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North Ossetia's Russian Mufti Under Fire

Russian Council of Muftis Chairman Ravil Gainutdin it was necessary to determine whether Ali-hadji Yevteyev's early statements were hypocritical, or whether his statements in the recent interview were distorted or taken out of context.
Russian Council of Muftis Chairman Ravil Gainutdin it was necessary to determine whether Ali-hadji Yevteyev's early statements were hypocritical, or whether his statements in the recent interview were distorted or taken out of context.
On May 2, the news agency Regnum circulated what it billed as an interview with North Ossetia's mufti, Ali-hadji Yevteyev. Yevteyev himself subsequently claimed that it was in fact a "discussion" and not intended for publication.

Some of Yevteyev's statements, in particular his revelations about his contacts with two men who subsequently became leading members of the Islamist underground, have been roundly condemned by Muslim clergy in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia. The North Ossetian prosecutor's office has tasked experts with determining whether any of Yevteyev's statements are "extremist," and whether his disparaging comments about unnamed Orthodox priests who "have blocked people's path to God" fall under the category of "inciting interconfessional enmity."

Yevteyev is a Russian who was baptized a Christian and converted to Islam in late 1996 at the age of 22. He admits to having held "radical" Islamic views and having "dreamed of laying down my life for Allah," but rejects the label "Wahhabi." He says he studied at a radical madrasah in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and traveled with other students from that Islamic religious school to Chechnya to spend time at the training camp in Serzhen-Yurt run in 1997-99 by Khattab, an Arab who joined the Chechen resistance during the 1994-96 war.

Together with radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, Khattab led the incursions into Daghestan in August-September 1999 that triggered the renewal of hostilities between Russia and Chechnya.

Yevteyev also admits to having studied at an Islamic institute in Nalchik in the 1990s under young theologians Anzor Astemirov and Musa Mukozhev. He then spent eight years studying abroad, first in Egypt and then in Saudi Arabia. After his return to Russia he was named deputy mufti in North Ossetia in 2007 and mufti one year later.

Yevteyev's professed connection with Astemirov and Mukozhev, both of whom later joined the ranks of the radical armed resistance and were killed by Russian troops, was decried by several commentators as evidence of his unreliability, even though at the time of Yevteyev's contacts with them neither man had broken the law.

Yevteyev later explained that he never got to know Khattab personally, and that he regarded as "a mistake" the subsequent decision by Astemirov and Mukozhev to join the armed resistance. Kabardino-Balkaria's mufti, Anas Pshikhachev, denied that Yevteyev ever studied at the Islamic institute in Nalchik.

Elsewhere in the discussion/interview, Yevteyev expresses admiration for the concepts of an Islamic state and Shari'a law, and says he will do all in his power to ensure that sometime, somewhere, they will become reality. But he acknowledges that this will not happen in Russia: "I live in a country that is not Arab and not Islamic."

Yet despite the negative reactions to some of Yevteyev's statements, he pinpoints several key issues that other members of Russian's senior Muslim clergy are apparently either unwilling or unable to address. He notes, for example, how the younger generation systematically surfs the Internet for information about Islam, specifically about the finer points of theology. Because that older generation of Muslim clergy is not competent to explain and expound upon such points, young believers are increasingly attracted to, and fall under the influence of, Salafi Islam. Yet the older generation, according to Yevteyev, refuses to step aside to enable younger and better educated imams take over.

Yevteyev also implicitly condemns the argument that the Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus can be countered only by the use of brute force. (The same message was reiterated by most of the NGO leaders and human rights activists who met on May 19 with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss the situation in the North Caucasus.)

In that context, Yevteyev admits that he sometimes remains silent when a militant fighter returns "from the forest" and proves to have repented. He argues that putting militants who surrender on trial and condemning them to death is counterproductive and only alienates further both those still "sitting in the forest," and those with whom the "brothers in the forest" maintain contact with via the Internet. Yevteyev explains that "we are as lenient as possible with young people. We have taken upon ourselves the task of trying to prove that this state is not hostile to them, but we need corroboration, we need the state's support."

"We talk to young people not as bureaucrats as some religious leaders do, and not from a position of force as they do in Daghestan. We know how a Muslim should behave and try to convince them of this," he added.

Yevteyev further condemns the tactic routinely resorted to by police and security forces in the North Caucasus of gunning down law-abiding young men and then planting grenades or syringes next to their bodies to "prove" they were degenerates and members of the insurgency.

It is not clear from the very general denunciations of the interview whether it is statements such as this that are considered "extremist." It is noteworthy that very few of the published condemnations focus on pronouncements that reflect a dubious command of Islamic teaching, such as Yevteyev's assertion that there are 14 gradations of jihad.

The chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, said Yevteyev initially made a good impression when proposed as mufti in March 2008, and swiftly won the respect of North Ossetia's Muslims and promoted dialogue among them. But Yevteyev's recent pronouncements were totally at odds with the initial good impression he made, Gainutdin continued, and it was necessary to determine whether his early statements were hypocritical, or whether his statements in the recent interview were distorted or taken out of context.

Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus Chairman Ismail Berdiyev was even more categorical. He said Yevteyev "has shown his true face," and that the center will set about replacing him as mufti with "a worthy Muslim."

In light of the lack of clarity about the circumstances in which Yevteyev spoke to Regnum's reporter, the possibility cannot be ruled out that he was set up by persons out to discredit and undermine his moderate and informed approach to countering the insurgency.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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