This past weekend Sweden became the latest country in Western Europe to suffer from radical Islamist terrorism. As reported by Swedish papers, Iraqi-born Taimur Abdulwahab Al-Abdaly, aged 28, who blew up a car and then himself in downtown Stockholm, had been granted Swedish citizenship in 1992. But he then went to Britain to study, and UK media say he was radicalized over the last decade in the town of Luton, north of London.
Al-Abdaly was thrown out of the Islamic Centre of Luton, also known as the Al-Ghurabaa or “Strangers’” mosque, for preaching jihad. The mosque is considered a center of radical ideology, even as it repudiates violence. Leaders at the Luton mosque are visibly oriented toward Saudi-style Wahhabism, with a history of linkage to the extremist Al-Muhajiroun, or “Religious Refugees,” led by jihadist preacher Omar Bakri Muhammad. The latter has been expelled from Britain. At the Luton mosque, men typically grow long beards, women are cloaked in full-length covering and face veils, and congregants are taught to eschew music – all of which are signifiers of Wahhabism.
In May 2010 Luton attracted attention and outrage across Britain when sympathizers of Al-Muhajiroun demonstrated there against British soldiers returning from Iraq. The extremists carried inflammatory placards and shouted accusations that the veterans were “the Butchers of Basra,” “murderers,” and “baby-killers.” In the ensuing uproar, the Al-Ghurabaa mosque was firebombed, and its leaders publicly declared that while they adhered to fundamentalism, they did not tolerate radical agitation in their midst. It is therefore unsurprising that the Luton mosque rid itself of Al-Abdaly as early as 2007.
Meanwhile, over the same weekend, one of Europe’s largest and most famous Sufi shrines, the Harabati Baba Bektashi complex in Tetovo, a city in western Macedonia with an ethnic Albanian majority, was targeted for an apparent arson attack. As described here, Wahhabis in control of the state-recognized Macedonian Islamic Community have attempted to take over the Harabati site for the past several years. The State Department noted in its International Religious Freedom Report for 2009 that the burial of a Bektashi Sufi follower at the Harabati shrine brought a protest from the official Sunni community, which declared the interment illegal and threatened to remove the body.
The Harabati Sufi institution was built in the 16th century and became so closely identified with the city of Tetovo that it appears on the municipal coat-of-arms. The local political organization “Wake Up!” (Zgjohu! in Albanian) denounced the weekend fire as vandalism against “one of the masterpieces of the cultural and spiritual heritage of the Albanians.” But in the face of continued invasion of the property by fundamentalists, neither the city authorities nor the Macedonian government--dominated by Orthodox Christian Slavs in a country where Albanian, Turkish, and Slav Muslims make up a large religious minority--had acted to restrain the Islamist fanatics.
In 2007, the RAND Corporation’s Center for Middle East Public Policy published a major report titled Building Moderate Muslim Networks. Composed by a team led by Dr. Angel Rabasa, the document mapped out a strategy for the democratic nations to identify and enlist as allies in the defense of civilization adherents to a peaceful vision of Islam as a normal religion. The RAND report specifically noted the importance of the Harabati shrine and the siege mounted against it by Wahhabis. But what effect did the RAND document, or the State Department’s reports, have in Macedonia? Finally, none. Sufis and visitors to the Harabati complex were harassed, money and other assets were stolen, and each of the historic buildings, in turn, was occupied by radicals, who used one of them to set up a café.
With the extremists occupying most of the complex, fire broke out in two of the last remaining large structures under the control of the Sufis on Sunday, December 12. Baba Edmond Brahimaj, spiritual leader of the community at the site, noted that the Sufi mejdan or meeting house for spiritual exercises, where the blaze had its origin, had not been used to store flammable materials. According to him, an arson attack was the logical culmination of years of “usurpation and theft.”
Thus, at opposite ends of Europe, Islamist radicals continue to probe for weak spots where they may carry out their atrocious acts. Is there a direct connection between the fire and explosions in Sweden and presumed arson in Macedonia? Perhaps not; to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence. But there is an ideological link between those who plot such attacks, and between those who assault other Sufis and their monuments in the Balkans and in Pakistan. The connections remain focused in Saudi-funded Wahhabism and its Taliban satellites, the latter in South Asia, in Britain, and even in America.
Irfan al-Alawi is executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation in Britain. Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor.