al-Azhar, where he studied for four years [1].

In 2004, Evteyev made a small pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and entered the International University of Medina. However, while studying in the Arab countries, he never lost touch with Ossetia. He visited every summer and in 2004 he became the deputy mufti of North Ossetia. When Ali-khaji Evteyev was elected the mufti, he was studying in Medina, but he took an academic leave of absence and decided to return. When he assumed the position of the head of the Spiritual Directorate of North Ossetia, Evteyev soon discovered that his treasury was empty and that he had to start from scratch [2].

In an interview with this author, the new mufti described his main task as uniting the Muslims of Ossetia. This implied the youth, which was previously oriented towards the Jamaat, and the supporters of traditional Islam, who are mostly representatives of the older generation. Ali-khaji’s views are moderately Salafi. He is against the armed struggle of Muslims across the North Caucasus because it does not correspond with Sharia law, which must be understood not formally but in its totality. At the same time, a return to the roots, a rethinking of the Muslim worldview based on the experience contained in the Noble Quran and Sunnah, in Evteyev’s view, will help the Muslims of North Ossetia to find their place in the modern world [3].

Not everyone is enthusiastic about this position. The muftis of neighboring republics in the North Caucasus do not interact with Evteyev and refuse to accept him into the ranks of the Coordinating Council of Muslims of North Caucasus. That is directly related to the fact that the rest of the muftis are followers of traditional Islam and, moreover, none of them received such a well-rounded Muslim education as Evteyev.

Despite the difficulties in recent years, which were primarily related to the unresolved Ossetian-Ingush conflict, the Muslim community of North Ossetia is gradually growing, and this should be mostly attributed to the influx of Ossetian converts. As was noted by this author during a trip to Vladikavkaz in the second half of November 2008, during the Friday prayer at the central city mosque, there were more people praying than in previous years and there were both men and women. The Ossetian Jamaat, which functioned legally in the past, now operates in the underground and from time to time informs the public about its existence by carrying out operations. The most recent occurred on February 13 of this year when a car belonging to a battalion commander of an armed detachment was blown up near the building housing the dormitory of the Military Prosecutor’s Office in Vladikavkaz (http://www.rosbalt.ru/2009/02/13/618023.html).

Notes

1. Based on author’s personal interviews with Ali-khaji Evteyev in November 2008 and interviews with people close to him.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.