January 27, 2008
(Balkanalysis.com Research Service) – When government officials in Macedonia recently proposed rebuilding a church that once stood on the city’s central square, they received an abrupt warning: for the Islamic Community (IVZ), the recreation of Sveti Konstanin & Elena, destroyed in the 1963 earthquake, should guarantee them their own right to build a mosque in the prominent downtown area.
According to a report from A1 Television, among its other ambitions the IVZ is most keen on rebuilding the Burmali Mosque, destroyed in 1925, a year after the official dissolution of the Ottoman Empire but 12 years after the Ottomans were finally expelled, following a long period of bloody crackdowns on the Christian populations of Macedonia. A Royalist Yugoslav army house was built over it. Today the area is off the main square, and near pedestrianized streets where modern cafes cater to locals and international guests, considered to be one of the nicest modernization efforts in the city in recent years. Resurrecting a mosque in the area would certainly change the ambiance.
Interestingly, it appears that the whole building frenzy is part of the larger issue of creating an “urban plan” for Skopje. The government has announced it will put forward an international tender for coming up with a “solution” to this issue, which it says will involve architects, planners and officials from the Ministry of Culture. However, the religious dimensions of the urban upgrade means that the authorities are playing with fire. While building an Orthodox Church is largely an exercise in decoration in a country where few attend church regularly, building a mosque, frequented five times a day by groups of Muslims likely to be “commuting” across the bridge from the “other” side of the river, is not. Considering current demographic and social trends, such religious one-upsmanship cannot lead to a long-term victory, to put it mildly, for Christendom in Macedonia.
This is not the first time that Muslim officials have raised their voices on this issue; it has been a hot topic for several years now. And in interviews and public statements, the ambitions of the Islamic leadership to restore the Ottoman-era landscape have been clearly seen. The A1 article quotes an IVZ official who states that the Islamic Community had put forward the request to rebuild the Burmali Mosque “one year ago.” Communist Yugoslavia did away with other some surviving mosques, converting them into spaces for public use, as had its Royalist predecessor.
The post-Communist denationalization process has seen considerable assets and property returned to their former owners. Nevertheless, in the competition to win back as much largesse as possible from the state, Muslims are particularly resentful. Later this year, the Macedonian Jewish Community will finish work on a new Holocaust Memorial Center, to be built over the location of Skopje’s former Jewish quarter, which adjoins the city’s main Muslim stronghold and overlooks the northeastern bank of the Vardar. “The government did everything it could for the Jews, and for the Christians,” one high IVZ official complained in early 2006. “But they don’t want to give anything back to the Muslims- they fear our power.”
It is not exactly true that the Muslims have been frozen out, though they probably have gotten relatively less back than the Orthodox Church, which after all speaks for almost 70 percent of the country’s inhabitants. The election of businessman Trifun Kostovski to the post of Skopje mayor in 2005 brought someone who, while having been widely criticized for insufficiently improving urban life, has made church officials happy. Kostovski, who had already personally funded repairs to the famed Sveti Jovan Bigorski monastery near the western village of Debar, then commissioned the creation of a large new church on the “other’ bank of the Vardar- something that had some Muslims seething.
Forces at work within Macedonia’s Muslim community have therefore sought to take power into their own hands. Unlike the Skopje officials who merely proposed rebuilding the central church, Muslims have simply gone ahead with the philosophy of build first, ask questions later. A Macedonian journalist interested in asking builders about a mosque that was being constructed in a Christian majority neighborhood of Skopje two years ago was threatened at gunpoint. Islamic officials controlling funds from letting properties and for building works have been associated with the radical Wahhabi movement in the past, and tend to be very secretive.
The suspicion that much of the new mosques are being built with Saudi money is evidenced in places such as the village of Saraj, just west of the capital, where one garish mosque adorned with Saudi-style double minarets stands besides the highway; another is currently under construction adjacent to it. When asked about the source of funding for the former mosque, a local imam stated that it had all been accomplished through local donations- the usual, and impossible to verify, response in such cases.
However, a currently serving European intelligence officer surveyed about the newer mosque under construction in Saraj, which will give the village a total of three, suspected a more long-term goal at work: “the location right along the highway, where all the drivers are passing on to go out of the city, is not picked by accident. It makes a statement,” he said. “This is also part of the plan to consolidate Saraj with Kondovo across the highway, eventually.”
Sprawling Kondovo, backed by wooded hills leading north toward the porous Kosovo border, is the site of the country’s main madrassah. The 40km highway from Skopje to Tetovo, flanked by these and several other Albanian Muslim villages, is one of the most heavily trafficked stretches of road in the country and the route that most tourists take when going to the tourist destination of Lake Ohrid. Stocking this span of highway with mosques, as has already partially been accomplished, is a priority for Islamists looking to “mark their territory’ in a way that will be visually overpowering. The IVZ’s desire to rebuild the Burmali Mosque in the center of Skopje mirrors, and even exceeds this goal, given that it will be both highly visible, audible and also frequented by observant Muslims, dramatically changing the general experience of the city center for locals and tourists alike.
That Islamic groups are not interested just in reviving Ottoman architecture has been witnessed in numerous ways. A mob of Muslim youth, officially criticized by the IVZ, protested against the Danish cartoons of Mohammed back when that controversy was playing out across Europe in February of 2006. More recently, on 10 January Muslim women petitioned successfully for the right to wear head scarves in official photographs. According to Balkan Insight, an obscure women’s association, ‘Islam and Science’ had filed a complaint in November 2007, claiming that “the ban violated the right to freely express religion.”
Further, as was witnessed in 2006, local sources in Struga, on Lake Ohrid in Macedonia’s southwest, recently stated for Balkanalysis.com that a Wahhabi “beach party’ in July, “twice as big as the year before,” brought around 100 bearded men and youth to the beach for a day of football, conversation and casual religion. While undercover police snapped photos, however, the bizarre occurrence was not reported in the media.
The issue of building a single church in Skopje cannot, therefore, be removed from the larger context of heightened religious, rather than ethnic oppositions in society at large. In the end, while some commentators surveyed by the Macedonian media see the center-right government as merely promoting its own political interests in the plan to rebuild Sveti Konstantin & Elena, it may ironically be, in the long-term, the interests of the Islamic Community that end up being served, as the quiet struggle for the future of a country with both a Byzantine and Ottoman past heats up.
Readers interested in further detailed information on this topic are recommended to read The Coming Balkan Caliphate: The Threat of Radical Islam to Europe and the West, by Balkanalysis.com director Christopher Deliso.