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In Macedonia, New Concerns over Rural Fundamentalism

October 2, 2006


By Christopher Deliso

Little Macedonia is attracting big interest, albeit quietly, from powerful outside parties. Italian military intelligence is only the most persistent of several Western security agencies that have been probing the remote southwestern villages of Labunista, Oktisi, Podgorci and Gorna Belica over the past two years, eager to know more about the religious beliefs of the local Macedonian Muslims and their connections with radical Islamists in Western Europe.

“Half of Labunista is in Italy,” states one young Macedonian with friends in the village- only half-jokingly. The hard-working, close-knit Torbeshi (Macedonian Muslim) residents of these Struga-area villages have a history of working in Italy, especially the northern Treviso/Trieste region. However, well-placed sources in the Macedonian and European intelligence services have been telling for almost two years of investigations into certain Macedonian Muslim individuals working abroad, or traveling abroad, who have gained exposure to radical Islam.

The Torbeshi are not by nature a radical people. Caught between the two major populations, Orthodox Christian Macedonians and Albanian Muslims, they have always sought to keep their heads down, stay out of trouble and shrewdly bargain for their best interests. However, over the past decade, a minority has decided that foreign-funded Islamist groups, such as the Saudi Wahhabis or Pakistani Tablighi Jamaat, are in their best interests- a decision with perhaps fateful ramifications for the future.

Nevertheless, life in the villages is for now prosaic and uneventful. While predominantly Macedonian Muslim, there are Albanian and Turkish Muslims as well as Macedonian Orthodox living there. The only tensions tend to occur around election time. In the March 2005 local elections, which saw Struga swallow up most of the surrounding villages into an enlarged municipality, the major Albanian party DUI won the affection of the Torbeshi voters.

Macedonia‘s decentralization paved the way for Struga’s first Albanian mayor; one of the side effects was the erection of a large Saudi-style mosque, where a smaller Ottoman one had stood. The mosque stands near the lakeshore in the center of town, two or three streets back from the main road that runs parallel with the water. It is thus not far from the Hotel Drin, where foreign guests have complained about being jolted out of bed by the well-amplified minaret. Although this has also irritated local non-Muslims, neither the local Islamic community nor the city seem interested in turning down the volume.

The affection Torbeshi voters had for their Albanian political suitors quickly wore off, as the villagers began to feel neglected. A new and unique Torbeshi party under businessman Fijat Canovski was thus created in time for the July 2006 parliamentary elections. Although he could hardly be considered a devout Muslim, Canovski reportedly chose the Koran as a uniting campaign symbol and, according to Macedonian media reports, referred to the locals as “our people’ rather than as Macedonians. Canovski also founded an educational entity called European College, which promises high-quality further education based on Western models.

Other forms of possible education, however, are attracting more serious attention. Cottages, typically used for weekends or summer homes, are common in Macedonia. Nevertheless, three or four such houses, located in the almost inaccessible triangle between Oktisi, Labunista, Podgorci and Gorna Belica near the Albanian border, seem to be currently used partially for freelance Islamic education.

Several officials from the Interior Ministry’s counterintelligence service (DBK) and Macedonian border police, as well as local residents of some of these villages and the city of Struga attest that the houses, off the beaten track and requiring a four-wheel-drive vehicle for access, are being used for educating young people about “real” Islam.

While the goings-on for now seem to be quite tame, at least so far as these sources have told us, at least one facility was said to have outdoor physical training courses with ground ladders, ropes and punching blocks- similar to those depicted in videos of mujahedin training in Bosnia and Chechnya, videos readily available from transient vendors on the streets of Skopje and in some mosques around the country. If the nascent fundamentalist movement continues to pick up adherents, especially young ones, such remote facilities could be used in the future for more advanced training.

Most of the villages have at least one local Islamic cultural group or youth group, and locals in Oktisi and Podgorci say that these are also supplying the students for classes at the summer houses.

Leading the activities are local hoxhas and Wahhabis from Ohrid, according to security sources. A 35-year-old bearded cleric involved especially with Oktisi youth invoked the fall of Constantinople in 1453 as fulfillment of Mohammed’s prediction about Islam’s future domination of the world, and believes that “in the end, Italy will become an Islamic state…  not necessarily by force, this time also by conversions.” With rhetoric like this, it is no wonder that Italy’s finest have shown an interest

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