Wahhabism and Islamic Extremism in Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: a General Overview
Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis - June 1, 2006, Thursday

With the growing polarization of communities within the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), GIS, through its South-Eastern Europe bureau, asked its correspondents and sources in the country to develop a small briefing paper on the the influence of Wahhabists in FYROM:

The first Wahhabist inroads in Macedonia began in 1992, following Macedonia's independence from Yugoslavia. With the Orthodox Church weak, and the official Islamic Community (IVZ) almost immediately in turmoil, wealthy backers from Saudi Arabia and other Islamic states started to fund the fundamentalist movement through charities and secret payments.

The small but tightly-knit group was allowed to grow due not only to Arab wealth, but also to the schisms and infighting which characterized the IVZ since 1992. Through most of the 1990s, two rival camps challenged one another. One was led by a man who had been reis (the highest national Islamic official) during Yugoslav times, Jakup Selimovski, a Macedonian Muslim. The other camp was led by an Albanian, Rexhep Sulejmani. Both called one another "enemies of Islam" and shouted about who should be excommunicated. Nevertheless, after a time their two factions rejoined, although details of the deal which allowed them to come back together remain undiscussed.

A more serious challenge to IVZ stability, and the one which led directly to the rise of the Wahhabi movement, was the empowerment of Zenun Berisha as Skopje Chief Mufti in the late 1990s. Although this man was a classic communist-era bureaucrat, interested mostly in making money, under his control the IVZ was left exposed to outside fundamentalists. Berisha was very corrupt, primarily through fraudulent leasing scams. The IVZ has been estimated to own between 35-50 percent of the shops, homes and businesses in the old Turkish quarter of Skopje (Stara Carsija). Berisha was alleged to have made a lot of money by renting out numerous properties to his friends for low rates, who would then re-rent them for much higher prices to the general public.

In 2004, this practice was discovered by the majority of moderate imams, and it became another reason, together with other corrupt practices, to remove him. However, Berisha had developed around him a group of Albanian criminals, thugs and Islamic extremists who protected him violently from the democratic will of the majority. Berisha had also made sure that in every mosque in Skopje there were at least some individuals, whether the imam or bureaucratic officials, in some position of power. Through this, either the Wahhabi doctrine was being preached or they were able to cut off the payment to non-extremist imams who did not agree with the doctrine. This policy continued at least until February 2006, when Berisha was formally overthrown in elections for Skopje chief mufti, won convincingly by Taxhedin Beslimi, an apparent moderate.

However, during 2004 and the Summer of 2005, Berisha was able to wreak havoc in the community. In one incident, armed men stormed the office of then-reis Arif Emini, demanding that he install imams from the Arab world and South-East Asia. In another, outside the village of Kondovo in the Summer of 2005, armed men from the Wahhabi camp attacked a car carrying Beslimi and some of the other imams who spoke out against the Wahhabis. In a strange twist, the moderate imams were saved when another armed group, that of Kondovo native and young militant Agim Krasniqi, attacked the Wahhabis.

Now, since the election of Beslimi in February 2006, the situation seems to have stabilized. However, it is still proving very difficult to remove the now-powerful Wahhabi faction and their sponsors from their entrenched positions. For example, the epicenter of their extremist control remains the Yahyah Pasha Mosque, for the past five years. This January 2006, the opening of the Muslim ceremony of Kurban Bajram had to be moved for the first time in history from this mosque to another one, because of a desire to get away from the Wahhabis.

The competition can be expected to increase in the future. No matter who will be in power, the IVZ is demanding up to $500-million in property assets from the communist denationalization process. This makes a very attractive prize for the Wahhabis and others, especially considering that the Islamists have plans to radically increase their mosque-building program and to create new madarasas, even in areas where very few Muslims live.

Recruitment Objectives

The policy of Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, etc. has been to increase the influence of Islam in Europe, through the Balkans. The rich Arabs, using the proceeds of the zakat charity tax applicable to Islamic financial transactions, pay Muslims in Macedonia to grow long beards, cloak their wives completely, and follow various austere marks of behavior.

Some of these paid Wahhabis begin their experience through higher education in the Arab world, where they are sent back with instructions on how to convert more people. Others are exposed to radical Islamic in mosques in Western Europe, for the many migrant workers among Balkan Muslim populations. Finally, it is believed that Wahhabi leaders in Macedonia help support the heroin trade so as to create a better "applicant pool" for future conversions.

Outside of Skopje: the Villages

Although Skopje has the highest population concentration in Macedonia (about 700,000 people out of two-million total population), there are significant Wahhabi communities in formation outside of the capital. And this is not limited to Albanian villages; several Macedonian Muslim villages now have a Wahhabi presence as well, and a very few Turks. However, since most Muslims in Macedonia are Albanian (25 percent out of around 30 percent total Muslims), most of the Wahhabis are also Albanian. Certainly, all of their important leaders are Albanian.

In the Skopje area, the autonomous Albanian villages north of the city are prime sponsors of Wahhabism, especially Lipkovo and Matejce near Kosovo, as well as Aracinovo (basically, an eastern extension of Skopje). To the west of the city, the madarasa village of Kondovo receives a lot of Saudi funding and also has Wahhabi representation, though as in neighboring Saraj to the south, they are definitely in the minority.

South of Skopje, an interesting developing trend is apparent in villages such as Patiska Reka, one of a handful of Albanian villages on remote points of the Karadzica mountain range, which divides the country in half at peaks of 1,000-2,600 meters. Visitors to isolated villages such as Patiska Reka have noted that after a couple of years of Islamic influence, the visible wealth of the previously poor local Albanians had increased substantially.

Further west, the Albanian-majority cities of Tetovo and Gostivar also have organized Wahhabi presences. But the most unusual of all is the situation in the southwestern Macedonian Muslim (Torbeshi) villages of Oktisi, Labunista and Podgorci. Since they are Slavic, the Torbesh are disliked by the Albanians; however, since they are Muslim, they are disliked by the Orthodox Macedonian majority. This precarious situation has led the Macedonian Muslims to be more open to the offers of help from rich Arab nations.

Again, the Wahhabis in these villages are very much in the minority, but the interesting phenomenon is that they are both very conservative and secretive, and that when a man "converts" to become a Wahhabi, his entire family must convert also. Over time, this will have a strong effect on increasing Wahhabi percentages in remote villages where

Other information

The Wahhabi organizations in Macedonia are somewhat decentralized. While leading figures are all in the Skopje area with strong Kosovo connections, various international delegations visit the villages as well. In Labunista, for example, local Wahhabis spend several months a year in camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Well-funded youth groups have popped up in this village and others, to spread Wahhabi influence in lavish, double-minaret Saudi mosques.

Migrant workers from such villages are also indoctrinated in radical mosques in Western Europe. The major center of control for the Macedonian Muslims of the south, especially, is Graz, Austria as well as Treviso, near Venice in Italy.

It is also clear that the Islamic extremists in Macedonia are directly connected to the ones in Kosovo carrying out ethnic cleansing against the Serbs. Macedonia is not yet at this dangerous level but the threat will increase in the years to come as the Albanian population continues to expand and grow closer to their religious identity, with many individual Albanians, their Islamic identity is now at least as important or more than their national one. This is a major change to the old trend by which Albanian nationhood was the definitively most important aspect of identity.

Copyright Defense & Foreign Affairs/International Strategic Studies Association
Reprinted with Permissoin.