Religious Battles in the Balkans

Ramadan Ramadani, recently removed from his position as imam of the Isa-Bey Mosque in Skopje, is disputing the decision.

Recently, after a period of prolonged strife within the Islamic Religious Community (IVZ), its leader Sulejman Rexhepi publicly asked the government of Macedonia and representatives of the international community for protection from radical Islamic groups. He called in particular on the "embassy of the United States and the European Union to support the IVZ and take appropriate measures" against such groups. Rexhepi's public cry for help echoed internationally. It was interpreted as one more sign of the rising influence of radical Islam in the Balkans.

Pressure within the IVZ has been mounting all summer. Rumors, hushed and denied, have gone on for years that the IVZ does not have effective control of all of its mosques in the capital city of Skopje, Macedonia. Late June, the Friday prayer at the Isa Beg Mosque was violently interrupted. A group of people, reportedly led by Ramadan Ramadani, attacked and chased away the Skopje mufti, Ibraim Shabani, and several other IVZ officials, preventing them from conducting the prayer. Only several days before the incident, Ramadani was revoked from his position of odza in the Isa Beg Mosque by IVZ on charges of organizing unauthorized lectures. IVZ said Ramadani was revoked after repeated warnings.

The public learned of the incident only a week later, after a tape was presented by the Democratic Party of the Albanians (DPA), one of the two major parties in the Albanian political block, currently in opposition. DPA accused its political opponent, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), part of the government coalition, of involvement in the incident.

The incident forced the IVZ, after practically years of denial, to admit that it does not have effective control over some of its mosques in Skopje. It also made it point a finger at "radical groups" that want to take control over the Islamic community in the country. The mosques most often mentioned as outside IVZ control are the Isa Beg, Aladza, Sultan Murat and Hatandzuk.

The dismissed Ramadani has denied accusations of spreading radicalism and has also disputed IVZ's decision for his removal. "The decision is not valid. This is a first in IVZ's history that someone is dismissed in such a non-transparent way," said Ramadani. He argued that IVZ did not have a quorum when it made the decision. He accused the IVZ leader Sulejman Rexhepi of serious financial wrongdoings and said the rhetoric of radicalism was just an excuse. Ramadani started collecting signatures for the removal of Rexhepi from his position as leader of IVZ. He put on hold his initiative mid-August as Ramadan started, but was reported to have collected some 7,000 signatures.

Ramadani's civic initiative cannot replace the chief mufti Rexhepi—the IVZ leader can only be revoked by the Riaset, the IVZ top body—but if the number of 7,000 signatures is accurate, it indicates a significant following.

After the June incident at the Isa Beg Mosque, IVZ asked the Ministry of Interior (MoI) for protection, that is, to help it restore its control over the mosque. The police said they can only intervene if ordered to by the court. Apparently, in legal terms, the administration of the mosque is a civil matter and the police cannot intervene without a court order (the violent incident is a separate matter and can be a simple misdemeanor). "The moment we are ordered by the court, we will intervene" said MoI spokesperson Ivo Kotevski. The ministry said its hands were tied also concerning the allegations of spreading radical teaching of Islam. As long as there is no direct incitement of racial or ethnic hatred, or direct calls for subversion of institutions of government, the police cannot intervene, was the reaction of the MoI.

Insiders explain the police's inertia with the political interests involved. According to them, the two major Albanian political parties, DUI and DPA, are not without a stake in the entire affair. Also, according to some of those interpretations, the accusations of radical teachings are just the front for internal struggles over power and control within IVZ. Several years ago there was an even more serious, armed incident, involving known criminals, in a mosque in the village of Kondovo, apparently over who would have control over the mosque.

Institutions' inertia can easily be explained with political backing in a country such as Macedonia. But it would be completely improbable to think that a major Albanian political party would in any way be supportive of radical Islamic elements. Politics is strongly secular in Macedonia. In addition, Albanian politicians would know better than to risk the support by the international community.

However, elements exist in support of IVZ's claims over the spread of radical teaching. Citing the unauthorized lectures as the grounds for his dismissal, the Skopje mufti, Ibraim Shabani, in particular objected to the lectures by a local Islamic scholar, Bekir Halimi. In July, after the incident, IVZ directly brought Halimi's name in connection with the spreading of Wahabism. Two years ago the police raided the premises of Halimi's association called Bamsiera on suspicion of links with radical groups in the region and internationally. The suspicion was apparently caused by a small money transfers by an organization from Kuwait. Halimi was however neither detained nor charged. Some media subsequently reported the case as a mistake. Halimi himself has denied allegations of spreading radical ideas in the past. He has claimed that the local Muslim tradition is "immune to such influences" and that local priests know how to protect the believers. Ramadani, for his part, justified Halimi's unauthorized lectures arguing that he was a recognized scholar and that it was a privilege to have him speak.

There have been no public reactions following the IVZ's leader call upon Europe and the United States to defend moderate Islam in the country. However, after years of rumors and denials, the clash is now out in the open. Further unraveling seems imminent.

This article was originally published in Italian by Osservatorio Balcani:

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