Competing for the Albanian Soul: Are Islamic Missionaries Creating a Lebanon in the Balkans?
Summary of the East European Studies discussion with Isa Blumi, Fellow at the American Research Institute in Turkey, Ph.D. Candidate at New York University, and Title VIII JSTS alumnus.
Isa Blumi identified the active involvement of Islamic religious groups - specifically the Saudi Arabian-sponsored humanitarian aid organizations - in the Balkans as a destabilizing factor in the region and a development which runs contrary to the more liberal Islamic traditions prevalent in the region from the time of the Turkish conquest. Though he pointed out that U.S. evangelical Christian organizations and the Greek Orthodox Church have also been active in the region, Blumi argued that the Saudi Islamic groups - espousing the Wahabbi Islamic sect - pose the greatest threat to Western influence there. He argued that the West has displayed a phobia towards dealing with Muslim populations in the Balkans and that this negligence has provided Arab Islamic organizations the opportunity to gain influence in the region. While Muslim Albanians are not followers of fundamental Islam, they see the Arab Islamic organizations as their only hope for financial help, access to the rest of the world, education, and economic well-being. What is needed - immediately - is a major infusion of Western assistance and effort, particularly in education, in the rural areas of Kosovo to counteract the growing influence of fundamentalist Islam imported from Saudi Arabia.
Albanians are a unique people and it is an incorrect assumption that Albanian Muslims are part of the Islamic world. Many Albanians are not Muslim at all, but adhere to either Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christianity. Muslim Albanians have practiced a moderate, secular form of Islam unique to the region for over 500 years. Historically, religious diversity was tolerated by Muslims in the Balkans and was not considered a factor that contributed to political, ethnic, or economic differences. Regions were the distinguishing factor in establishing identity, not religious affiliation. In the early post-Communist days of Albania, in the early 1990s, the efforts of Saudi-based Islamic humanitarian groups to influence development were thwarted by government efforts to help rural areas. But, Kosovo has been fertile ground for these Islamic groups.
After the Kosovo War in 1998-1999, the West has expressed little interest in rebuilding the rural areas. The huge Western peacekeeping and NGO presence is seen in the urban areas, but not in rural areas. As a result, the Saudi Islamic Joint Relief Committee has had the opportunity to gain access to the region and accepted the responsibility to work in these areas. Specifically, they have provided generous assistance packages, including an infusion of money and the establishment religious schools, as a means to achieve their long-term goal of gaining influence in the region.
Blumi emphasized that these new Saudi-established Islamic schools are extremely troubling and that results of their establishment have been immediate. Since the government-run schools are considered to be grossly deficient, more people are placing their children in the academically stronger religious schools. This religious-based education, however, is quite different from the tolerant form of Islam traditionally practiced in the Balkans. Children are being taught orthodox forms of the religion and a feeling of rivalry, rather than integration, is being fostered. Consequently, a clear generation gap has become visible, with the younger generation in these rural areas exhibiting more strident fundamentalist beliefs. As the schools are a barometer for the future, this fundamentalist influence could be especially damaging as this generation ages.
Blumi stressed that this trend towards fundamentalist Islam is not a natural inclination and that it is reversible. Albanian Muslims, in fact, resent much of the Arab Islamic presence, see their presence as an invasion from the outside, and have put up a significant amount of resistance. In particular, Albanian Muslims resent being told that they do not practice "proper" Islamic customs and beliefs. However, the Saudi Islamic groups are providing much needed financial support to the Albanian Muslims, who, without this money would not have the necessary resources to obtain food, shelter, and education.
To remedy this disastrous situation, the West must devote more interest, attention and financial assistance to the Albanian Muslims, particularly in the rural areas of Kosovo where Western assistance and presence is largely unknown. This is an issue that needs to be addressed today, as ten years from now the trend may then be irreversible.