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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Tirana

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.

In the clash between Wahhabism and moderate Islam in the Balkans, the most prominent battleground at present is the poor but bustling city of Tetovo, in western Macedonia. Many local people are followers of the Bektashi Sufis, a gnostic order named for Hajji Bektash Veli (1209-1271), a Turkish-language poet and friend--some say rival--of Rumi. The Bektashis, like the Shias and the Turkish and Kurdish Alevis, revere Imam Ali. They are without doubt the most active and influential Sufi movement in the Balkans, but they are despised by Wahhabis, for several reasons.

First, they represent a liberal trend among the Shias, and Wahhabis loathe Shias even more than they hate Jews and Christians. Second, the Bektashis consume alcohol. And third, men and women are equals in Bektashi rituals. Several Bektashi babas, as their teachers are known, have insisted to me that they are the "most progressive" element in global Islam, and they back that statement up with a long, proven, and fervent commitment to secular governance and popular education.

Wahhabis and Bektashis are presently locked in an armed standoff at the Bektashi complex known as the Harabati Tekke, in Tetovo. This large enclave of varied structures, many of them dating from the 18th century, is famous throughout the region, and appears on Tetovo's municipal shield. Under Titoite communism, it was nationalized and turned into a hotel and entertainment complex. Since the fall of the Communist regime, the government has failed to settle the matter of ownership. In 2002, however, in the aftermath of Slav-Albanian ethnic fighting, a group of Wahhabis including Arabs, equipped with automatic weapons, seized a major building inside the Harabati complex, formerly used for Sufi meditation.

I visited the Harabati Tekke in March for the Central Asian pre-Islamic holiday of Nevruz, a springtime observance that is favored by Sufis. Because the Bektashis have no friends in the Macedonian government who might rescue them from their tormenters, the Wahhabis, whose Kalashnikovs are never far out of sight, have proceeded to occupy more structures in the Harabati Tekke. Bektashis do not perform the normal daily prayers prescribed for Muslims, but the Wahhabis do, and they have taken over a guest house and dubbed it a mosque, broadcasting a tape of the call to prayer in a thick and indistinct voice. They have also seized a central building with glass windows and covered the panes with black paper, on the pretext that women praying inside do not want to be observed. And they have cut down some ancient trees, to the Sufis' disgust.

Thus, the Albanian lands are witnessing three of the tactics commonly employed by Saudi-financed radicals seeking to export bloody terror. In Kosovo, they mainly burrow deep undercover, like moles. Where they can, as in Albania, they preach and recruit; thus, the stunning Ethem Bey mosque in the capital, Tirana, purely a cultural monument until recently, is now the scene of Wahhabi missionizing. And where government is indifferent and the extremists' chosen enemies appear vulnerable, as in Macedonia, they invade, occupy, and threaten.

In long discussions with the Bektashis in Tetovo, I was repeatedly assured of their willingness to assist the United States and other democratic nations in rooting out Islamist radicalism in any way they can, from providing intelligence to encouraging greater Albanian involvement in Iraq, where 120 elite noncombat Albanian troops are serving with Coalition forces.

"We want to help, but we need help," said an authoritative Bektashi figure as he sketched out for me the network of extremist agitation in the region--from revived centers of Sunni radicalism in Turkey to cells hidden unobtrusively in places like Peshkopia, a small, ancient town near glacial lakes in the wild mountains of eastern Albania, to Tetovo, where the Bektashis daily watch their historic institution fall under the control of fanatics bent on their destruction. Although the Bektashis have many humble supporters, few are prepared to disrupt their own lives by taking on the Wahhabis. Thus the export of the Saudi-financed jihad continues unhampered.

Yet the Bektashis are not friendless. Among those willing to assist them, interestingly, are the communities of Turkish and Kurdish Alevi Muslims living in Germany and other Western European countries. Inspired by the legacy of Hajji Bektash and committed to secularism, women's equality, and popular schooling, the 600,000 German Alevis are a bulwark against Islamist radicalism in their country of adoption or, in many cases, of their birth.

Some young Alevis I interviewed in Cologne said they would gladly go to Macedonia to clean out the Wahhabis if encouraged to do so. But all over Europe, moderate Muslims expect their governments to act. They seem destined to be disappointed. European states are frozen in a posture of accommodation, willful oblivion, ignorance, and simple denial of the reality: The enemy will not be beaten so long as he finds places to rekindle his jihad.


Arriving in Sarajevo for Rumi's eighth centennial, I found a city reminiscent of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War--suffering under a "horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred," as Orwell wrote. Saudi Wahhabis played only a minor role in the Bosnian war of 1992-95, but they attempted to use the aftermath of that combat, which left Bosnia prostrate, to turn the local Muslims, with their Sufi traditions and life-affirming mentality, into dour fundamentalists. After the atrocities of September 11, 2001, the Wahhabis seemed on the surface to have failed. But their strategy is different in Sarajevo from those they have adopted in Tetovo and Tirana.

The Bosnian capital is more European, more cosmopolitan, more modern--and there the checkbook works better than heated rhetoric or direct confrontation. Prominent Muslim moderates are now hesitant to speak out or to associate themselves, as they previously did, with condemnation of Wahhabism--even though physical clashes in Bosnia and Serbia have fed resentment of the Wahhabis in village mosques. Rumors abound that Wahhabis are successfully penetrating Bosnia's main Islamic institutions. They are publicly talking about setting up their own parallel religious administration.

The commemoration of Rumi was held on March 30 at the Faculty of Islamic Sciences, a lovely 19th-century building on a high hill in Sarajevo. The Bosnian scholar Resid Hafizovic, one of the world's great authorities on Sufism and a pronounced enemy of the Wahhabis, said Rumi "calls for friendship, collaboration, peace, and fraternal relations between people, invoking love towards all human beings as the supreme Divine creation, regardless of the religious, cultural, civilizational, or spiritual garments in which each of us mundane beings is clad. As a result, when Rumi died, his funeral was attended by mourners of many faiths: Muslims, but also Christians, Jews, Hindus, and others. His words convey this inclusiveness." Hafizovic went on to quote Rumi:

Whoever you may be, come

Even though you may be

An unbeliever, a pagan or a fire-

 worshipper, come

Our brotherhood is not one of despair

Even though you may have broken

Your vows of repentance a hundred

 times, come.

The lecture hall was overflowing during Professor Hafizovic's presentation, with no Wahhabi beards, outfits, or censorious comments discernible. The program included poems of Rumi set to the guitar, a style of religious performance that is popular in the Balkans--and loathed by Wahhabis, who object to singing set to anything other than a primitive drum, even when its content is religious. A novel aspect of the event was the participation of a delegation of three Arabs--a teacher and two imams--from a Sufi school in Israel. These Israeli citizens offered the Bosnians a fresh view of the Middle East.

Perhaps the most surprising message brought by the delegation from the Al Qasemi Academy in Baqa al Garbya, Israel, was their description of the sharia courts maintained by the state of Israel for resolution of disputes among Muslims. Sharia courts are scarce in the Balkans, and the explanation that Israel recognizes religious courts for Jews and Muslims (and, if they desire them, Christians) alongside the civil judicial apparatus, with the right of anybody to opt in or out of the alternative systems, was provocative for Bosnian Muslims.

By welcoming their Israeli Arab brethren, the Bosnians--who endured a terrible war in the 1990s, but faithfully hewed to a Sufi vision of Islam--demonstrated that dedication to the spirit of Rumi is a living and positive element in Muslim culture. Rumi is thus more important for Muslims themselves than for casual Western readers looking for a few pages of easy enlightenment. Rumi "the European" could be emblematic of a reborn, cooperative mentality in relations between Islam and the West.

In such an encounter, the approach to moderate Islam embodied in the recent Rand report appears justified in the strategic defense of the democracies. But in the streets of Balkan towns, the terrorist enemy is once again present, and while commemorations of Sufi poets may invigorate an alternative to extremism, they will not suffice to defeat it. We will need serious help from moderate Muslims, in the Balkans and elsewhere, and they will again need help from us.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.