Muslim Brotherhood Activities in Northers Macedonia

Will political Islam, as presented by the Muslim Brotherhood, have room for success in the countries inhabited by indigenous Muslims in Eastern and Central Europe? Will its success differ according to the forms of Islamic religiosity in these countries, according to the foundational formation of Muslim societies, and to the level of integration, discrimination, or presence of radical Islamic forces?

GLOBSEC organization [2] started with the Anti-Extremism Project (CEP), and the suspicious activities in Central and Eastern Europe carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood, to help answer these questions in five countries of Central and Eastern Europe: Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, North Macedonia, Poland, and Serbia. Each of which constitutes a different scene for Islamic societies and the religious organizations that represent them. These studies represent a distinct case for drawing a map of the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement in those countries and its success and failure over time [3].

This study, which was prepared about political Islam by the MENA Foundation, focuses on Islamist organizations, associations, and currents in North Macedonia, and in the other above-mentioned countries – which were covered by several studies that will be published later. These have similarities to the Brotherhood’s activity. Then we try to make approximations about cases of similarity to the Brotherhood’s activity in them, with an indication of the specificity of each country, provided that this study is related to North Macedonia. We will publish other studies about the rest of the mentioned countries.

The Muslim communities in North Macedonia are exposed to the influence of various politically ideologized Islamist groups. There are some Islamists who came to Macedonia and disappeared over time, and some of them came from Turkey. While the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina greatly differs due to its long history of opening up to the Muslim Brotherhood, although the opening was not very successful or direct.

Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood movement continues to inspire a certain segment of the local Muslim population with a desire to expand political Islam in Europe! Therefore, student and youth organizations were created for this matter decades ago and they gradually began to occupy a marginal space in Islamic societies there! Its leaders operate out of sight. This is the first category.

But there is a second category of organizations which are the main groups and they have a wide scope of action. However, these groups “indulged in the ideology circle of political Islam for just a short period in their past, by contacting the institutions that were based in the West! It is supposed to be linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

As for the third category, it contains many political activists organized in several gatherings, including youth organizations. All of them openly support the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as well as support the popular and political movement of the so-called Arab Spring in Egypt that occurred in 2011-2013. They draw their ideas out of the inspiration of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, and maintain ties with them and their institutions in Brussels. However, the last category includes organizations that are slowly approaching the realm of political Islam with the help of non-Muslim Brotherhood actors.

North Macedonia Demography

According to the last census conducted in 2002, one-third of North Macedonia’s population is Muslim, and they are also divided by race, and the largest ethnicity among them is Albanian (25%), followed by Turks, Bosniaks (Bosnians), and Turbisians. However, this information is considered outdated. To many, this indicates that the current Muslim population of North Macedonia is between 36.6% 3 and 43.6%.

The main religious authority for Muslims in North Macedonia is the Islamic Religious Community (мак. Исламска верска заедница, alb. Bashkësisë Islame, IVZ, which was created in 1991 and recognized by the government in 1994. The official website of IVZ advocates that peace be spread seriously, and has previously denounced extremist measures in North Macedonia [4].

Membership of the Muslim Brotherhood in North Macedonia

There is a large gap in academic and political researches which focus on the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a movement of political Islam in the country. However, through the research, conducted on Macedonian society and organizations linked to the Muslim Brotherhood network, it was found that one of them is a member of the Forum of European Islamic Youth and Student Organizations (FEMYSO) . The organization is called Forumi Rinor Islam (Islamic Conference of Youth, FRI), based in Tetovo.  Its representatives have attended FEMYSO events and conferences, and have been elected as members of the FEMYSO leadership team.

FRI is described as a youth non-governmental organization, founded in 2000 as a result of youth activism and will, and has an online presence via a website and social media pages, including a YouTube channel, Facebook page with over 5000 followers and Instagram with 1700 followers! FRI also controls an outdated web domain that is not currently used and inaccessible.

Unlike FEMYSO from Bosnia and Herzegovina, AKOS, FRI contains some articles on the topic of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the vast majority of those articles, about 15 articles, dated between 2012 and 2016 and cover events surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. There is one interview with Intissar Khreiji, the head of FEMYSO, and another one with the daughter of the Tunisian Ennahda party leader, Rached Ghannouchi, on the website, although no mentioning of political Islam or the Brotherhood. FRI also shows only one article about the life and work of Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan Al-Banna. [5]

FRI’s activities mainly are about education and humanitarian aid, as evidenced by its social media outputs; The organization offers multiple training courses for young people on health and education topics, and awards such as “The Young Scholar of the Year”, during its annual celebration of the Hijri New Year. Funds are also being raised for food and hygiene products for needy families across North Macedonia. But there is no information available under the “Activity” tab on its website regarding the dealing of political issues. There are only appeals to the organizers of the LGBT Pride and its youth.

The Islamic Youth Front of Macedonia and its Relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood Movement

Although Macedonia calls for an end to practices that lead to an “imbalance of moral components”, however, the Islamic Youth Front, which is not officially affiliated with any political party in North Macedonia, organized a conference in August 2011 entitled “Islam in Europe (danger or salvation) attracted great public attention due to its suspected links to Islamic extremism, where there was Hani Ramadan, the Muslim Brotherhood’s guest speaker, who is Tariq’s brother Ramadan and the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna.

IVZ North Macedonia expressed concerns about these events because it believes that the participation of NGOs in organizing religious meetings and lectures as well as fundraising activities means interference in religious affairs, which is the responsibility of the community, but it is interesting to note that there is no mention of this conference in FRI’s current social media accounts, except for registering on their YouTube channel. [6]

Moreover, the most recent available publications date back eight years ago, which may indicate FAO’s distancing itself from this past event and its implications. One of the experts interviewed indicated that FRI currently has a good reputation and that the organization is not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

In addition, Legis, which is an NGO in northern Macedonia, attracted attention due to the participation of Yasmine Redibi, the former head of the group and the wife of the current president, in the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza in 2010, sparking controversy over its possible links with the Muslim Brotherhood. [7]

LEGIS has been working since 2009, at the national and international levels, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Gaza, Somalia, Myanmar, Syria and Greece, by collecting and providing assistance to alleviate the effects of natural disasters, such as floods and assisting migrants and refugees. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Mohamed El-Beltagy and Dr. Hazem Farouk, who were arrested on board the flotilla ship and held in an Israeli prison following the Israeli commandos’ raid on the ship.

Redžepi, who was on the board of the fleet ship Mavi Marmari, denied having links with the Muslim Brotherhood, indicating that he was a prominent person concerned with humanitarian affairs who was intending to ship the humanitarian aid run by “human rights activists”. Aside from speculation, no further indications were found to substantiate allegations of links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

External Influences of the Brotherhood’s Presence in Macedonia (the Turkish Brotherhood as an Example)

Despite the lack of indications of the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in North Macedonia, it has been observed that there are other foreign parties that have a great influence on the political and religious contexts in the country and in all the talks, as it has been proven that Turkey and the Justice and Development Party have a great influence in North Macedonia; Similar to Serbia, but Turkey’s influence is described as institutional and systemic.

One of the interviewees mentioned that the Turkish organization TİKA is always present in the background of important developments in North Macedonia. This can be explained by the relations with Turkey, including the historical and cultural influences of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, especially North Macedonia, in addition to the presence of a remarkable proportion of Turks in the population. In addition, the personal connections of the Macedonian population with Turkey are clearly visible, as many Albanians have relatives and friends in Turkey, and many of them received their education in Turkey.

For example, Turkey funds the rebuilding of mosques in North Macedonia, such as the historical Ali Pasha Mosque dating back to the sixteenth century in Ohrid.  In addition, Turkey donates money for animals used for Muslim sacrifice. IVZ has made donations limited, therefore this has this helped raise Turkey’s good reputation in the North Macedonia societies. Turkey’s influence is also allegedly linked to the establishment of the Pisa political party. It is a right-wing Albanian political party that has been operating since 2014, and it is reported that Pisa won four seats in the Macedonian Parliament in the 2020 elections.

According to several accounts, the Pisa party has an Islamic background, and it is funded by foreign countries, especially Turkey! While the PESA leadership denies having direct links, it has well-known editors of pro-Erdogan media outlets and they openly follow Erdogan’s line! While mobilizing voices at the community level, they were invoking the “Erdogan card”, but among the elites and at the national level, and their discourse revolved around the ethnic issue and “promoting Albanian issues and values” and to increase its influence, Turkey maintains good relations with the Turkish national minority in North Macedonia, In addition to the small Macedonian Muslim group Torbeši due to the similarity of their conservative political views. ([8])

The indigenous Albanians constitute the largest number of Muslims in the country and have a prominent political and social weight!   Turkey intends to use this influence as part of its strategic goal of neo-Ottomanism through Erdogan’s clear policy in the whole of Europe?! In the same context, it was reported that between 2011-2014, Turkey organized political academies for youth in Ankara, including figures from North Macedonia, where other members of the Turkish Justice and Development Party were present.

These businesses and activities mentioned above were parallel to allegations about the AKP’s mobilization of Muslim Brotherhood youth. This indicates that the time has come for the Pisa political movement to join the Brotherhood’s line. Nevertheless, it did not use the discourse of political Islam in its general political discourse, but Turkish figures affiliated with the AKP called for a “re “Strengthening relations” with North Macedonia to gain more rights and respect for Albanians in the country, where they are often undermined or neglected.

Pisa is also affiliated with the publishing house Logos-A, and it has published books by Hassan Al-Banna and Youssef Al-Qaradawi among many books by other authors! These books have been translated almost exclusively into Albanian, for example advertisements for Yusef al-Qaradawi’s famous book (Halal and Haram in Islam) were found on Logos-A and Facebook due to its association with BESA. It is alleged that Logos-A has been attacked by other political parties in Macedonia, specifically by VMRO-DPMNE51, because it has published inspiring and reference books for a new intellectual movement in politics that adopts the ideology of Muslim Brotherhood political Islam. [9]

An expert interlocutor confirmed the existence of links between PESA and the publishing house Logos-A, indicating that one current within the PESA party focuses heavily on ideological developments through books and education while at the same time sympathizing with former Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu and having strong personal ties with Individuals from Qatar.

The presence of the Gülen movement, which was in conflict with the Erdogan government, was also highlighted in interviews related to North Macedonia? Gulenists are mainly present in the education sector through schools such as Yahya Kemal College in Skopje, which was threatened with closure in August 2016 due to its links with the Gülen movement.

The personal account of one of the interviewees (who refused to be named) also revealed allegations that Turkey incited the persecution of members of the Gülen movement in North Macedonia in exchange for influencing the acceptance of the rising political party Pisa in the coalition with the then ruling VMRO-DPMNE party! In addition, the publishing house Logos-A is believed to be strongly affiliated with the Pisa Party, which indicates secondarily links with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

It has been noted that “the internal turmoil in Turkey always reflects on North Macedonia politically”! This sentiment was confirmed in all our interviews, which led to an increase in discussion about the sensitivity of Macedonia, and this has been described as of paramount importance, as it is suggested that “there is a covert fighting for the new caliphate taking place in the Islamic world now”, referring to relations Between Turkey and the Gulf countries! It is important to note that the interviewee believes, from his point of view, that he believes that the AKP is promoting the Brotherhood’s agenda of interest.

A Turkish / Brotherhood struggle with contemporary Salafism over Macedonia and the Balkans!

Both interviews and published literature, which were circulated in Macedonia, indicated that other foreign influences have made their way to North Macedonia, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates where they are all listed as influential in some way, although their impact is often much less than that of Turkey.

These influences are transmitted through the preaching of the various imams who were educated in those countries! Although the influences from the Gulf states are more secretive, and it is difficult to follow financial resources to find out where they end up, the architecture of some mosques throughout North Macedonia is an indication that strengthens this !? There is an increase in the “bearded Wahhabis”, who receive financial support from well-known Gulf countries in the villages of Turbishi. The Islamic movement and charities, such as the Islamic Endowment, have been the subject of debate and controversy since the 1990s.

Islamic fundamentalists entered the western Balkans for the first time during the civil wars of the 1990s, establishing a link with the Gulf. Today, North Macedonia’s ties to Kosovo are important in this regard, and it has also been observed that many Wahhabi currents have an indirect influence from there. [10]

However, the survey did not indicate the existence of political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood overtly, but the interviews revealed that there are changes that could play an important role in the potential development of political Islam in North Macedonia. The past and overt absence of political Islam is attributed to the fact that religion is not an important factor in shaping identity, however, the ongoing transformation is evident! With the fall of Communist rule in the former Yugoslavia (SFRY), religion has emerged as a factor for identity building and strengthening Albanian identity, which is seen as being threatened by the Albanian bloc due to efforts to strengthen the Macedonian national identity.

Albanian political and intellectual elites began to include Islam as a determining factor; Research by the Kosovo Center for Security Studies indicated that representatives, including imams from the Muslim community in Macedonia, support Islam as the element that preserved the Albanian identity in Macedonia. [11]

The shift of the narrative from “identity based on language and culture” to “identity based on language, culture and religion” is increasingly evident in political discourse, such as that of representatives of the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) and the Albanian Political Party (PDSH).

Also, political parties, the “Pisa” party, for example, states in its bylaws that Islam “is an indispensable part of the national identity of Albanian society”; These cases are important because, as one of the interviewees mentioned, “the second half is waiting”, in reference to the continuing ethnic conflict in 2001 between Albanians and Macedonians; These transformations are linked to current developments at the global level, as noted by one of the experts who was interviewed, but it seems that Turkey has been placing a higher value on its Islamic identity in recent years, which experts expect will also be reflected in the North Macedonian context on a potential conflict in the coming years. Because of the interconnection between the two countries. [12]

Brotherhood of Muslim youth in Macedonia and the Balkans

The younger generations, in particular, are seen as vulnerable to such potential developments as they are more likely to fight for the “Islamic cause” than the “Albanian cause” as the older generation did ?! To summarize the words of one of the experts who were interviewed, we say, “The current overt lack of political Islam does not exclude the possibility of its development in the future!” ICBiH continued to work to reduce the influence of extremists and prevent religious radicalization. Whereas in 2007 the Islamic Council of Great Britain and Northern Ireland adopted Article 5 of its constitution regarding the Hanafi school of law as a practice in all mosques, to reduce other interpretations of Islam, and potential conflicts in issues of religious disputes. [13]

Moreover, the Islamic Council of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has also established the Wasatia Center for Dialogue to promote peace building and interfaith dialogue interactions among members of Bosnian society. What is more, the ICBiH has been clear about donations from foreign actors, in particular the ICBIH stipulates that while donations are accepted they must make clear their authority regarding the activities in the things created through these donations and how they are being spent officially. For example, the Gazi Hosurf library in Sarajevo was built with a donation from Qatar, yet it is completely under the control of ICBiH in terms of the publications and activities that take place there.

Despite ICBiH’s efforts to prevent extremism, it is often criticized for being poorly reacting to the spread of unwanted foreign influences, and having limited effectiveness against wrongdoing! The former chief of Islamist scholars, Mustafa Siric, was accused of allowing the Wahhabis to settle in the Balkans and spread their ideology! Without any movement against them or trying to limit their activities. There are divergent opinions in both academic and political circles, where some see that ICBiH has taken many steps to prevent extremism, and others suggesting that Serch was more interested in developing his political position in the country. [14]

In conclusion

Today, the presence of political Islam in Macedonia is clear. But it is not public! It also poses a threat to the national identity of the country through fears that warn or may lead to a conflict between the components of Macedonian social. Is the Macedonian reference is Islamic or national? But the most important thing is the tendency towards the Brotherhood identity, which means that there is a political ideology that is reproducing quietly and secretly! Which adopts the thought of political Islam as a reference for it, especially the Brotherhood ideology. In one way or another, this means that the affiliation of the members of these groups crosses national borders, and the bearer of a religious ideology that does not value the national identity. This deserves to be looked into in depth and carefully studied in order to avoid bad consequences that might happen to the Macedonian society in the future.

References

[1] GLOBSEC is a global think-tank based in Bratislava committed to enhancing security, prosperity, and sustainability in Europe and the world. It is an independent, non-partisan, non-governmental organisation with the main goal of shaping the global debate by conducting research activities and connecting key experts on foreign and security policy. GLOBSEC strives to create impact reflecting its values of a liberal and democratic order in the transatlantic world and by engaging esteemed policymakers and senior leaders from different sectors in its policy initiatives.The think-tank publishes regular analyses, policy papers, and publications responding to current challenges arising in the political realm in five areas: Defence & Security, Democracy & Resilience, Economy, Future of Europe, and Technology.

More information can be found here: www.globsec.org

[2] ـ https://femyso.org/member-organisations/

[3]  http://www.stat.gov.mk/Publikacii/knigaXIII.pdf

[4] The Tunisian Ennahda Party is one of the branches of the World Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia.

[5] “The spread of Islamic extremism in the Republic of Macedonia” (Monterey, California: Naval Graduate School, 2011) p. 43.

[6] http://www.legis.mk/history.

[7] Alon Ben Mar, “The Trojan Horse of Erdogan” in Macedonia, Gyrozalim Post | JPost.com, with no date

https://doi.org/https://www.jpost.com/blogs/above-the-fray/erdogans-trojan-horse-in-macedonia-560006

[8] http://shekulliagency.com/opinionanaliza/efekti-besa-si-i-eshte-versulur-shteti-maqedon-entit-botues-logos-a/

[9] Danuta Gibas-Krzak،  “Contemporary Terrorism in the Balkans: A Real Threat to Security in Europe، ” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 26 (nd): 203-218.

[10] Florian Qehaja and Seknder Perteshi, Unexplored relations, Issues of radicalism and violent extremism in Macedonia, p. 20.

[11] Interview, NM 4، Oct. 2 2020،  Skopje.

[12] Preljević, Prevention of Religious Extremism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, p. 378.

[13] The ICBiH is the main religious authority there.

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