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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.