Moderate Clerics Purged from Kosova Muslim Leadership
by Stephen Schwartz
Kosova's top Islamic cleric, Naim Tërnava, last month purged the two most outspoken anti-radical preachers from the local Sunni religious apparatus. The dismissal of Mullah Osman Musliu of the Drenas region and Imam Idriz Bilalli of the Podujeva municipality—both proven moderates—from the official Islamic Community of Kosova followed the foundation by Musliu, Bilalli, and others of a Professional Association of Islamic Community Workers as a platform for their criticism of Tërnava, whom they accuse of sympathy for extremist ideology.
Musliu was brutally attacked in 2009 by a gang of fundamentalist Wahhabis. The assailants were identified as strangers by Muslims in the locality. But they were easy to detect as Wahhabis, with characteristic unkempt beards and short breeches of a kind unknown in the Balkans except among Islamist fanatics. Wahhabis claim that Muhammad did not trim his beard, and did not let his garments touch the ground. Although these claims are matters of legend, the Saudi-financed and Pakistani-directed agitators claim that affecting distinctive facial hair and a peculiar costume are necessary to restore the purity of early Islam.
Neither the first nor the last moderate Kosovar Muslim representative to be physically assaulted by Islamist radicals, Musliu was a victim in an intimidation campaign that began in the small, Muslim-majority Balkan republic at the end of 2008. But the Wahhabis made a significant mistake in their aggression against Musliu, who is known among Kosovars for his willingness to serve alone as imam at the funeral in 1998 of Adem Jashari, the main early commander of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA). Jashari was killed by Serb soldiers, along with 57 of his relatives, in the burning of his home. When he was targeted by extremists in 2009, Musliu said forthrightly, "They can kill me, but I will not be intimidated. Their goal is simple. They want to take over the Islamic Community of Kosova."
Since then, the conflict between a minority of radical sympathizers in the Kosova Islamic leadership and the moderate majority of Kosovar Muslims has widened. When the 2011 academic term began, the pro-Wahhabi Tërnava removed seven respected professors from the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Prishtina, the Kosova capital, putting radical ideologues in their places. On May 25, the seven expelled professors charged that the new appointees were " 'lecturers' without the appropriate research credentials or with fake titles and degrees … influenced by foreign ideologies, with rigid and extremist orientations ... paid by foreign groups to promote their beliefs."
Next, contentious Muslim demonstrations began unexpectedly in Kosova, summoned by a movement called "Join!" to hold prayer sessions in public. Its leader, Fuad Ramiqi, had been involved in last year's attempt by an Islamist flotilla to break the Israeli naval blockade at Gaza, and is associated with the Qatar-based fundamentalist cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, as well as Al-Qaradawi's academic partner, Tariq Ramadan.
"Join!" demanded the erection of a "mega-mosque" in Prishtina, a city that already possesses 22 mosques. Albanian Catholics have also been the object of hate speech by a proud Wahhabi exponent, Imam Shefqet Krasniqi. "Join!" launched an unsuccessful offensive to allow Muslim girls to wear the headscarf (hijab) in public primary and secondary schools—an effort defeated because Kosova is constitutionally defined as secular. The Kosova parliament last month excluded protection of hijab and religious instruction of any kind from public schools.
Throughout these conflicts, Mullah Osman Musliu continued his blunt criticism of Tërnava's role as head of the Muslim community. At the beginning of September, when Musliu and Bilalli announced the foundation of their Professional Association, Tërnava removed them from their posts as religious leaders. Musliu said he would continue to direct Muslim devotional practices in Drenas.
The moderates stated, "Naim Tërnava and his clan inside the Kosova Islamic Community [known by its Albanian initials as BIK], under the influence of foreign individuals and organizations, decided to dismiss Idriz Bilalli as the chairman of the BIK Council in Podujeva and Osman Musliu as chairman of the BIK Council in Drenas, because of the foundation of the above-mentioned association, because they raised their voice publicly against the mismanagement of BIK, and against its falling under control of foreign individuals and organizations, which carry the banners of foreign political Islamic movements."
Bilalli told the lively Kosova opposition daily Express that Tërnava is "trying to encourage extremist groups against us." Mullah Osman Musliu added that Tërnava is afraid of transparency in the Muslim leadership structure, since "he does not want anybody to get a glimpse of what he has been up to" during his seven-year tenure as Kosova's Sunni religious leader.
The main effect of the contretemps has been the open description of Tërnava as an "extremist" in Kosova media. The online comment section of Express included a post signed by "Uqalija," from rural Kosova, warning that Tërnava, the anti-Christian preacher Shefqet Krasniqi, and Ramiqi all have radical ties, and calling on the Kosova authorities to "isolate and punish these terrorists. Tomorrow, when Kosova is Pakistanized, it will be too late." A writer from Prishtina, identified as "Flamuri," which can be either an Albanian proper name or mean "the national flag," declared succinctly, "Once, Serbia was the enemy of the Kosovar Albanians. Now the enemy of all Albanians is political Islam … down with political Islam."
As the controversy was discussed by the Kosova public, the "Join!" movement continued its public prayers in front of Kosova government offices, but with declining attendance. The radical group now concentrates on promoting itself organizationally. Ramiqi, the "Join!" chief, has said he will continue to fight for the Islamic headscarf in schools, with such ominous phraseology as, "War is made by lions and peace is enjoyed by hyenas." While the Kosova government is led by veterans of the KLA, Ramiqi, a former member of the ex-Yugoslav army, claims that he, not they, fought for the republic's independence.
Kosovar Albanian Muslims are much more open than many other such communities in combating radical Islam. Their firm defense of moderate Islam in the Balkans should not be ignored.