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Radical Islamists Reach for Control Over Kosovo Muslims

2:09 PM, Aug 7, 2013 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The Balkan republic of Kosovo has not been spared infiltration by Islamist extremism. In June, Imam Irfan Salihu from the historic and multifaith southern Kosovo city of Prizren—the country’s second largest after the capital, Pristina—was relieved of his mosque duties after delivering a harangue in which he accused Kosovar Albanian women of being “prostitutes” and exhorted their husbands to abandon them. Salihu, it was noted, criticized only the behavior of women, and not of men.

kosovo flag

Notwithstanding its overwhelmingly Muslim population, Kosovo is a constitutionally secular state in which women play leading political rules, none of them appearing in anything other than modern, Western-style clothing and hair styles. Fanatical Islamist moral standards are unpopular among them.

Imam Salihu’s diatribe was condemned by the three biggest political parties, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), led by the main figures in the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), which preceded the appearance of the KLA and has always been committed to nonviolence and dialogue, and the “Self-Determination!” movement, known by its Albanian initials LVV.

“Self-Determination!” advocates an activist stance against apparently unending European control over Kosovo. Fourteen years after the NATO air operation there concluded in 1999, Kosovo continues to be administered legally by a European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX).

Two deputies in the Assembly of Kosovo, the country’s parliament, Alma Lama from LVV, and Teuta Sahatciu representing LDK, were joined by Vlora Citaku, the Kosovo minister for European integration and a former PDK deputy, and other women Assembly members, in denouncing Imam Salihu. All appear habitually in fashionable Western costumes, with uncovered hair.

Imam Salihu was, nevertheless, defended by a new Islamist minority party, the “Islamic Movement to Unite,” or LISBA, that as yet has no representation in the Assembly. When it began, under the title “Join!” LISBA’s leader, Fuad Ramiqi, led mass public prayers in the streets of Pristina calling for the erection of a “megamosque” as a response to the establishment in the municipal center of a Catholic cathedral dedicated to Mother Teresa. Kosovar sources suggested that participants in the religious demonstrations were mainly interlopers from the Albanian districts of neighboring Macedonia, where Arab radical influence is dominant in the state-recognized Islamic Community.

In view of the controversy his hateful remarks provoked, Imam Salihu of Prizren was discarded prudently by the authorities of the Islamic Community of Kosovo (BIK in Albanian). Nevertheless, the BIK, which is headed by a cleric of pronounced radical sympathies, Naim Ternava, will soon face a new test.

Ternava was elected to direct the BIK in 2003, after supporting a constitutional agreement for the Islamic institution that would ban its chief cleric from serving more than two five-year terms. The BIK will vote for its top leader on October 15, and Ternava is expected to run a third time, in violation of the charter he signed a decade ago.

Visar Duriqi, an independent Kosovar Albanian blogger, has noted on his site Gazeta Jeta ne Kosove (the title means “Journal of Life in Kosovo” but texts are posted only in Albanian) that Ternava was challenged for the post in 2008 by his predecessor, chief cleric Rexhep Boja, a confirmed moderate and critic of Wahhabi Islam. Ternava defeated Boja, who was then appointed Kosovo ambassador to Saudi Arabia, one of the few Arab countries to recognize Kosovar sovereignty.

In light of Boja’s hostility to radicalism, the diplomatic appointment was brilliant, as it allowed him to monitor the spread of Wahhabi agitation from its source in the desert kingdom. Still, Boja could obviously do more good administering the Muslim community in his home nation. Boja’s staff told Duriqi’s blog that he was following the new developments but had no further comments.

Another well-known moderate, Imam Idriz Bilalli, was removed in 2011 from his congregation in the northeastern Kosovo city of Podujeva because he opposed plans for an Arab-financed mosque in the small, nearby location of Bajqina. Bilalli has announced that with the end of this year’s Ramadan fast, he and a dissident group he helped found, the Professional Association of Islamic Community Workers, will focus attention on Muslim community elections. Bilalli is assisted in the Professional Association by a similarly moderate dissident, Mullah Osman Musliu, who was brutally assaulted in 2009 by a Wahhabi gang.

Musliu is widely honored in Kosovo as the only Muslim cleric willing to risk conducting the funeral in 1998 of the KLA leader Adem Jashari, who was murdered with his family by Serbian terrorists. Musliu was dismissed from his mosque at the same time as Bilalli.

Bilalli, Musliu, and two more outspoken moderates, Imam Adnan Vishni and Musli Verbani, the latter an expert on Islamic law, have accused Ternava of manipulating local Islamic community council elections held in Kosovo last year. These BIK councils exist throughout the land, with four-year terms, in contrast with the five-year period of service for the chief cleric managing BIK. Verbani stated that all the candidates approved for the council elections were vetted by Ternava and favored by him.

Vishni, who accused Ternava of attempted to change the BIK constitution and institute a permanent term as its head, was expelled from supervising the Islamic council in the southern Kosovo city of Kacanik. But his adherents in the nearby village of Begrac backed him, against a further attempt at his discharge from his mosque itself, by Ternava’s clique.

Commenting on the approaching balloting, Vishni repeated earlier charges that Ternava seeks to become the “sultan” or “monarch” of Kosovar Islam.

Kosovo Islamic community voting is constitutionally open to any Muslim above the age of 18, as an elector or a candidate, regardless of religious credentials, and is required to be secret and competitive. Term limits in the Kosovar Islamic structure may be altered by amendment of the constitution, but such must be carried out by a two-thirds majority of the BIK Assembly, which is independent of Ternava’s office and currently led by Xhabir Hamiti, a professor of Islamic studies who was one of seven moderate academics, including Idriz Bilalli, deprived of teaching responsibilities at the Pristina Faculty of Islamic Studies in 2011.

At the time, the seven warned that they would be replaced by “the promotion of dubious professors, influenced by foreign ideologies, with rigid and extremist orientations. . . . Behind this kind of professors are generous donors with plenty of cash.”

Although Hamiti was also assaulted in 2009, in his house, his anti-extremist stand is popular, as shown by his election as head of the Islamic Assembly. Hamiti has denounced the ambitions of Naim Ternava to become “chief cleric for life” as a “Communist” attitude. Bilalli has said that Hamiti will likely be the sole candidate in opposition to Ternava, with endorsement by the Professional Association of Islamic Community Workers. 

Ternava, as reported on August 4 by Radio Television Kosovo (RTK) and United Nations media monitors, denied that any form of Wahhabism or other radical Islamist trend exists in Kosovo. One problem may facilitate official manipulation by Ternava of the Islamic community elections this year. The date set for the polling, October 15, coincides with the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj. But Bosnia-Herzegovina has lately replaced another would-be Muslim “clerical sultan,” Mustafa Ceric, with a presumed moderate as head of its Islamic apparatus, and the same may take place in Kosovo. The conflict between radicals and moderates in the Kosovo Islamic community bears close observation by all those interested in the current upheaval within Islam worldwide.

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