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.