Schwartz: Tërnava is a dictator, and should be removed
by Agron Bajrami
The researcher Stephen Sylejman Schwartz sees a risk of Islamic extremism in Kosova, but is convinced that Kosovar Albanians will not surrender to this challenge. He identifies the leader of the Islamic Community of Kosova (BIK) as the main problem, even calling him "Stalin Tërnava."
Islam in Kosova is endangered by extremism, the opening to which was made by the head of the Islamic Community of Kosova (BIK), Naim Tërnava. So says Stephen Sylejman Schwartz, scholar of Islam and executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, based in Washington, USA.
Schwartz, in an e-mail interview with Koha Ditore, insists that the removal of Tërnava is a prerequisite for addressing the problems within the Islamic Community of Kosova, and for combatting outside influences that have introduced extremism into Albanian Islam, which has traditionally been moderate and tolerant, and an example for the whole world. He calls Tërnava a dictator, while restating plagiarism charges against the head of the BIK in gaining a master's degree.
Schwartz, a well-known American journalist who in 1997 became a Hanafi Muslim, is the author of many books, among which some have dealt with Albanian issues and been published in the Albanian language. His book The Other Islam [Islami tjetër] was issued by the Koha publishing house.
Koha Ditore: Mr. Schwartz, as Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, you follow very closely developments within Islam. You are also known to be a very strong critic of Islamic fundamentalism, especially radicalism in the form of the Wahhabi sect. What are the risks you see from Political Islam and extremism?
I have written a great deal against Wahhabism. But right now, I have confidence in the social reform program of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and although it is surprising to many people who know my work, I believe he is attempting to restrain the Wahhabi clerics both inside the country and internationally, and to make the kingdom somewhat normal. I am more concerned at this point with the Muslim Brotherhood. But whether we are discussing extreme Wahhabis, the Muslim Brothers, South Asian jihadis, the Turkish AKP of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or the Khomeinist clerical dictatorship in Iran – the last perhaps the worst right now because of its complicity in the massacres in Syria – my judgment of all is the same.
Islam has undergone three periods of such radicalism: the eruption of the Khawarij in the original Islamic period, the invasion of Islamic Spain by the Al-Muwahiddun or Almohads, as they are called in the West, during the 12th and 13th centuries CE, and the rise of Wahhabism and its imitators beginning only 250 years ago. In every instance the radicalization of the believers has undermined Muslim social, political, and cultural development. Radicals are the enemies of moderate, traditional, spiritual, conservative, conventional Muslims, their families and livelihood. Wahhabis and their "successors" are neither old, nor traditional, nor conservative, as so many non-Muslims, and even some Muslims, think. They are new, they destroy tradition, and they are radical.
I should add that I do not use the term "Political Islam" because I believe our struggle to defend our dignity, our religious beliefs, and our practices is also "political." But our "Political Islam" is one that defends the moderate believers, the state, and the nation from the radicals.
Koha Ditore: You also have extensive knowledge of developments within the Islamic Community of Kosova (BIK). What do you see as the main problems here?
The main problem in the BIK has been the dictatorship over it of Naim Tërnava since 2005. Tërnava has encouraged the entry into Kosova of Wahhabi and Brotherhood radicals from Macedonia. Tërnava has refused to act against those who engaged in physical attacks on honorable clerics and scholars of high achievement. Tërnava has dismissed Islamic professors, and discharged moderate and patriotic clerics. Tërnava has effectively torn up the constitution of the BIK in his lust for an illegal third term. Tërnava, as revealed by the heroic imam of Begrac near Kaçanik, Adnan efendi Vishi, wants to be reis ul-ulema for life. This is unacceptable in Islam. There is no Islamic community or minority in the world that has a so-called life term for a "grand mufti" – we reject his adoption of that title, because the chief clerics of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosova should be called as they have been in the past, "reis ul-ulema." Who is this man? Enver Hoxha Tërnava? Ahmet Zogu Tërnava? I know his opponents call him "Sultan Tërnava." I think of him as "Stalin Tërnava." He should be removed from any responsibilities in the BIK and find something useful to do. He should follow the example of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and volunteer to repair and build public schools and new housing.
But I will stipulate that I do not hate Naim Tërnava. I am not a hater, except in regard to certain Slavic aggressors against the Albanian nation. I consider Tërnava, like any prisoner of his ego (what we call nafs in Sufism), pathetic in his disregard for his self-respect and that of those for whom he has responsibility. I feel sorry and ashamed for him when I see him. I am more concerned about what he has done to the BIK.
Koha Ditore: Among the books you wrote, there are books about Kosova and Islam among the Albanians. In your book The Other Islam (published in Albanian by Koha Group, as Islami tjetër), you write about the tradition and heritage of moderate Islam, which you see as an answer to Islamic extremism. Do you see this tradition of moderate Islam as under attack in Kosova and among Albanians?
Albanian Islam, which I consider, after travelling twice around the world, to be the best example of Islam of which I know, is under threat by extremists. The situation is calm in Albania, conflictive in Kosova, and disastrous in Macedonia and Serbian Sanxhak. But I believe the mass of Muslim believers in the Albanian lands will resist the radical infiltrators. These fanatics have no idea with whom they are dealing. Albanians are a nation of heroes. The people that produced Isa Boletini, Ismail Qemali Vlora, Bajram Curri, Avni Rustemi, Shaban Polluzha, the Jashari family, and, above all, Qerime Shotë Galica, will not surrender to radical Islam.
The only imam willing to perform the xhenaza of the Jashari family [martyred leaders of the Kosova Liberation Army] in 1998, Mullah Osman efendi Musliu of Drenica, was brutally assaulted by radicals while Tërnava stood aside. Tërnava and his clique dishonored beloved Drenica and the immortal Jashari family. None of these happenings can be imagined except in a nightmare. And Kosovars will not live a nightmare. The nightmare of Serbian imperialism has been enough, without introducing Arab and South Asian religious imperialism. When the horrors of September 11, 2001 took place in New York, one of the newspapers in Albania published a headline: "Nobody Veils the Statue of Liberty's Face." Well, nobody would have dared demand that Shotë Galica put on a face veil or even a hijab and nobody has the right to challenge the patriotism of Albanian Catholics. I reported on the massacre at Korenica near Gjakova and I know that Catholics were as much victims of the chetniks as Muslims and non-believers. No. Never. "No veil on Shotë Galica" should be a slogan posted everywhere in Kosova.
Koha Ditore: What is the risk for Kosova as an independent and democratic country, if the Islamic Community of Kosova (BIK) is submerged by extreme Islam?
Domination of Kosova by radical Islam would be an unparalleled moral disaster for the entire Albanian nation, the whole global Islamic ummah that needs an example like that of the Albanians and especially Kosova, and for the world. I will not even deal with the issue of the impact on the U.S. My country of birth can take care of its own problems. I have dedicated my life to those who need my help and I believe, I hope without arrogance or excessive pride, that I have made a contribution to assisting the Albanian nation, in Albania, in Kosova, in Macedonia, in Montenegro, in Serbia, and in the diaspora.
Koha Ditore: Recently, an Islamic party has been formed in Kosova, which is widely seen as the introduction of Islamic extremism to the political landscape of Kosova. What do you think about that? Do you think there's a real risk if a political party advocates extreme religious views?
The LISBA [Islamic Movement to Unite] is barely a party and deserves to be ignored. Kosova has taken the road of secularism. Who will support an Islamist state in the republic? The people in LISBA, like Tërnava, should retire from their intrigues and adventures and find some useful occupation. In their case building schools and houses would probably be too challenging. They can clean the streets, since they made fools of themselves by enticing Muslims to pray in the streets. I do not take them seriously. But of course, no political party should advocate extreme religious views.
Koha Ditore: What do you think about Islam in politics, in general?
I am against mixing religion and politics – but all religion has been involved in politics, and as I said above, our struggle to defend moderate Islam is not non-political. It is a complicated issue that has been cloaked in too much rhetoric. If political Islam means, as it does among the Barelvi Sunnis in Pakistan, opposition to the fundamentalist terror there, I support the political Islam of the Barelvis. If political Islam means, as it did for the Shia Iranians in 2009, demonstrations by the Green movement against clerical dictatorship, I support the political Islam of the Green movement. Where political Islam means a fight for the liberation of the oppressed – which I consider the essential way to interpret God's book, Qur'an al-qerim – I will defend it.
Koha Ditore: Soon, there should be elections for the office of head of the BIK. The process has already showed there are serious conflicts within the BIK itself, between a moderate group and a more extreme one. What is your view of what's going on there?
I think Tërnava made a fatal error when he demanded and obtained apparently the right to a third term as head of BIK. The whole Kosovar people know about the physical attacks on moderate scholars and clerics, the dismissals of teachers and clerics, and all the rest of Tërnava's schemes. But the "amendments" to the constitution, and the events surrounding it, were, I think, the final blow to his credibility. A man who does not care about the dignity of his faith and the believers drew Kosova Muslims away from the straight path. But Kosovars fought back and the front line of the battle is now in the BIK elections.
Koha Ditore: Your Center has publicly contested the credentials of Naim Tërnava as Reis ul-Ulema of the Republic of Kosova. What are your exact doubts?
Naim Tërnava is a plagiarist who appropriated the doctoral work of a Macedonian Muslim scholar, Dr. Zija Abdullah, so that Tërnava could get himself a questionable master's degree. Koha Ditore, the newspaper of record in the republic, reported on our investigation of this. I and my Center, having examined the case with extreme and cautious thoroughness for five years since we first heard about it – acting patiently and honorably, in an Islamic manner – concluded that Tërnava by his academic plagiarism alone is unfit to serve in the BIK in any capacity. His lack of a doctoral degree simply confirms his incompetence to function as reis ul-ulema.
Koha Ditore: And you think Mr. Tërnava has no moral authority to lead the Muslims of Kosova?
I think Naim Tërnava has no moral authority to lead anything. He should find another profession, as I said. Schools need to be rebuilt. The hammer, nails, and building materials are waiting. I would not trust him in any administrative position or any post involving responsibility for money. I would not let him work as a clerk at PTK or KEK, collecting fees from the public.
Koha Ditore: Finally, what do you think the road ahead should be for the Islamic Community of Kosova, what are the greatest risks and what can be done to prevent them?
The BIK should remove Tërnava and his clique, restore its constitution, reinstate the dismissed professors and clerics to their positions, study the deviations of the past 10 years, and return to the example set by another man I am proud to call my friend, Dr. Rexhep Boja. They should bar radical Islamist agitators from entering the country. They can do this with the help of non-religious political figures, the state, and the Sufis. The only risks to Kosova are compromise with radical Islam and surrender to the conspiracies of the Serbs. Both will be defeated, Kosova will be free of foreign interference of every kind, and will become a source of pride for every moderate Muslim in the world.
Note: The Albanian-language text of this article is accessible at http://www.islamicpluralism.org/documents/2289.pdf (page 1) and http://www.islamicpluralism.org/documents/2290.pdf (page 2).
Shënim: Teksti në gjuhën shqipe i këtij neni është i arritshëm në http://www.islamicpluralism.org/documents/2289.pdf (faqe 1) dhe http://www.islamicpluralism.org/documents/2290.pdf (faqe 2).