Wahhabis at the Gate
by Stephen Schwartz
THE MUSLIM HOLY MONTH of Ramadan came and went in the Balkans without serious incident. Nevertheless, the ancient town of Skopje, war-weary and impoverished after local fighting between Albanians and Slavs in 2001, buzzed with rumors of terrorist conspiracies. In a mild, foggy late-autumn, under a skyline dominated by impressive Ottoman mosques, residents spoke anxiously of the recent suicide bombings in Istanbul and of "special measures" against possible attacks on U.S. and other foreign personnel in Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia.
It is said that Islam has "bloody borders," but in the Balkans the border dwellers are exhausted. Too much blood has already been wasted, and there is no appetite for more.
Among the ethnic Albanian Muslims--especially in western Macedonian regions where they and their Christian fellow-Albanians continue agitating for the right to education in the Albanian language--there is much discussion of infiltration by Saudi-funded agents of the Wahhabi sect. Riyadh continues to send Wahhabi missionaries, in their characteristic beards and archaic Arab outfits, to seek control over Balkan Muslims. And the missionaries continue to fail.
Arben Xhaferi (pronounced Jaferi), leader of the Albanian Democratic party, is considered both the main Albanian patriotic leader in Macedonia and the region's outstanding critic of Wahhabi influence. He spoke with me at his office in Tetovo, in the heart of the ethnic Albanian majority area. The building displayed the trademark sign of recent war in the Balkans: bottles of water for sanitary purposes in the toilet, since the plumbing still has not been restored.
"We cannot accept the endless agitation presenting democracy as opposed to Islam," Xhaferi said. "Albanian Islam faces an immense threat from fundamentalism. We are traditional in our Islam, which for us means pluralism, respect for the other religions represented among us, and repudiation of Arabization. Fundamentalist Islamists preach that there is only one Islam, represented by them, just as Hitler said there could be only one nation under one Führer."
"It is absurd that Wahhabis should come here and demand, in the name of Islam, that we live and dress like them," Xhaferi said. "Albanians will not allow foreigners of any kind to tell us our customs must be abandoned and our behavior determined by Islamic totalitarians. We have our own history, our own culture, and our own Albanian model of Islam, based on interfaith respect and the understanding that religion is private. They will not destroy us."
Xhaferi has paid for his forthright criticism of Islamist extremism, as have others who support him, such as the Skopje newspaper publisher Emin Azemi, whose Albanian-language daily Fakti (Fact) is among the most professional in the region. Azemi took a strong stand in support of the U.S. liberation of Iraq--Fakti editorialized, "The defeat of Saddam Hussein will be a victory for all humanity." It has also published Xhaferi's anti-Wahhabi polemics.
With Saudi subversives still fanning out in the Balkans, it comes as no surprise that Xhaferi and Azemi's activist stance has earned them anonymous threats. But since the Wahhabis, notwithstanding their hatred of everything modern, use cell phones, Azemi was able to reply to their harassment by printing their telephone numbers in his paper and calling on readers to communicate their opinions to the Wahhabis. And public condemnation of them was extensive.
More startling, however, is the coolness of Western diplomatic and foreign media authorities in Macedonia to efforts to isolate and oppose aggressive Islamism. Azemi and his newspaper are under permanent suspicion for their Albanian patriotism, which is seen as a threat to regional stability -- even though Macedonian Slav journalists praised Fakti during the 2001 communal fighting for consistently advocating a cease-fire.
Lately, a group called the International Journalists Network even called on foreign donors to the cause of "media development," including a U.S. group, IREX ProMedia, to establish an Albanian daily that would provide an alternative to the "hardline" Fakti. But for all its considerable problems, Macedonia has general media freedom, and such interference by foreigners is neither necessary nor just.
Wahhabi propagandists seek to cast every conflict as religious. They lump together all the grievances of Macedonia's Albanians as a campaign of self-defense by "the Muslims"--leaving out of the picture the 15 percent of Macedonian Albanians who are Christian, yet seek recognition of their linguistic rights with no less enthusiasm than the Muslims.
For example, a polemic on the Wahhabi website IslamOnline, titled "Macedonian Spark Can Incinerate the Region," by Omer bin Abdullah, comments disingenuously, "The Muslims argue that the Albanian language should be the second official language in the country." In reality, it is not the Muslims, but the Albanians who argue this. Non-Albanian Muslims in Macedonia --Turkish, Bosnian, and Slav-- have failed to support the Albanians, and the portrayal of Albanian struggles as based on religion is false. These smaller Muslim minorities have historically felt dependent on the Slav Macedonian authorities.
The topic of Wahhabism keeps many Albanian young people preoccupied. With unemployment high, facing an uncertain future and probable discrimination, Albanians do not want to be saddled with a reputation for Islamic extremism. And they are clear on where the truth lies. Students at the European- and U.S.-subsidized Southeast European University of Tetovo expressed disgust with reactionary Saudism, including its primitive repression of women.
Traveling through Macedonia after Ramadan, I encountered distaste for Islamism on all sides--from elderly Albanian men sporting fierce mustaches and speaking of their village laws no less than from fashionably dressed young women who said Saudi Arabia must cease to be the only country in the world that forbids women to drive. I came away struck by the fact that these European Muslims, living in a remote and disregarded country, understand the truth about the Saudi/Wahhabi threat to the Islamic world, and to the world at large--even as many in capitals like Washington continue to deny it.