The murder in Vladikavkaz last week of a venerated Ossetian poet, purportedly by a radical Muslim, has inevitably triggered a backlash against North Ossetia's Muslim minority, which is estimated at between 25 and 30 percent of the republic's population of 720,000.
Just hours after the putative killer was himself cornered and gunned down in a special operation on May 31, police rounded up some 15-20 Muslims who, North Ossetia's mufti Khadji-Murat Gatsalov claimed on June 2, are being roughed up in police custody and denied access to lawyers
Shamil Djigkayev, 71, a poet and philology professor lauded by Russian State Duma deputy
Arsen Fadzayev after his death as "the conscience of the [Ossetian] nation" was found dead on the outskirts of Vladikavkaz on May 26. His head had been almost severed from his body.
The putative motive for Djigkayev's murder was a poem he published three years ago entitled "The Wolf-Cubs Set Forth on the Hajj," which cursed, and denigrated as "bloodthirsty predators" and "green beasts," a group of Chechens and Ingush whom Ossetians accuse of having desecrated a monument
to the victims of the 2004 Beslan school hostage siege by stopping to urinate near it while en route to Mecca.
The pilgrims in question say their coach stopped and they alighted near the monument because it was time for daily prayers. The Ossetians said the halt was dictated by purely physiological needs, as they needed to relieve themselves.
The poem was widely condemned, and Djigkayev received anonymous death threats. But he was not formally charged with inciting inter-religious hatred as some fellow Ossetians reportedly demanded.
Alleged Killer Died In Shoot-Out
On May 27, Russia's Investigative Committee identified as Djigkayev's killer David Murashev, 33, the only son of a wealthy Ossetian family. Murashev was said to have converted three years ago
to "radical Islam."
Murashev was cornered by police on May 29 and shot dead in an exchange of fire during which he wounded three police officers
. Officials subsequently claimed he had been planning "further crimes" and that he confessed
before he was shot to having killed Djigkayev.
North Ossetian President Taymuraz Mamsurov, himself a Muslim, affirmed that Murashev was killed "in accordance with the law"
after he ignored an order to surrender.
But Gatsalov, who on May 30 issued a statement
saying that Djigkayev's killer, whoever he is, should "receive the harshest punishment envisaged by the law," on June 2 publicly questioned
why the police had not managed to take Murashev alive.
North Ossetian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Alla Akhpolova said on June 1 that "a large number" of Murashev's closest associates had been taken into custody for questioning to ascertain whether they were accessories to the murder. According to Gatsalov, the detainees include at least one mosque imam.
The murder has highlighted yet again the distrust of the republic's Christian majority for the Muslim community. In a poll by the Ossetian news agency OSInform over 40 percent of respondents predicted that Djigkayev's murder would lead to a rise in religious tensions.
North Ossetian Interior Minister Lieutenant General Artur Akhmetkhanov (who was born in 1962 in the then autonomous Bashkir Soviet Socialist Republic and whose surname suggests he is either a Bashkir or a Tatar, and thus at least nominally a Muslim), called on June 1
for "exceptional measures" to prevent young people from embracing radical Islam.
Few Signs Of Life From Radicals
Just how great a threat radical Islam poses in North Ossetia is difficult to assess. The radical Islamic group calling itself Kataib al Khoul, which warned of imminent attacks
five years ago has shown few signs of life since then, and with the exception of last September's suicide bomb attack on the Vladikavkaz central market, North Ossetia has to date largely been spared the process of "Kalashnikovization" that has encompassed most other North Caucasus republics.
Two experts questioned
by the news agency Regnum both agreed that there are some "adherents of radical Islamic groups" in North Ossetia, but declined even to speculate how many, and ruled out any connection between such groups and the Muslim Spiritual Board of North Ossetia (DUMSO) that Gatsalov heads.
Akhmed Yarlykapov of the Russian Academy of Sciences Oriental Institute added that he doubts very much there are any registered mosques in the republic that are not directly subordinate to the DUMSO [www.regnum.ru/news/1411247.html].
By contrast, Roman Silantiev
, a Russian specialist in Islam, was quoted by Interfax on June 2 as saying the "level of radicalization of local Muslims is high even by the standards of the North Caucasus."
Silantiev blamed that trend on Gatsalov's predecessor, Ali Yevteyev, who was forced to resign one year ago after he admitted in an interview
to having known Musa Mukozhev and Anzor Astemirov, who later played leading roles in the Islamic insurgency in Kabardino-Balkaria, when all three were students of theology.
Gatsalov was formally elected to head the DUMSO in March 2011, having served as acting mufti
since Yevteyev resigned.