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Albania: Imam Killing Exposes Muslim Divisions

Murder of cleric appears to have exposed rift between moderate Muslim establishment and youthful hard liners.
By Lutfi Dervishi

The leaders of Albania's Muslim community were called to an emergency meeting on January 27, after a top imam was shot dead in broad daylight earlier this month in Tirana.


Although the country's 90 imams met behind closed doors, sources at the gathering confirm the assassination and the growing influence of Muslim radicals educated in Arab countries provoked heated exchanges.


While the killers of Salih Tivari, the secretary general of the country's Muslim community, remain at large, speculation over their motives has gripped Albania.


Some suggest he was the victim of a dispute over the management of community funds and property, while others say his death was the result of an escalating communal power struggle.


Representatives of the country's Muslims, however, deny reports of an imminent face-off between old guard moderates and a new breed of supposedly hard line Islamists with designs on leadership.


The spiritual leader of Albania's Muslims, Haxhi Hafiz Sabri Koci, is more than 80 years old and is not expected to have an actively political role for much longer.


The January 27 meeting ended with the announcement that a further gathering of imams is to be held in 45 days. In the meantime, Zylyftar Dervishi, an imam from the town of Lushnje, has been appointed as a temporary replacement for the slain Tivari.


Tivari, 58, was shot dead in his office on the morning of January 13. As secretary general of the Muslim community, he was its second-highest ranking official after Koci, and in charge of managing its administrative affairs.


After the killing, Ermir Gjinishi, the 30-year-old deputy head of the country's Muslims, who is associated with the new wing of leaders advocating a more purist approach to Islam in Albania, was immediately taken in for questioning by the police, only to be released without charge after two days.


Gjinishi is said to have met Tivari just before he was killed and clashed with him over the exclusion of the former's wife from a foreign delegation.


However, Gjinishi stressed that the quarrel between them was a minor one and expressed his condolences at Tivari's death.


The police later released an identikit picture of the killer, described as roughly 20 years old and bearded.


The killing has taken the country's Muslims - around two-thirds of the population - by surprise and many senior figures are reluctant to be drawn on the possible motives behind it.


The fall of communism undoubtedly led to a resurgence in religious activity in Albania, but there's little sign of the kind of Islamic extremism that's taken root in the Middle-East.


Today, the Muslim community can be divided into two groups: the Sunnis of northern Albania and the Shiites, or Bektashi, in the south. The former rely on Turkey and Arab countries to support for their mosques and schools while the latter turn to Iran for help.


According to Fatos Klosi, a former head of the Albanian secret police, Tivari met him on numerous occasions to voice his concerns about a new generation of Albanians schooled in radical Islam at Arab universities.


"Salih Tivari had met more than once with me to tell me about the pressure of a Muslim extremist wing, mainly youngsters educated in Arab countries, who wanted power in the community," Klosi told reporters on January 21.


Klosi said the police should investigate the role of these extremists in Tivari's murder.


Ervin Hatibi, editor-in-chief of the Muslim community newspaper, Drita Islame (Islamic Light), said he was "shocked" by the ex-secret police chief's allegations and suggestions that radicals were threatening the community.


"It is dangerous to criminalise Muslim religious students," said Hatibi, who maintained that the presence of different views on Islam were a mark of diversity in the community.


Religious violence normally arose in repressive regimes where Islam is regarded as a liberation movement, he told reporters.


The possibility that Tivari was targeted because of alleged malpractices in office cannot be ruled out. Albanian prosecutors had revoked his licence as a notary in May 1999 and there have been allegations that he mismanaged the community-owned property.


However, few can argue that his death has exposed an emerging rift between the moderate Muslim establishment and youthful hard liners.


Hatibi has confirmed that a good part of the January 27 meeting of imams was taken up by a dispute over whether Tivari's murder be treated as a terrorist atrocity - "a September 11 of the Muslim community" - or merely another criminal act in a crime-ridden country.


Lutfi Dervishi is editor-in-chief of the Albanian newspaper Albania