Fissures in Balkan Islam

Macedonia's Muslims are likely to elect a moderate leader soon, but extremism persists.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

For Muslims in this small Balkan country, the Ottoman Empire's Islamic legacy still endures. However, some say Arab rivals are seeking to undermine it.

"When my cousin entered university in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis offered him 200 euros a month and an apartment if he would spread their customs back in Macedonia," says Blerim, a young ethnic Albanian and Muslim who didn't want to give his last name for security reasons. "He accepted, and my uncle is quite concerned."

The tensions in Blerim's family are being felt throughout Macedonia's growing Muslim community ahead of its elections later this month for a new national leader, or reis. Tapping into young Muslims' disdain for the older generation, which many see as corrupt, bureaucratic, and uneducated, fundamentalists - pejoratively referred to as Wahhabis - are turning some in the younger generation toward more conservative interpretations of Islam.

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"Some of our students in the Arabic world do consider [the Arab] version of Islam as more authentic," concedes Muhamed Zeqiri, a young Albanian journalist and graduate of Macedonia's Kondovo madrassah. "However, the extremists can't establish a foothold here - Muslims here are pro-Western, and prefer the moderate Ottoman tradition."

Ferid Muhic, a widely respected philosophy professor, agrees, saying "the Wahhabi lifestyle is just too ascetic for most people's tastes."

Yet, since Macedonia's independence in 1991, the fundamentalists have established a small but persistent presence. With their long black beards and wives veiled head-to-toe in black, they are conspicuous in this fairly liberal society. Their secrecy and self-isolation have also raised suspicions of outside funding.

"They don't have jobs, yet somehow they survive, " says Vebija Fejzulovski, a TV director in the southwestern village of Labunishta. "And their families live well here while [the men] are off for months in Pakistan or Afghanistan."

In a country with numerous social ills, most choose to let the fundamentalists be, perhaps for good reason. When another young Albanian journalist, who did not want to be named, started investigating their funding, he was warned to "think about your family first."

Professor Muhic says many fundamentalists are "just kids going through a phase," but they nevertheless have raised concerns internationally. In December 2004, French terrorism expert Claude Moniquet of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center claimed that up to 100 fundamentalists "who are dangerous and linked to terrorist organizations" were operating in Macedonia. Other Macedonian and European security officials surveyed since agree that a small group of local Muslims, exposed to fundamentalism in Muslim states or by Arab proselytizers, are quietly promoting extremist goals.

"We, and our foreign colleagues also, don't consider Macedonia a terrorist target," says one Macedonian intelligence officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We are more worried about being used as a logistics or recruitment base for attacks in the West. We are monitoring some of these Wahhabis closely."

Adding that Al Qaeda has financial links with local crime gangs, Mr. Moniquet in 2004 accused the most powerful Muslim in Skopje, Zenun Berisha, of supporting "very radical Islam." As chief mufti of Macedonia's capital, Mr. Berisha staffed mosques and the Macedonia Islamic Community (IVZ) administration with fundamentalists.

And because his followers still partially control IVZ funds, imams such as Abdurahim Yashari, who "refused to worship Zenun Berisha," haven't been paid in years. A former interior minister, Pavle Trajanov, who worked with Berisha in the late 1990s, insists, however, that Moniquet's allegations against Berisha were "propaganda" by ethnic Albanian political rivals.

Last summer, an armed attack on moderate clerics - which the clerics blamed on those close to Berisha - shook the IVZ leadership. However, political pressure from the major ethnic Albanian parties helped restore order, and last week Acting Mufti Taxhedin Bislimi won a commanding victory in a preliminary election round. Mr. Berisha withdrew just before the voting.

Mr. Bislimi, who was among the clerics attacked last summer, says he believes the fundamentalists are now unmoored. Saying they have "turned on Berisha, probably because he couldn't pay them," he dismisses them as "uneducated and impressionable - some have drug problems or criminal records."

Bislimi and the IVZ are also troubled by sensationalized local media reports that have hurt Muslims' image. "Because of a few hotheads, we've all been given a bad reputation," he laments.

Indeed, many Muslims feel they are being unfairly tarnished by biased media. Remzi Isaku, a young, soft-spoken imam from the northern village of Saraj, says such "propaganda" ignores the fact that most young Muslims - even foreign-trained, bearded ones such as himself - are progressive and committed to revitalizing Ottoman traditions.

"I know my people and our legacy very well," says Isaku, after leading prayers. "An Arab professor once told me, 'I couldn't be imam in your place - your people have a different mind-set.' It's true. And I couldn't serve in his place, either."

If foreign money originally fueled fundamentalism in Macedonia, squabbling among Muslim elders has kept it alive, says Professor Muhic. If the IVZ can purge troublemakers and resolve its disputes, he says, fundamentalism will eventually "either disappear or continue only in isolated small communities."

According to Isaku, stability depends on younger imams who are well educated - and thus have credibility in the eyes of youths. "Correct Islamic teaching is the key," he says. "It resolves social problems, and it prevents radicalism."

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