The Magazine

The Balkan Front

The Wahhabis are up to no good in southern Europe.

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Taking the temperature of Islam in the Balkans this spring is only partly reassuring. In Sarajevo in late March, observances for the 800th anniversary of the birth of the great Sufi poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi (who is hugely popular, incidentally, with American readers) were entirely in keeping with the moderate, peaceful character of the Islam of the region. Yet at the same time, a visitor to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia encountered unmistakable evidence that extremist intruders are opening a Balkan front in the global jihad.

The celebration in Sarajevo--to which we will return--marked what UNESCO is calling the "Year of Rumi." It was only one of several commemorative events taking place around the world. Rumi's work, written in Farsi, has been translated into every major language; a Google search turns up four million references to him.

Born in Afghanistan, Rumi moved west to Asia Minor, where he died in 1273. The area had been part of the eastern Roman Empire until two centuries before, and the name "Rumi" is a descriptive meaning "the Roman"--in effect, "the European." Rumi's tomb, in Konya, Turkey, is the object of innumerable pilgrimages, at least among Muslims not opposed to the honoring of graves. One Muslim country where Rumi is unlikely to be publicly feted is Saudi Arabia, whose official fundamentalist Wahhabi sect, the inspiration for al Qaeda, opposes the honoring or even the marking of graves, and generally forces Sufism underground. In neighboring Iraq, by contrast, Sufism flourishes openly, even in the face of Wahhabi attacks, and Rumi's work is read in both Arabic and Farsi.

Rumi is an apostle of love, and his faith exemplifies the tradition of Muslim moderation that is singled out for praise in a new study by the Rand Corporation, Building Moderate Muslim Networks. The Rand report proposes a global alliance between the democracies and moderate Islam comparable to the Cold War era campaign by Western governments, supporting anti-Communist liberals and social democrats, to contain and ultimately undermine Soviet rule. The moderate Muslims, from the Balkans through Central Asia and India to Southeast Asia, could "encircle" and challenge the radical Islam of the core Arab countries. Balkan Muslim cultures in particular are among those most saturated with Sufism, and are singled out in the Rand report as a potential base for partnership with the democratic powers in the strengthening of moderate Islam.

Yet even in the Balkans, all is not peace and poetry. The ominous presence of Wahhabi missionaries, financiers, terror recruiters, and other mischief-makers bespeaks a fresh offensive in that tormented land. From the new Wahhabi seminary in the lovely Bosnian city of Zenica, to the cobblestone streets of Sarajevo's old Ottoman center, to the Muslim-majority villages in southern Serbia, extremist Sunni men in their distinctive, untrimmed beards and short, Arab style breeches (worn in imaginary emulation of Muhammad), accompanied by women in face veils and full body coverings (a bizarre novelty in the contemporary Balkans), are again appearing, funded by reactionary Saudis and Pakistanis. They aim to widen the horizon of global jihad--witness the revived campaign of terrorism in Morocco and Algeria. In the Balkans, their targets are both Sufis and traditional Muslims.

Within Albania itself, Wahhabi activism remains minimal, concentrated on individual outreach (dawa) in mosques and backed up by fundamentalist literature flooding into the country. In Kosovo, although Saudi Arabia maintains a relief office in the capital, Prishtina, Wahhabis keep an even lower profile, since most Kosovar Albanians are outspoken in their support for the United States and hostile to any indication of Islamist designs. But elswhere, trouble is afoot.

In neighboring Montenegro and districts of southern Serbia, the Wah habi presence is open and even violent. Wahhabis have disrupted religious services, yelling abuse at imams for not following their practices, and have precipitated gunfire between ordinary people as well as fatal confrontations with local police. Most recently, on April 20, a Wahhabi was killed in a clash with police in the southern Serbian town of Novi Pazar. In Bosnia, on April 27, a cache of automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, bombs, ammunition, and related material was seized in the remote north western village of Upper Barska. The owner of the house where the weapons were discovered, 47-year-old Ahmet Mustafic, was described as a Wahhabi by people in the village and in the Bosnian media. The location has been a Wahhabi hot spot for some time.