Council of Muftis of Russia Chairman Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin has formally expressed concern and support for Hadji-Murat Gatsalov, mufti of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, the population of which is predominantly Orthodox Christian. On January 11, Gatsalov submitted to the republican prosecutor’s office a formal complaint about a threat he received of unspecified retribution unless he resigns as mufti.
According to Gatsalov, the warning was communicated in an e-mail he received from an acquaintance in the North Ossetian town of Mozdok. That unnamed acquaintance had been summoned to the republican Center for Countering Extremism (TsPE), which is subordinate to the Interior Ministry, after which he passed on to Gatsalov a demand from the center’s personnel that he should step down immediately, and should not try to leave North Ossetia as “you’ll be tracked down and killed wherever you are.”
Gatsalov construed that warning as the latest in a chain of events that encompasses the murders of two of his deputies, Ibragim Dudarov in December 2012 and Rasul Gamzatov in August 2014. Neither killing has been solved.
Nor was the warning the first Gatsalov has received.
Last summer, the website Kavkazpress.ru, which is reportedly favorably disposed toward Russia’s “force” agencies, posted a comment by a blogger on an article titled The Wahhabis In The Spiritual Board Of Muslims that Muslims in North Ossetia construed as a threat against Gatsalov.
At the same time, there was bad blood between Gatsalov and long-time Interior Minister Lieutenant-General Artur Akhmetkhanov. After Gatsalov criticized the ministry for its failure to track down Dudarov’s killer, in 2013 Akhmetkhanov cited the fact that four young men from North Ossetia had reportedly been killed fighting in Syria as evidence of the spread of Islamic extremism.
(Estimates of how many of North Ossetia’s population of a little over 700,000 are Muslims range from 15 percent to 40 percent.)
More recently, in March 2015, Akhmetkhanov claimed that younger believers have so little regard for the older generation of clerics that they prefer to travel abroad to study Islamic theology, frequently returning home with “extremist” views. He said that in 2014, eight “crimes of an extremist nature” were registered in North Ossetia and six criminal cases were opened into terrorist activity or establishing an illegal armed group.
Local commentators quoted by the website kavpolit.com took issue with Akhmetkhanov’s assessment, however, pointing out that the mood within the republic’s Muslim community has improved markedly since Gatsalov was named mufti, partly as a result of the sermons preached by that older generation of imams whom Akhmetkhanov had criticized. (Gatsalov’s predecessor, Ali –haji Yevteyev, was constrained to resign in May 2010 after admitting in an interview to having studied theology in Nalchik with Anzor Astemirov and Musa Mukozhev, both of whom subsequently became prominent figures in the North Caucasus insurgency.)
Gainutdin, too, praised Gatsalov’s track record, noting the considerable authority and influence that he enjoys. Gainutdin stressed that North Ossetia is the most peaceful republic in the North Caucasus, and that any move to discredit Gatsalov will inevitably jeopardize that stability. Gainutdin also recalled that North Ossetia’s Muslim Spiritual Board is the only one in Russia to have issued a formal fatwa condemning the terrorist organization Islamic State.
The threat Gatsalov received earlier this month is unlikely to have originated with Akhmetkhanov, given that the latter was fired in December, apparently over the scandal surrounding the beating to death in police custody of Vladimir Tskayev, a resident of Vladikavkaz who had been apprehended on suspicion of shooting and wounding a police officer. One of Tskayev’s neighbors subsequently confessed to that shooting. Four police officers have been arrested in connection with Tskayev’s death.
It is, however, possible that one of the reportedly numerous senior Interior Ministry officials whom Akhmetkhanov brought with him to North Ossetia from his native Bashkortostan, and who presumably share his views on the threat posed by radical Islam, may regard Gatsalov as a liability and/or are out to make problems for new Republic of North Ossetia head Tamerlan Aguzarov. Aguzarov is on record as saying the republic’s next interior minister should be a local man, and that those ministry officials whom Akhmetkhanov brought with him “should pack their bags, our railway stations and airports are open for them.”
Alternatively, it is equally possible that the TsPE chose to issue a warning to Gatsalov simply to demonstrate that it takes its duties seriously and is visibly carrying out the function for which it was established.