Macedonia: Big Rush in the Islamic Community

A mosque is reflected in a pool of water on the cobblestone walkways in the Old Bazaar in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. (Photo: Robert Atanasovski / AFP-Getty Images)

For more than a year now internal divisions and strife have plagued the Islamic Community in Macedonia, the organized body of that country’s Muslim faithful. As difficult as it is to get the full picture in the hushed up atmosphere of the Islamic Community, there is evidence of a schism.

Beatings, shootings, hostage holding, threats, serious warnings by foreign intelligence experts — the indication is that a radical wing led by a controversial ex-mufti in Skopje, Zenon Berisha, is trying to take over of the leadership of the community, and that they are not very selective in choosing the means to achieve their goals.

Berisha became the leader of the Muslim community in Skopje several years back, in what other officials of the community refer to as forged elections. Berisha is said to have run the office as an autocrat. After an episode two years ago when he did not get the political support he expected from his fellow imams in an internal struggle, he stopped paying them. Instead, he chose to work with a clique of his own people, dissociating everybody else. A radical clique. With the situation persisting, the imams revolted and asked the Reis Ulema Arif Emini, the supreme Muslim chief in the country, to revoke Berisha. One hundred and fifty imams signed a petition for his replacement last October. Amid the turmoil, for the first time in history, the Reis was not allowed to greet the believers for Ramadan. The imams managed to elect a replacement, Tadjedin Beslimi, who only tentatively took office   because Berisha refused to go. This is how the anarchy began. Throughout this period the Reis, Emini, is said to have been trying to stay aside and although he’s been disapproving of Berisha’s methods, he has done nothing to stop him. The Reis has been taking many sick leaves (which is what, imams comment, he usually does in difficult situations) and avoiding reporters. The word on the street is that his life has been threatened. This was the situation as of April.

In a somewhat mysterious piece of news from last September, leaked but never officially confirmed, armed men associated with Berisha were said to have entered the offices of the Islamic Community and threatened Emini, telling him to hire several foreign fundamentalists.

Then, with the Macedonian public being largely incognizant of what was still of minor media interest, an interview with a Belgian security expert from the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, Claude Moniquet, caused a shock.

“This might be a beginning of something very dangerous,” said Moniquet, in a widely distributed interview in which he called upon the Macedonian security services to pay attention, specifically with reference to an Islamic school running in the village of Kondovo near Skopje that allegedly gets lots of Arab funding.

“What some intelligence services in Europe are saying is that Mr. Berisha, like other people in Western and Eastern Europe, is playing the game of the Saudis, the fundamental Islam in the Balkans” said Moniquet of the Skopje ex-mufti, “That of course, doesn’t mean that Mr. Berisha is a terrorist, or is linked to terrorists. That means that he tries for personal reasons, religious reasons, to promote very radical Islam in Macedonia.”

Asked to comment, Berisha called the allegations “unfounded” saying that “Mr. Claude himself knows best where he got them.”

In a response to the public concern caused by Moniquet’s allegations, the Macedonian Ministry of Interior confirmed the fears of radical Islam being promoted in the country but refrained from stating anything more. “We monitor all activities related to practicing radical Islam in the country,” said the ministry’s spokesman, Goran Pavlovski, adding that for the time being they cannot give anything more specific.

The crisis in the Islamic Community continued to deepen. Tadjedin Beslimi, Berisha’s successor, was never given an opportunity to run the office. Reportedly, he never got a mandate from the Reis who feared Berisha’s threats. The imams who revolted earlier, on several occasions occupied the premises of the community trying to put pressure on the Reis to resolve things, and trying to tip the balance against Berisha.

New elections for a Skopje mufti were scheduled for June, on the premises of the Islamic school in Kondovo but they were wrecked by men with guns. Reportedly, the men — Berisha’s people — stood in the last rows of the room and at some point started shooting in the air. They loudly threatened Emini and according to some sources, beat him. All of this comes from leaked partial information from sources who want to stay anonymous. The episode is an old time classic of elections practice when things do not go your way, at least in the Balkans. Reportedly the thugs were yelling, “We will elect a mufti,” while shooting and making everybody lie on the floor.

Several days later the president of the assembly (of the Islamic Community), Metin Izeti, resigned stating as a reason his “inability to perform his duty.” A week later, the Reis himself resigned, for health reasons. The Islamic Community at this point was left without leadership.

The initial group of imams, organized in a sort of a coordinative body, continued its policy of keeping a presence on the premises of the community, guarding it at night by sleeping there.

“What else, to leave the premises to the group that interrupted the elections, or to Mr. Berisha or his son?” said Muarem Veseli, leader of the group and one of the more outspoken voices since the beginning of the disorder.

Two weeks later yet, Veseli and four other imams were intercepted by a group of armed men while returning from a wedding, the same men from election day, and beaten. Veseli sustained the most severe injuries and was held at a hospital.

One of the battered Imams described the assault: “’Are you the ones going out on TV and assaulting Islamic fundamentalism,’ they yelled, taking us out of the car and beating us.”

In a bold statement to reporters, Saban Ahmeti, another Imam, said, “The people who attacked us [Saturday night in Kondovo] were definitely representatives of radical Islam, or as we call them Wahhabis, proponents of Zenon Berisha, who for more than a year have been trying to take over the Islamic Community.”

At the end of July, Ruzdi Ljata, a mufti from Debar, was appointed president of an interim leadership of the Islamic Community, a body formed to run the preparations for election of new leadership. Then, 10 days after the appointment, he resigned. He told A1 TV that immediately after appointment he started receiving death threats and being followed by unknown men.

Earlier this month, Ali Ameti, the leader of D.U.I., the Albanian partner in the government, met with the president of the Albanian socialists, Fatos Nano, in Korca. Both men expressed concern with the spread of “Islamic elements” in Kondovo.

After more than a year of turmoil, the clash in the Islamic Community seems far from over. On the contrary, it may be escalating further. For the time being, the government and the international community present in Macedonia have been but quiet observers of what is happening, in part due to the tendency of the community to run its things behind closed doors, but also because they do not seem to know what should be their stance toward an internal matter of a religious group.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Risto Karajkov.