Rexhepi: Gruevski, ‘a Dictator Without Precedent’ in Macedonia – Interview

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Interview

Rexhepi: Gruevski, ‘a Dictator Without Precedent’ in Macedonia

Macedonia’s outspoken Islamic chief, Sulejman Rexhepi, says Balkan Muslims who go to fight in Syria are a danger – and slates longstanding PM Nikola Gruevski as a dictator.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic

BIRN

Skopje
Rexhepi says the territory in Syria and Iraq controlled by ISIS “is a centre of criminals” and he is grieved that some Muslims from the Balkans “have failed to see through this” and have gone to fight there. “That is a big mistake, a big manipulation,” he says.A conversation with head of the Islamic Religious Community, IVZ, Sulejman Rexhepi, begins casually in his office in Skopje’s Albanian-dominated municipality of Cair over a cup of tea.

The cleric is well known to the wider public in Macedonia as a media columnist and commentator on global and local affairs.

“I am often attacked for commenting on politics [but] I am a citizen of this country and do not write my columns on behalf of the IVZ but as a person and an intellectual,” Rexhepi says.

One of Rexhepi’s latest columns, called “J’ai honte” [“I am Ashamed”], inspired by the famous “J’accuse” open letter by the French writer Emile Zola at the time of the Dreyfus affair, appeared just after the November terror attacks in Paris.

Rexhepi wrote of the harm done to the image of Islam in the West by these attacks and the hatred they have spawned.

“I can’t guarantee that there are no criminals, thieves and terrorists among Muslims, but the religion itself cannot be identified by the realities of individuals who only formally belong to it,” Rexhepi told BIRN.

He warns that if these fighters return home “without our knowledge, they will be defective. They can bring us evil and can infect the younger generations.

“They need re-socialization, and we have offered to help by providing religious teachers for prisons, so those individuals can repent and re-integrate,” he says.

Turning to domestic politics, Rexhepi is far from the only public figure to say that Macedonia has been in “deep crisis” since the opposition last year started releasing wiretapped conversations of senior officials that point to high-level corruption.

However, he is probably the only religious leader to openly point a finger at the country’s longstanding leader Nikola Gruevski, accusing him of authoritarianism and of stealing the future of the younger generation, who are leaving the country en masse.

He says that is why he recently refused to participate in the annual international conference under state patronage called “Dialogue between Religions and Civilizations”.

“I have no right to participate in a conference organized by politicians and under the patronage of the first man of the executive who is the most unprecedented dictator that this country has ever seen,” Rexhepi insists.

He suspects that the government also had a hand in the attempted coup in the IVZ last May, when some 40 of his opponents occupied IVZ headquarters for 13 days, demanding his resignation after which a court order prompted their retreat.

“I asked the Prime Minister to withdraw these men. I told him on the phone that this coup was of his making. I told him, ‘Stop this bad move. You are not harming only the IVZ, you want to inflame all of Macedonia with this!’ ‘No, it is not me,’ he said,” Rexhepi recalled.

The cleric still suspects the coup attempt was related to events later that May in the northeastern town of Kumanovo.

A two-day shootout there between police and ethnic Albanian gunmen, 29 of whom are now on trial, left 18 dead and some 50 injured.

He believes that the events in the IVZ and in Kumanovo were part of an orchestrated plot to divert attention from growing discontent with Gruevski’s government.

“The whole thing was a setup and there was probably some kind of a deal whereby they [the gunmen] were promised something to distract attention from the daily political situation,” he says.

“They were probably offered money. I don’t know about the Macedonians, but conmen from the Albanian camp who abused their functions and positions surely had their fingers in this,” he says.

Rexhepi says that his opponents who stormed the IVZ were probably paid to start a provocation in the centre of Skopje that would then spiral out of control.

He says he received offers via his employees from various commanders in Kumanovo who “offered to come here and clean them up [the men who stormed the IVZ]. That meant shooting. It would have been equal to an atomic bomb.

“I categorically declined this offer on two or three occasions. I said, ‘Stay away from the IVZ’. I was convinced we would win our fight through legal means.”

Rexhepi blames the government also for undermining all attempts at cooperation between the IVZ and the county’s largest denomination, the Macedonian Orthodox Church, MPC, as well as for stalling on agreements to reconstruct mosques that were supposed to obtain help in terms of state money.

“I spent all of my power and energy on Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. I tried to influence him to start a good, constructive cooperation for the good of the people and the country. He did not accept any such thing. He never said ‘No’, but his deeds afterwards spoke differently.”

About a quarter of the population of Macedonia are ethnic Albanians who are overwhelmingly Muslim. Rexhepi also belongs to this community. The ethnic Macedonian majority mainly belongs to the Orthodox Christian faith.

During his last unofficial parlay with Gruevski, which he said took place last year, Rexhepi says he was asked to tell him how Muslim believers and Albanians saw the Prime Minister.

“Muslims know you as an Islamophobe without precedent in the political history of Macedonia,” Rexhepi said he replied.

As for the Albanians in general, he says he answered: “Albanians do not like you either, because you demonstrate a strong Albano-phobia.”

Commenting on the ongoing political crisis and on EU attempts to push for reforms before snap elections due later this year, Rexhepi says Gruevski and his partners should not be left with any space to wriggle out of the deal.

“They should not [be allowed to] destroy the future of this country because in that case we will all be responsible,” he says.

“We are ready to oppose them, [and] in the end, if need be, oppose bad managers of this country. We will probably show solidarity, regardless of our religious and national affiliations, and protest jointly to save the future of this country.”

He says the future of Macedonia can only be ensured if it remains a truly multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society.

“I cannot imagine this country without Macedonians, Turks, Albanians and Roma… They provide the colours of our country,” Rexhepi concludes.

 

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