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

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.