Moderate Balkan Muslims Are Targeted By Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood
Stephen Sulejman Schwartz, 2013 -- Photograph by K.S. Rolph, reproduction prohibited without permission of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.
Republika: Mr. Schwartz, you follow very closely developments within Islam. You are also a very strong critic of Islamic fundamentalism. What are the risks you see from Islamist extremism in the Balkans, and in Macedonia?
The Balkan Muslims have been targeted, clearly, by radicals in the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as representatives of the Wahhabi movement. This is obvious to anybody who visits the region and knows the situation there. As the most outrageous example, I would cite the terroristic campaign against the Bektashi Sufis of the Harabati Baba teqe in Tetova, conducted by Wahhabi radicals with the complicity of the official Islamic Community of Macedonia. This situation has been recognized and criticized by the U.S. State Department for 10 years.
The Harabati Baba Bektashi Sufi teqe, Tetova, Macedonia, 2007 -- Photograph by Stephen Sulejman Schwartz.
A second indicator of the bad situation in the Macedonian Muslim communities is the local activity of the so-called Islamic Youth Forum, known by its Albanian initials as FRI, which in 2011 hosted a lecture on European Islam by Hani Ramadan, brother of the "Muslim intellectual superstar" Tariq Ramadan. The Ramadan brothers are grandsons of Hassan Al-Banna, creator of the Muslim Brotherhood, and have played notable roles in the spread of radical ideology among the Muslims in the West. Tariq Ramadan has been associated with the Qatar-based hate preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and is now a leading figure in the "European Muslim Network" (EMN).
That the EMN held its June 2013 General Assembly in Macedonia is extremely disturbing. Even more alarming is the extension of the EMN into Kosova and Serbia, though its intentions may be different in each place. In Kosova the EMN aims to radicalize the Muslims and mobilize them against the secular state, while in Serbia the EMN and the radicals that stand behind it appear more politically opportunistic – they simply want influence with the official, non-Muslim institutions. But the position of the EMN is adequately revealed by its appeals for prayers for "the brothers in Guantánamo."
In addition, Hani Ramadan, whom the EMN sponsored in Skopje, had already become notorious when he was dismissed from the mosque he directed in Geneva, as well as from a Swiss state teaching post, for publishing an article in France defending the punishment of stoning for adulterers. Stoning and other such practices do not exist among Balkan Muslims and there is no excuse for agitation among them in favor of such ideological fundamentalism.
Republika: You have extensive knowledge of developments in the region. What do you mean when you say that the situation of Islamic extremism in Macedonia is disastrous?
Balkan Islam has been neglected both by the Muslim powers and by the West, yet in my view it represents the healthiest characteristics in global Islam today. Balkan Muslims are genuine and indigenous European Muslims who have developed a unique and forward-looking world view. For this reason I have long argued that Balkan Muslims should become the recognized leaders of Islam in Western as well as southeast Europe, with a stronger spiritual and intellectual influence worldwide. A surrender to radicalism in the Balkan Islamic communities would make such developments impossible. Balkan Muslims should provide leadership for Arab, Central Asian, and other Muslims as the Russian Muslim progressives of the Jadidiyya movement did in the past.
Republika: You claim that Wahhabi and Brotherhood radicals in Macedonia have close contacts with the leader of the Kosova Muslims, Naim Tërnava. Do you have concrete information about these groups and their aims?
The current chief cleric of Kosova, the pro-Wahhabi Naim Tërnava, behind and to the left of the late Mu'ammar Al-Qadhdhafi. Directly left of and next to Al-Qadhdhafi stands former Bosnian chief Islamic cleric Mustafa Cerić.
The radicals have tried, with the assistance of Tërnava and his clique, to import the conflicts of the failed "Arab Spring" and the aftermath of its collapse, which have aggravated the existing extremist tendencies, into the Balkans.
Republika: Kosova is a constitutionally secular state in which women play leading political rules, none of them appearing in anything other than modern dress, and fanatical Islamist moral standards are unpopular among them. Why do you think that radical Islam is reaching for control over Kosova Muslims?
The European Union, the United Nations, and even the U.S. State Department have failed to assist Kosova in efficiently modernizing its political, legal, and social institutions. Discontent with what I have called the "international humanitarian mafia" is high in Kosova. The radicals view this as a field of opportunity and appeal to the disaffected while also attempting to buy the loyalty of those in need economically.
Still, as in the Bosnian war, the current Syrian civil war reminds us that while ideology and money are crucial to sustaining radical Islamist movements, a sense of protest, anxiety, and a desire to defend Islam develops naturally when Muslims suffer oppression. But I do not think the instinct toward political protest of Kosovar Albanians will lead them to radical Islam. In Kosova the extremists attempting to take full control of the official clerical apparatus are, I believe, opposed overwhelmingly by the moderate majority of believers.
Republika: You claim that radical Islamists are reaching for control over Kosovar Muslims. What about Muslims in Macedonia? Who controls them? Do such groups have close relations with the Islamic Community of Macedonia and its leader?
Radical Islamist destruction at Harabati Baba teqe, 2010 -- Photograph by Bektashi Community of the Republic of Macedonia.
Republika: Are these radical structures connected with political figures in Macedonia and the region and how strong are those ties?
I cannot comment on specific political involvements by Muslim radicals in Macedonia. Such links are the subject of much speculation. I do believe, however, that certain Christian Macedonian political trends favor the radicalization of the Muslims. While this seems paradoxical or even absurd, a strategy by non-Muslim political leaders that subsidizes the radicals with the goal of marginalizing the moderate Muslims as well as dividing Muslim-minority communities, such as the Albanians in Macedonia, is visible in Serbia and Russia. Serbia and Russia both have their "state-approved" Muslim "representatives" who promote the regimes in power by sowing confusion among their Muslim opponents, who are generally moderate.
Republika: How would you describe the internal conflict within Albanian Muslim society regarding different interpretations of the Islamic religion? It is obvious that many moderate Muslims in Macedonia are afraid of the trends coming from Middle East but they are quiet about this.
The effort to penetrate, infiltrate the leadership, and dominate the Balkan Muslim communities by radicals from the Middle East has produced differing reactions according to the sociology of the country in which it takes place. Macedonian Muslims, whether ethnically Slav or Albanian or Turkish, are an apparent minority in the republic and the Albanians of Macedonia, in particular, feel they are objects of discrimination. They therefore have a tendency to accept defensively their religious and political leadership – which in the area of faith has been imposed upon them – as protectors and representatives against the hostility of non-Muslims. Tension with their neighbors produces a distorted impulse toward "Muslim unity" and reluctance to criticize their own official elite. In addition, the Macedonian Albanian Muslim community, being poor in financial and other resources, is a natural target for well-funded extremists coming from abroad. Muslims and Macedonian Albanian Christians should not remain silent about this. It is imperative that they defend their local and historic traditions against manipulation and exploitation by those whose effect will be to undermine their position in society, and to further diminish, even dangerously, respect for their religious, social, ethnic, and political rights.
Republika: What is your stand on the conflict between the Islamic Community of Macedonia (ICM) and the Bektashi community in the country?
At the Harabati Baba teqe – Photograph 2010 by the Bektashi Community of the Republic of Macedonia.
Republika: The American author Christopher Deliso has been writing about the influence of certain Pakistani-based Islamic organizations on the Macedonian Muslims especially in the west part of the country. What is your reaction to this?
Deliso wrote a book called The Coming Balkan Caliphate. That is ridiculous. Deliso obviously does not know or care that a caliphate would have to be established among Muslims on a global basis and centered in the most powerful Muslim state. We are no longer in the 13th century when an isolated local caliphate could appear in Muslim Spain or conflicting caliphates could function for a time in the Middle East. A caliphate would be the object of rivalry over its mere location, and it is impossible to imagine its emergence in the Balkans. Deliso is obviously unaware that Slav Muslims and Albanian Muslims do not love each other much, and that Albanian Muslims are resentful of Slav dominance in Balkan Islam. The notion of Albanian Muslims and Balkan Slav Muslims, especially Bosnians, uniting in a caliphate is senseless. The problem in western Macedonia involves the Islamic Community of Macedonia in Skopje, not wayward interlopers from Pakistan. What do Muslims in Macedonia have in common with agitators from Pakistan? If such elements appear they do so with the complicity of the official Islamic apparatus. I spend a great deal of time in Tetova and other western Macedonian cities and have never found Pakistani influence to be of significance there.
The municipal shield of the city of Tetova, depicting the Harabati Baba teqe around which the town was built. The municipal authorities have failed to assist the Bektashis at the teqe against the Wahhabi interlopers.
Republika: Recently in the village of Oktisi [in the west of the country] local citizens blocked the road for the people who wanted to reconstruct an old church, which was not the case in the centuries preceding us.
It is imperative, and urgently so, for the people of Macedonia to avoid quarrels ostensibly based on religion. Macedonia has the opportunity to become an example of effective religious pluralism. Were the Macedonian government to expel the Wahhabi invaders from the Bektashi Harabati Baba teqe in Tetova and restore it to its founders and rightful owners, the authorities in Skopje would gain support from Sufis and traditionalists throughout the Muslim world. Similarly, if the Bektashis and other moderate Muslims assist the Macedonian Orthodox believers in their just effort for autocephaly, the Muslims would inspire a new attitude of cooperation in their ranks, with the Orthodox churches that are not infected with nationalist and imperialist pretensions. The latter include, in my view, the Montenegrin and Albanian Orthodox Christians.
Republika: How easily can religious tensions influence the common life of Albanians and Macedonians?
The addition of religious hostility to the recent, tense relationship between the two main communities in Macedonia is dangerous and can only aggravate an already difficult situation. The Macedonia government has included Albanian political partners. Religious believers should work to minimize confrontation and support reconciliation between the two ethnic groups.
Republika: Albanians in Macedonia are opposed to other ethnic communities having their own religious facilities, for example, a mosque for Roma people in the town of Prilep. Even the Turks have only one mosque in Skopje where Turkish is heard. Why is that so when the Muslim religion does not divide the believers on ethnic or other criteria?
If Albanian Muslim leaders in Macedonia oppose the cultural and traditional autonomy of other Muslims their position is un-Islamic and wrong. It is silly to pretend that Islam has not, like Judaism and Christianity, produced differentiation along ethnic and other lines. The idea that there is only "one Islam" is a radical myth. Albanian Muslim leaders in Macedonia, to emphasize, should support pluralism and avoid any temptations to hegemony.
Republika: Is it possible the traditions and heritage of moderate Islam will win against Islamic extremism?
We live in God's world, not Satan's world. Islam has survived for 14 centuries by rejecting extremism at various times and places. Islam will continue to flourish by returning to the straight path of moderate, traditional, conventional, spiritual, and even conservative (but not radical) Islam. Any other outcome is impossible for me to conceive.
Republika: You were born of a Jewish father and Protestant Christian mother, but your family was not religious. What was the main reason to convert to Islam?
Photograph by K.S. Rolph, reproduction prohibited without permission of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.
Republika: Which are the main reasons for people to accept radical Islam? Faith, violence, protection, money?
To again emphasize a previous point, in the past I was more inclined to see Islamist radicalism as a product of imported ideology and money rather than of oppression and suffering. Nevertheless, the horrors of Syria have reminded me that while the Bosnians were not jihadis, their martyrdom stirred great concern in every Muslim. Today, radical Islam has a renewed appeal of resistance to gross hostility and hatred directed against the Muslims. I still believe, as I have throughout my experience in studying the problem, that radical Islam is not a product of conviction, faith or knowledge of the religion. Radicalized Muslims tend to act out of fear, while faith inspires confidence and courage. More often, Muslims become radical to prove their faith to themselves as individuals or to their families and immediate communities rather than to express their understanding and devotion to the religion. Often, they are weak in faith and knowledge of Islam, and hope to make up for their self-perception of failure as Muslims by undertaking extreme actions.
Schwartz at one of the finest Islamic monuments in the Balkans, the 15th c. CE Mustafa Pasha Mosque, Skopje/Shkupi, Macedonia, 2013. Photograph by Daut Dauti.
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