Friday, July 09, 2010

Radical Islam in Macedonia worries Western observers

Western diplomats and religious experts have voiced concerns about the spread of radical Islam among Muslim communities in the Balkans, after it transpired that alleged Wahabist radicals are operating and increasing their influence in Macedonia.

The foreign-inspired religious group is active in the area around Skopje, Macedonia's capital. It has tried to perform a putsch in the Islamic religious community (IRC) after an incident in the Isa-Bey Mosque in Skopje last week.

The Isa-Bey Mosque has turned into a stronghold of radical Islam, Ibrahim Shabani, Skopje's highest Islamic clergyman, recently warned. His accusations followed a fight during which Shabani was physically assaulted and expelled from the mosque while trying to hold prayer.

Ramadan Ramadani, the Imam of the Isa-Bey Mosque, rejected the claims that his mosque is the flagship of Wahabism - a branch of Sunni Islam which is the official religion in Saudi Arabia.

The head of the IRC, the Reis-ul-ulema Sulejman Rexhepim Rexhepi, had so far denied Macedonian mosques had been taken over by radical elements. But he has confirmed that information now.

"Wahabists control four mosques in Skopje. The Internal Affairs Ministry gives us only verbal support but rests passive," he told the Albanian service of Radio Free Europe. He admitted the IRC had been trying to hide the Wahabi presence until now, hoping the radicals would withdraw and disappear again. "This didn't happen and we are going to name them for what they are," he said.

For his part, Mr Shabani also urged justice to deal with what he says is a radical Islamist group. "Last week's coup was prepared by Islamic radicals operating in Skopje. This criminal Wahabist gang is known for its radical actions and harassment of Muslim believers. We will ask the competent authorities to stop these radical groups and bring them to justice. This was proof that Wahabist structures act against the Constitution of the Islamic Community, the rules of procedure and hierarchy," he said.

Muslims are the second largest religious group in Macedonia after Orthodox Christians. The country has a population of 2 million, 25 percent of which are (predominantly Muslim) ethnic Albanians.

The allegations that radical Islamic groups operate in Macedonia coincide with the discovery of such groups further afield in the region - Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia's Sandzak area.

The events in Skopje seem to be part of the battle for control over several mosques. Continuous changes of imams have allowed radical successors to take over. First attempts were undertaken between 2003 and 2004 when foreign radical Islamic groups began to infiltrate Macedonia. A few months ago, 10 imams were replaced. Four more followed several days ago.

"When a mosque is without an imam, other personalities have the leading word. And their interpretation of Islam is much more radical. That is where Wahabists see a chance to spread their views on believers. They aim to become imams," an anonymous IRC source told the Macedonian daily Dnevnik.

The director of the State Commission for Relations with Religious Communities, Valentina Bozinovska, said that she is not aware of a new spread of radical Islam in the country. "It comes from some individuals," she said.

A diplomat from a large European Union country disagrees. Radical Islam is the biggest fear in Western European capitals regarding Macedonia, he told WAZ.EUobserver. "Our analysis shows that in the coming years these tendencies will grow," he said.

There are other opinions as well. University professor Zoran Matevski believes tensions and incidents are the result of political influences.

"This is another remarkable proof that political parties have great influence in selecting the leadership of the IRC. In my opinion, this is not a calculation based on religious, but purely on political motivations. I believe this is the background to the alleged existence of Wahabist structures," Mr Matevski explained.

"They don't say it in public, but Western diplomats are concerned about the growth of radical Islamic tendencies in the Balkans," said Olivier Gillet, a Belgian expert on religion and nationalism in the Balkans. "In 10 years we will have serious problems everywhere," he added.

He recalled that a few months ago the Macedonian prime minister received a warning from Israel to be vigilant about radical Islam. Israel also shared intelligence about members of Hezbollah in the Balkans, he said.

"In Western societies we also have this problem. The difference is that in the West, they are immigrant communities while in the Balkans the Muslim community has historical and sociological roots."

Sarajevo and the Sandzak region in Serbia are often cited as two major centers of radical Islam in the Balkans. The Serbian authorities have kept quiet on the issue in order to avoid problems. Some diplomats assume there may be undercover terrorist training camps in Bosnia, but no reliable evidence of that has emerged so far.

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