The great majority of Kosovar Albanians take pride in their reputation as the most pro-American Muslims in the world. Their Sunni Islam is conventional and moderate, and spiritual Sufism is a powerful force among the believers. Since 2009, however, a serious effort has been visible in the Balkan republic to turn Kosovar Islam in the direction of Wahhabism, the ultrafundamentalist sect that inspires al Qaeda. The meddling is coming mainly from neighboring Macedonia, where Albanians and Muslims are recognized officially as minorities, and the Islamic clerical apparatus has come under Arab control.
Kosovo defines itself constitutionally as a secular state, and female students are forbidden to wear headscarves in public schools, with religious instruction barred from state-subsidized primary and secondary education. But anti-extremist imams and professors of Islamic theology have been physically attacked and fired from Islamic teaching at the university level.
On March 8, Kosovo saw a new front open against radical Islam, in the beautiful region of Kacanik near the Macedonian border. The town of Kacanik has special resonance for Kosovars. In 1990, Kosovo Albanians met there to adopt a constitution proclaiming their independence from a collapsing Yugoslavia. The document was memorable for bearing the Statue of Liberty on its printed cover. Kacanik is also known for its historic and graceful Gazi Sinan Pasha mosque, erected in the 16th century at the order of an Albanian grand vizier of the Ottoman empire.
That day Sabri Bajgora, a former religious instructor who had been named chief imam of Kosovo – a new position in the Muslim institutions of the republic – claimed he was attacked on the street in the capital, Pristina, by Musli Verbani, who had been removed as imam of the Kacanik mosque. Bajgora is viewed widely as a lackey of Naim Ternava, the Wahhabi head of the Kosovo Islamic Community since 2003. Ternava had invented the job of chief imam, which did not exist in the established regulations of the Islamic structure, to accommodate Bajgora.
In Kacanik the next day, a crowd demonstrated at the local office of the Islamic community, protesting against the suspension of Verbani from the Gazi Sinan Pasha mosque. The brother of imam Verbani stated that 1,800 local worshippers had demanded the reinstatement of the dismissed cleric.
Six days later, prayer in the Gazi Sinan Pasha mosque was interrupted when members of the congregation proclaimed their opposition to the ouster of imam Verbani. For his part, Verbani declared that he had never received any notice of his suspension from his religious duties. Two Wahhabi interlopers were arrested at the mosque, according to Kosovo police regional chief Jaser Jaha.
Imam Verbani is considered a well-educated and qualified religious official, while Bajgora has been denounced as a usurper since his sudden elevation to the invented post of chief imam for the whole country. A statement last year by seven professors of traditional Islam, who had been expelled from their academic positions by the Wahhabi chieftain Ternava, noted that Bajgora and others like him lacked the recognized academic credentials of the moderates.
The Kosovars are victims of Islamist intrigue, but are fighting back. A handful have succumbed to divisive propaganda, including Arid Uka, the convicted murderer of two American servicemen in Germany last year. Kosovars point out that those susceptible to terrorist delusions are typically loners, separated from their ethnic roots, or opportunists, like Fuad Ramiqi, a Kosovar who had served in the Yugoslav army, and was involved in the 2010 Islamist attempt to break the Israeli naval blockade at Gaza. But in their homeland, Kosovar Muslims continue to demonstrate their friendship for America and their commitment to an Islam without radicalism.
Their attitude was, as previously during these confrontations, stated in eloquent terms by notes in the online comment sections of the Kosovo daily newspapers. An individual signing as “Sadriu” wrote in the lively daily Express that the believers in Kacanik were not to blame, but that the problems were caused by imams contaminated by “Arab-Turkish-Taliban culture” and forgetful of Albanian traditions. In the Kosovo newspaper of record, Koha Ditore (Daily Times), reader Rita Lumi addressed the Wahhabis as follows: “Go to the Arab world, because there is your proper place.”
The case was put most directly by readers of the sensationalist daily Bota Sot (World Today). A post by an anonymous Kosovar declared, “Musli Verbani, the imam of Kaçanik, with a master’s degree in law, was a freedom fighter. . . . But the officials of the Islamic Community prefer someone who is uneducated. Imam Verbani does not have a beard or short pants (affected by Wahhabis). Let the local community side with the educated imam.”
In the same site, “Danir” wrote, “Well done, imam Verbani, for being educated to a standard far above the others. Well done, for being among the first to join the war for our freedom. You deserve to be a leader, unlike Bajgora and Ternava – where were they when war was raging?” Other readers denounced the Wahhabi religious functionaries as corrupt and dishonest. The fight for the soul of Islam in Kosovo will continue, it seems, with great potential for positive results.