Saturday, February 2, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Ethnic Russian Muslim Elected Mufti in North Ossetia

Paul Goble

Baku, February 2 – For the first time ever, leaders of a Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) on the territory of the Russian Federation have selected an ethnic Russian convert to Islam as their mufti, an action certain to provoke new controversies both between and within the Muslim and non-Muslim communities there.
Yesterday, the Interfax news agency reported that Muslims in North Ossetia have chosen Aliy (Sergei Mikhaylovich) Yevteyev, an ethnic Russian who converted to Islam “a certain time ago” and then studied at a Muslim University in Medina, Saudi Arabia (
The agency did not provide any additional details about Yevteyev nor have the many Muslim news portals across the Russian Federation that picked up the story overnight. But the elevation off an ethnic Russian to a status held only by members of traditionally Islamic nationalities or immigrants is clearly a major event.
Beginning in the 1980s, some ethnic Russians began to convert to Islam. Often they had been active in other religious groups, had served in Afghanistan or lived in the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union. But until 2000, there were so of them – certainly no more than a few hundred -- that they attracted relatively little attention.
In that year, Ali Vyacheslav Polosin, a former Russian Orthodox priest who had converted to Islam, set up the “Direct Path” organization, a group that opened the way for the formation of the National Organization of Russian Muslims (NORM) four years later
Statements by its leaders and the appearance of its website – no longer active –generated wild speculation not only about the number of such converts – there are probably no more than 2500, not the 50,000 some media accounts have suggested – but also about their role within the Muslim community and in Russian life more likely
While Islam generally welcomes conversions, many Muslim leaders in Russia oppose them, fearful such “Russian Muslims” will destroy inter-faith harmony there, divert mullahs from working with their traditional membership, or help the government or the Church control them (
At the same time, there are some Muslim leaders who insist that such converts will help overcome the divide between the Islamic and Christian communities in Russia by promoting tolerance and demonstrating that Islam is not restricted to those ethnic communities where it has been practiced for centuries.
The situation among non-Muslims in the Russian Federation is equally complicated, although most of them are far more opposed to such conversions. The Russian Orthodox Church regularly insists that none of the traditional religions must seek converts from among the other three – even though the church ignores that rule.
And many polls, politicians, and pundits suggest that ethnic Russians more generally are horrified by the appearance of such converts. Some view these “Russian Muslims” as victims who need to be brought back to the fold. Others see them as traitors to their nation and country.
Still another group argues that such converts represent the emergence of a group of Muslim “janissaries” who will be able to engage in terrorist attacks more easily because Russian security agencies will find it far more difficult to identify as “a Muslim terrorist” someone who to all outward appearances is “a Russian.”
Nonetheless, there are a few non-Muslims who accept the idea of their Muslim counterparts that conversions may promote understanding and a larger group within the Eurasian movement who believe that Russia’s future will depend on some kind of fusion of Orthodox and Islamic civilizations.
Advocates for all these positions are likely to come out in force as more details come in from the North Caucasus, where an Islamic community has either made an important breakthrough for the faith or taken a step too far by choosing an ethnic Russian convert to Islam as their spiritual leader.

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