I first heard the term “Wahhabi”–referring to the ultrafundamentalist Islamic sect that is the state dispensation in Saudi Arabia–in a Yugoslav context, in 1989. Specifically, Wahhabism was compared with Stalinist Communism, a parallel that seemed immediately appropriate. But little did I imagine that as a decade and a half went by, and I traveled to and lived in a Yugoslavia in collapse, I would see an attempt to replace the heritage of Stalinism with Wahhabi totalitarianism, among the Muslims of the region.
The issue of Wahhabism, as opposed to abstract references to it, became acute with the outbreak of the Bosnian war, in 1992. Muslims throughout the world, as well as Christians and Jews of goodwill, rallied to assist the embattled residents of Sarajevo and other despoiled and besieged cities. But Bosnian Muslims themselves complained that Saudi/Wahhabi agents, throughout the global Islamic community, sought to obstruct interfaith activities to help the victims of an atrocious aggression.
Rather, Wahhabis–from San Francisco to Samarkand and Singapore–tried to restrict solidarity with Bosnia to a purely Islamic dimension. In addition, several thousand Arab Wahhabi volunteers sought to transform the defensive struggle waged by the Bosnians into an aggressive, and even terroristic, jihad. The majority of Bosnians would have nothing of it. They fought in regular forces–the Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina–that happened to include Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Jews, as well as Muslims.
With the end of the Bosnian conflict, and the imposition of the Dayton accords in 1995, local Saudi/Wahhabi blandishments took new forms. Sarajevo was flooded with Islamic charities and reconstruction agencies, notably the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia-Hercegovina, which used the tormented land as an operational base for infiltration of terrorists and money into Europe and the United States.
The free ride for the Wahhabis ended with September 11, 2001, after which the Bosnian authorities commenced assisting the United States in rolling up terrorist networks that had installed themselves in Sarajevo, Zenica, and other cities. But the Wahhabis had already turned to a new field of action: The Albanian-speaking lands, meaning the Republic of Albania itself, Kosovo, western Macedonia, and various parts of Montenegro.
If anything, the Albanians were even more resistant to the Wahhabi appeal than the Bosnians had been. This was a predictable outcome, in that Albanians, with an isolated culture, a language without close relatives, and a tradition of avoiding religious differences in the interest of national unity, are generally wary of outsiders. Although the Albanians are 70 percent Muslim, they never warmed to Turkish occupation–as the Bosnians did. Also unlike the Bosnians, they never saw Titoite socialism as anything other than a form of Slavic imperialism.
For these reasons, Arab and other mujahidin were unwelcome in Kosovo during the 1998-99 struggle conducted by the Kosovo Liberation Army, which was organized on an ethnic and patriotic basis, enlisting Catholics and atheists no less than Muslims. Reports that Iranians or Arabs had been detected in Kosovo during the war were pure disinformation and speculation. In addition, Albanians are probably the most grateful people in the world for the exercise of American military power, which rescued them from Serbian repression in Kosovo.
Nevertheless, with the end of the Kosovo intervention in 1999, Wahhabi missionaries once again poured into the territory, as well as into Albania and Macedonia, preaching and teaching their jihadist ideology.
I spent much of 2000 in Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania. I returned to Macedonia at the end of 2003, and learned that the struggle between local Muslims and Wahhabi colonizers had lost none of its immediacy or relevancy for the struggle between moderate and extremist Islam worldwide.
Ramadan ended with the holiday of Bajram Sherif, as Eid ul-Fitr is known in the Balkans, on November 25, when I found myself in Skopje. Bajram Sherif came and went in the Balkans without serious incident. Nevertheless, the ancient Macedonian capital, war-weary and impoverished after local fighting between Albanians and Slavs in 2001, buzzed with rumors of terrorist conspiracies. In a mild, foggy late-autumn, under a skyline dominated by impressive Ottoman mosques, residents spoke anxiously of the recent suicide bombings in Istanbul and of “special measures” taken against possible attacks on U.S. and other foreign personnel in Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia.
Among the ethnic Albanian Muslims–especially in the western Macedonian regions where they and their Christian fellow-Albanians continue agitating for the right to education in the Albanian language–infiltration by Wahhabis, in their characteristic beards and archaic Arab outfits, turned out to be the main topic of discussion.
In Tetovo, the center of Albanian agitation during the short Macedonian war, I interviewed Arben Xhaferi (pronounced Jaferi), a sociologist by profession and leader of the Albanian Democratic party, known by its Albanian initials as the PDSh. Xhaferi is considered both the main Albanian leader in Macedonia and the outstanding local critic of Wahhabi influence.
“We cannot accept the endless agitation presenting democracy as opposed to Islam,” Xhaferi said. “Albanian Islam faces an immense threat from fundamentalism. We are traditional in our Islam, which for us means pluralism, respect for the other religions represented among us, and repudiation of Arabization. Fundamentalist Islamists preach that there is only one Islam, represented by them, just as Hitler said there could be only one nation under one FŸhrer.
“It is absurd that Wahhabis should come here and demand, in the name of Islam, that we live and dress like them,” Xhaferi said. “Albanians will not allow foreigners of any kind to tell us our customs must be abandoned and our behavior determined by Islamic totalitarians. We have our own history, our own culture, and our own Albanian model of Islam, based on interfaith respect and the understanding that religion is private. They will not destroy us.”
He continued, “In the controversy over the future of Islam, we are compelled to reinforce Albanian values. The Wahhabis say we must only love Allah, not each other. Why, then, we ask, did Allah create in us the capacity to love each other? The Albanian project will always be based on interfaith harmony. We are not like the Bosnian Muslims, for whom Islam was their only defining characteristic. We refuse to be defined as Muslims first.”
Xhaferi’s analysis of Islamic history is novel. Islam needs its Augustine, he avers, that is, a figure who will separate political and religious power. He described the Islamic world as having leapt from medievalism to fascism. And he warned that although Wahhabis cannot destroy governments, like that of Albania, they can undermine religious life. Finally, he stated a paradox: “Because Albanians do not want to be identified as Muslims, they are handicapped in fighting against Wahhabism,” he declared. The interview ended on a somber note, with Xhaferi saying, “I am afraid of the economic weakness of the Albanians. I think about these issues constantly.”
Xhaferi has paid for his forthright criticism of Islamist extremism, as have others who support him, such as the Skopje newspaper publisher Emin Azemi, whose Albanian-language daily Fakti (The Facts) is among the most professional in the region. Both have been subjected to numerous threats and harassment. Azemi took a strong stand in support of the U.S. liberation of Iraq. Fakti editorialized, “The defeat of Saddam Hussein will be a victory for all humanity.” It has also published Xhaferi’s anti-Wahhabi polemics.
Wahhabi propagandists seek to cast every conflict as religious. They lump together all the grievances of Macedonia’s Albanians as a campaign of self-defense by “the Muslims”–leaving out of the picture the 15 percent of Macedonian Albanians who are Christian, yet seek recognition of their linguistic rights with no less enthusiasm than the Muslims.
For example, a polemic on the Wahhabi website Islamonline, titled “Macedonian Spark Can Incinerate the Region,” by Omer bin Abdullah, comments disingenuously, “The Muslims argue that the Albanian language should be the second official language in the country.” In reality, it is not the Muslims, but the Albanians who argue this. Non-Albanian Muslims in Macedonia–Turkish, Bosnian, and Slav–have failed to support the Albanians. These smaller Muslim minorities have historically felt dependent on the Slav Macedonian authorities.
The topic of Wahhabism keeps many Albanian young people preoccupied. With unemployment high, facing an uncertain future and probable discrimination, Albanians do not want to be saddled with a reputation for Islamic extremism. And they are clear on where the truth lies. Students at the European- and U.S.-subsidized Southeast European University of Tetovo expressed disgust with reactionary Saudism, including its primitive repression of women.
Traveling through Macedonia after Ramadan, I encountered distaste for Islamism on all sides–from elderly Albanian men sporting fierce mustaches and speaking of their village laws no less than from fashionably dressed young women who said Saudi Arabia must cease to be the only country in the world that forbids women to drive. I came away with renewed understanding that Muslims who have suffered immensely at the hands of others may still repudiate terrorism and extremist ideology when they are secure in their traditions and look hopefully to the future. But above all, these European Muslims, living in a remote and disregarded country, understand the truth about the Saudi/Wahhabi threat to the Islamic world, and to the world at large–even as many in capitals like Washington continue to deny it.