Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Islam's Tarnished Image

The revival of moderate Islam in North Ossetia has been set back by fear and propaganda
By Valeri Dzutsev

"You Muslims are hypocrites - the Koran permits you to behead hostages but prohibits drinking," shouted a young man at a recent Islamic meeting in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia - an obvious reference to the notorious television shot of a Russian hostage being executed by a Chechen rebel.


The criticism was hurled at a young Muslim activist, Taimuraz Rubaev, who was extolling the Koranic prohibition on alcohol. Rubaev replied, "Islam has nothing to do with the Chechen war - that's all about money laundering."


Nevertheless, many people in the region, including some Muslims, have been swayed by the torrent of anti-Chechen propaganda pumped out by Russian television and started to believe that terrorism and senseless brutality are attributes of Islam. "I won't call myself a Muslim anymore after what I've seen on TV," is a typical comment.


The fact that Chechnya was one of the biggest sources of instability in the region and that Chechens identified so firmly with Islam in their struggle against the Russians meant that it acquired bad associations among people in the Caucasus.


In this atmosphere of suspicion and distrust, Muslims are upset that what they see as the accomplishments of Islam in the Caucasus are being hidden from public view. They quote statistics showing that crime last year in predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan was twice as low as in Christian Georgia and Armenia. They also stress Islamic promotion of family values, peaceful co-existence with other religions, and its opposition to drugs.


At the beginning of the 1990s, Islam began to flourish again after years of Soviet suppression, during which all the mosques in North Ossetia were closed. In the immediate post-communist period, old mosques were repaired and new ones built. The revival was funded by a number of prominent Ossetians, like parliamentary chairman Taimuraz Mamsurov, a well-known philanthropist, and the Muslim head of the Russian Savings Bank.


Muslim youth were allowed to study Islam abroad in Near East countries and teachers of Islam came here to preach.


But there were soon setbacks. After the 1992 conflict with Ingushetia, which also has a Muslim minority, tolerance of Islam dropped dramatically. One of the main reasons was that some Muslims in North Ossetia refused to fight against their co-religionists in the neighbouring republic.


The Muslim minority is now widely mistrusted inside North Ossetia. "We cannot count on fellow Ossetians who worship Allah, " said Second World War veteran Nikolai Tsoraev. "You never know when they are going to sell you out to their brothers in Ingushetia."


With the spread of anti-Islamic sentiment, the Muslim community has come under pressure to be as inconspicuous as possible. The authorities, fearing that Wahhabism, an extremist Islamic movement, might take hold in the country, have sought to restrict contact between Muslim youth and Near East countries. "When I was on my way to Teheran for Islamic studies a few years ago, they tried to stop me going there," said one young Muslim.


The youth loudly proclaims that Islam offers worthy ideals for young people and combats the ills of modern society. "Look around you, the old generation has vodka as their god, youth have become drug addicts and prostitutes," he said. "Islam would put an end to this."


The authorities are wary of such radical sentiment - and are clearly determined to prevent it from becoming more widespread. With the state so suspicious of Muslims, moderates among them seem to have little hope of persuading the government to adopt a more tolerant approach to their community.


Valeri Dzutsev is a regular IWPR contributor