While most of the informed Western public is aghast at the economic and political chaos that appears to be overtaking the government in Athens, southeast Europe has seen aggravated Islamist turmoil in the Balkan Muslim-majority lands and minority communities on and near Greece’s borders.
Immediately after the fall of communism in Albania in 1991, Arab Islamic fundamentalists infiltrated the mosques in the country, which is 70 percent Muslim. The interlopers represented the Saudi Wahhabis and the Egyptian disciples of today’s al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri. In spring 1999, a dozen of Al-Zawahiri’s acolytes, known as the “Albanian Returnees,” were deported from the eastern Adriatic republic to Egypt, tried, and sentenced to death or extended prison terms for terrorism. The “Returnees” had been told by their “sheikhs” to stay in Albania and avoid going to Kosovo, where NATO military forces were, by that time, thick on the ground. But Albania booted them out with alacrity. Evidence in the case of the “Albanian Returnees” proved extremely important in tracing the evolution of al Qaeda’s Egyptian predecessors.
Arab Islamists gained greater room for maneuver in Macedonia, which left Yugoslavia in 1991, and where Muslims form a large minority, consisting mainly of ethnic Albanians. There, the Islamic clerical structure was soon under tight Arab control. The story of that extremist exploit is complicated, but it is a visible reality.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, a similar process was much slower, because the 1992-95 defense of the independent state from Serbian aggression was carried out under the banner of secular coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims. Yet by the end of the decade, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) had extended its tentacles into the Bosnian Muslim clerical hierarchy. Arab replacement of centuries old, intimate Sunni Muslim mosques leveled by the Serbs with overbearing “megamosques” became symbolic of Saudi Arabian regional penetration.
Resistance to the well-financed Arab venture into religious colonialism in the Balkans has been firmest in the villages of Kosovo, where the fight to turn back Wahhabi and MB preachers continues at a high pitch.
Iranian rivals of the Arab radicals also emerged in the religious landscape, and operated more subtly although with less impact in the Islamic public. The Wahhabi and MB fundamentalists attacked the well-established Balkan Muslim tradition of Sufi metaphysical beliefs and practices but were obviously richer, while the Iranians emphasized their own past contributions to the Sufi legacy. In addition, the Iranians functioned through intellectual enterprises, such as book publication in Bosnian and Albanian, and academic seminars sponsored by Tehran’s embassies and “cultural centers,” since there were and are no Shia mosques in the Balkans they could use as staging points for their ideological agitation.
Now, with heightened foreign ambitions in the Turkish neo-fundamentalist regime of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Arab-financed radicals entrenched in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Albania face a fresh challenge. Erdogan and AKP seek a revived, “neo-Ottoman” sphere of influence extending from Albania and other former Turkish provinces in the Balkans east through central Asia and south to Tunisia and the other states affected by the Arab Spring. AKP is allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, but has failed in its announced goal of ending the bloodshed in Syria, its southern neighbor, and its attraction among Arab Islamists is fading.
Like the Iranians, Erdogan’s agents play the Sufi card in the Balkans, stressing, accurately enough, the impact of Turkish spirituality on local Islam. Conflict between Arab and Turkish Islamist missionaries has erupted in Albania. As described by Gjergj Erebara of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), a pro-Turkish faction has expelled the imam, Lulzim Plloci, and Friday preacher, Ferid Piku, from the mosque of the Tirana Madrassah, in Albania’s capital. The clerics’ Arab-style idiom and habits, including affecting “Islamic” robes and growing untrimmed beards, had become, it seems, unacceptable. Turkophile religious leaders, who prefer Western suits and neat mustaches, have seized the Muslim Community of Albania (MCA), the official clerical network. The Arab-subsidized faction has split from the MCA to form a “League of Albanian Imams.”
The Turkish Islamists may have been too successful in their romance with the Albanian political and religious elite. In April, Albanian prime minister Sali Berisha, representing the secularist and conservative Democratic party, visited Ankara and was quoted widely declaring that Albanians and Turks are “blood brothers.” But Berisha was compelled to correct the overeager impression conveyed by such posturing. The Albanian claimed that Erdogan, not he, had uttered the phrase “blood brothers,” and Berisha stipulated that the two peoples enjoy “brotherly relations,” but are not of the same blood. The Albanian prime minister said he had encountered no Turkish officials who claimed Albanian descent. Turkish citizens include, nevertheless, about a million people of Albanian origin, in a population of 80 million.
The Turkish campaign for closer ties with Albania has been troubled by the related resentment of AKP politicians at the portrayal of Turkish rule in the Balkans in Bosnian and Albanian history textbooks. Albanians served the Ottomans, most of the time, until the rise of the Young Turks in the early 20th century and the new rulers’ demand that all citizens of the empire be considered beneficiaries of equality “as Turks”—a conceit carried on by the secularist successors to the sultans as well as the AKP today. This “progressive” concept of “national unity” stirred resentment among the Macedonian Slavs and the Armenians, leading to Turkish massacres of the latter population during the first world war and a continuing debate over whether Turkish policy toward Armenians represented a deliberate attempt at genocide.
In 1912, Kosovar Albanians rebelled against Turkish domination, demanding schools in their own language among other concessions recognizing their nationality. The rebels liberated Kosovo, much of Albania, and the Albanian regions of Macedonia, proclaiming Albanian independence from Turkey. The new state was recognized by a conference in London in 1913 but with Kosovo, western Macedonia, and Albanian-speaking areas of Montenegro and today’s Northern Greece amputated. Few Albanians are ignorant of this history.
Turkish advances toward today’s Albanians and other Balkan Muslim folk extend to the Balkan diaspora communities in Western Europe and the United States. In recent interviews with Albanian Sufis in Detroit, I was told that pro-AKP Turkish Islamists have showered attention and money on Balkan Muslims in America, hoping to indoctrinate the Bosnians and Albanians in the glories of the coming Ottoman revival. Arben Sulejmani, a representative of the powerful Bektashi Sufi order—with three million adherents among about 10 million Albanians worldwide—asserted repeatedly that the Bektashi community has been exclusively Albanian since the suppression of Sufism in secularist Turkey in 1925. Then the Bektashis moved their headquarters from Turkey to Tirana, the Albanian capital. Sulejmani expressed an eloquent rejection of growing attempts by Western academics and “New Age Sufis” to support a “re-Turkification” of the Bektashis.
The Albanian Bektashis are admired for their enlightened principles, including gender equality, secular government, and public education. But they are also known as fierce Albanian patriots. In the words of Sulejmani, “we are Muslims and Sufis but we are not Arabs, Iranians, or Turks, and the missionaries of foreign Islamic cultures had better get used to it. Given the policies of presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in support of Kosovo, Albanians feel closer to America than to any adventurers from the Middle East.” They are proud that Albanian troops served in Iraq and continue to participate in the Afghanistan mission. They feel spiritual affinity with the Sufis of Iraq and Afghanistan, but are loyal, above all, to their “true friends” in the United States.
The role of American power in saving Kosovo is also recalled in discussions of Bashar al-Assad’s repression in Syria. In April, an anti-Assad Syrian and Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, Ammar Abdulhamid, visited the Kosovo capital of Pristina in the company of two other dissidents, seeking lessons from the Kosovo war for the Syrian opposition.