Friday, 15 December 2017 | News today: 7

Stephen Suleyman Schwartz – The Balkan Muslims have been targeted by radicals in the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabi movement

I believe the Islamic Community of Macedonia has revealed its fanatical agenda by its persecution of the Bektashis in Tetovo as well as by its hospitality to the Ramadan brothers and the EMN.  Thus, we must conclude that the Islamic Community of Macedonia is already under the control of radicals from outside the region.  

 

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.

Schwartz:  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, 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 leaders.  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.

What is your stand on the conflict between the Islamic Community of Macedonia (ICM) and the Bektashi community in the country?

Schwartz:  The hostility of the official Islamic Community of Macedonia toward the Bektashis in the country is disgraceful and despicable.  The Bektashis are a major cultural and spiritual influence in Albanian life, and it is in the interest of the Macedonian authorities to assist them in defending themselves against radical aggression.  Above all, given the discrimination against the Macedonian Orthodox Church by Serb clerical authorities, the Macedonian government should recognize that it has an interest in preserving religious pluralism, not in supporting monopoly status among religious believers.   I have long advocated an alliance between the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Bektashis, and the Albanian Catholics in Macedonia to oppose both the encroachments of Serbian usurpers in the Christian churches and the forced radicalization of the Muslims.  The Macedonian state should support and protect such an alliance, based on official secularism.

The American author Christopher Deliso has been writing about the influence of certain Pakistani-based Islamic organization on the Macedonian Muslims especially in the west part of the country?  What is your reaction to this?

Schwartz: Christopher Deliso is known far and wide as an ignorant, demagogic Islamophobe whose only concern is to stir panic and fear.  This is an individual who 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 on a global basis and centered in the most powerful Muslim state.  We are no longer in the 13th century where 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 establishment, and it is impossible to imagine its emergence in the Balkans.  An attempt at a Wahhabi “caliphate” failed decades ago in Saudi Arabia.  Finally, 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 hallucinated nonsense.  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 Tetovo and other western Macedonia cities and have never found Pakistani influence to be of significance there.

Recently in one village 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. For many years people with different religion have been living together and now we are facing open animosity.

Schwartz: 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 tekija in Tetovo 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 among them 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.

How easily can religious tensions influence the common life of Albanians and Macedonians?

Schwartz:  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.

Albanians in Macedonia are opposed to other ethnic communities having their own churches like the Roma people in Prilep. Even the Turks have only one mosque in Skopje where preaching in Turkish is possible only once each week. Why is that so when the Muslim religion does not divide the believers on ethnic or other criteria?

Schwartz: If Albanian Muslim leaders in Macedonia oppose the cultural and traditional autonomy of other Muslims their position is un-Islamic and wrong.  It is absurd 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.

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?

Schwartz:  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 tekija in Tetovo, 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.

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 Kosovo and Serbia, though its intentions may be different in each place.  In Kosovo 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 Guantanamo.”

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.

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?

Schwartz: 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.

You claim that Wahhabi and Brotherhood radicals in Macedonia have close contacts with the leader of the Kosovo Muslims, Naim Ternava? Do you have concrete information about these groups and theirs aims?

Schwartz:  The connections between Ternava and the radicals in Macedonia are well known, as seen in his past approval of the spurious European Council for Fatwas and Research [ECFR].  This is a dangerous, ideological body that claims to provide guidance for European Muslims but which is composed almost entirely of Arab and African Muslim fundamentalists, with no involvement at all by the French Muslim leaders, who are the outstanding moderate Muslims in Western Europe.

The radicals have tried, with the assistance of Ternava 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.

Kosovo 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 Kosovo Muslims?

Schwartz: The European Union, the United Nations, and even the U.S. State Department have failed to assist Kosovo in efficiently modernizing its political, legal, and social institutions.  Discontent with what I have called the “international humanitarian mafia” is high in Kosovo.  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 Kosovo Albanians will lead them to radical Islam. In Kosovo the extremists attempting to take full control of the official clerical apparatus are, I believe, opposed overwhelmingly by the moderate majority of believers.

You claim that radical Islamists reach for control over Kosovo Muslims. What about Muslims in Macedonia? Who controls them? Do such groups have close relations with the Islamic Community of Macedonia and its leader?

Schwartz: To emphasize the comments I made in response to the first question, I believe the Islamic Community of Macedonia has revealed its fanatical agenda by its persecution of the Bektashis in Tetovo as well as by its hospitality to the Ramadan brothers and the EMN.  Thus, we must conclude that the Islamic Community of Macedonia is already under the control of radicals from outside the region.  The attacks on the Harabati Baba tekija are a disgrace to Macedonia, its history, and its people, and should never have been tolerated.

Are these radical structures connected with political figures in Macedonia and the region and how strong are those ties?

Schwartz: I cannot comment on specific political involvement 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.

Is it possible the traditions and heritage of moderate Islam will win against Islamic extremism?

Schwartz: 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.

You’re born as a child of a Jewish father and Protestant mother, but your family was not religious (as it states at Wikipedia). What was the main reason to convert to Islam?

Schwartz:  I reject the term “convert” because to “convert” is to change religions and I did not previously have a religion.  I became a Muslim as a journalist writing on the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, because I saw the Bosnian Muslims, while suffering greatly, hewing to moderate attitudes and fighting for the right to live with their non-Muslim neighbors rather than for jihad. In Sarajevo, I found the religion I had been looking for.

Which are the main reasons for people to accept radical Islam? Faith, violence, protection, money?

Schwartz:  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.

Nenad Mirchevski