Saudi Wahhabi Aid Workers Bulldoze Balkan Monuments

 By Jolyon Naegele, Radio Free Europe

Prague, 4 August 2000 (RFE/RL) - The Saudi bulldozing of some of the most historically valuable architectural monuments in the western Kosovo market town of Djakovica is merely the latest in a series of iconoclastic activities in the Balkans undertaken in the name of reconstruction assistance by Arab aid organizations. War-damaged historic buildings are not repaired, but rather demolished to make way for what the Arab donors consider to be more proper Islamic structures. The destruction is a further blow to Kosovo's architectural heritage, following the destruction by Serbian forces and civilians in 1998 and 1999 of over 200 mosques and other Islamic structures - about one-third of the total number in the province.

Harvard University Fine Arts librarian Andras Riedlmayer, the co-author of a survey of Kosovo's war-damaged architectural sites, is outraged by the Saudi demolition program. "Unfortunately, a Saudi aid agency got permits from the local reconstruction agency and from the local institute for the preservation of monuments to work on the restoration, so to speak, of the Hadum mosque complex in the center of the historic district."

Riedlmayer says the Saudis began on Monday last week by trying to knock down all the Ottoman-era gravestones in the cemetery of the Hadum mosque.

"The Saudis were interested in removing them because they consider gravestones to be idolatrous. They are followers of Wahhabism, which is an extremist interpretation of Islam at odds with the practice of most of the Muslim world."

The Wahhabis are a purist movement founded in the 18th century by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1791). He converted the Saud tribe, which now rules Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabis are the largest and most powerful sect in Saudi Arabia.  Riedlmayer says the Saudis are obsessed with having all ancient tombstones, mausoleums, and Sufi shrines located near mosques eliminated, since - unlike most Muslims in the world today - the Wahhabis believe these to be "un-Islamic" and idolatrous. He said "the Wahhabis, with their wealth and fanaticism, are a menace to heritage, in some ways more dangerous than the [Serb paramilitary] Chetniks, since about the latter, at least, no one harbors any illusions regarding their uncharitable intentions."

The Saudi Joint Relief Committee for the People of Kosovo and Chechnya, established by royal decree, has built mosques, schools, clinics, and shelters for displaced persons. It has also supplied the province with several hundred tons of medicine, food, blankets, tents, and clothing during the last 13 months.  But spreading the message of Wahhabi Islam appears to be another aim of the committee. The new mosques are white, boxy structures devoid of detail - a far cry from the centuries-old Ottoman-style mosques that characterize the urban and village landscape in much of the Balkans. Riedlmayer says NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers declined to intervene in Djakovica after the Saudis showed their authorized papers. 

"Eventually the Department of Culture in UNMIK (the UN administration) was notified. They spoke with the Saudis on Thursday and tried to get them to desist. However, on Friday, the Saudis sent in a bulldozer [and] knocked down the buildings around the Hadum mosque including the library built in 1733 and ancient gravestones in the graveyard."

The Hadum mosque itself, which survived last year's fighting largely intact - despite fire damage to its porch and grenade damage to its minaret - remains endangered. If the past is prologue, the frescoes could soon be whitewashed by Wahhabi purists.  Attempts by RFE/RL to contact the UNMIK-Joint Interim Administration's Department of Culture, the Kosovo Institute for the Protection of Monuments, or the Saudi Joint Relief Committee in Kosovo, were unsuccessful. However, Alvaro Higueras, of the UNMIK Culture Department, confirmed in a telephone call to Riedlmayer late last night (Aug. 3) that the Saudis had razed the library and Koran school.  Higueras says the Saudis planned to build a reinforced concrete Islamic center on the cleared site. But the UNMIK official says the Saudis applied for permission for a restoration project, not for new construction. Higueras says an order has now been issued to stop construction indefinitely. He says the Saudis will have to "undo the damage" and restore the Ottoman-era buildings using traditional materials and techniques.

Riedlmayer has documented cases in which the Saudi and other Arab aid agencies have destroyed other historic Islamic buildings elsewhere in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Bulgaria. Last October, while Riedlmayer was in Kosovo conducting a survey of war-damaged architectural heritage, he witnessed the destruction of Muslim cemeteries in Vucitrn (Vushtrri). He says an Islamic aid agency from the United Arab Emirates had pressured local Albanian residents to sledgehammer the graves of their ancestors, completely clearing two historic graveyards next to the Gazi Ali Beg and Karamanli mosques of more than 100 gravestones dating back to the 15th century. Only the grave marker of Gazi Ali Beg himself remained, as the locals refused to allow that one to be smashed. 

Riedlmayer says the UAE aid agency promised to rebuild the damaged mosques "twice as big and twice as Islamic," but only if the gravestones were removed. He says the agency, the largest aid organization in the town, also made an implicit threat to withhold humanitarian aid if the donors' request was ignored.  Riedlmayer notes that during and immediately after the war in Bosnia (1992-95), a Saudi aid agency took charge of the restoration of the Gazi Husrev Beg mosque (Begova dzamija) as well as other historic mosques in Sarajevo and in many other towns and villages. At the Beg mosque, the Saudis ordered the Ottoman tilework and painted wall decorations stripped off and discarded and had the whole building redone, as Riedlmayer puts it "in gleaming hospital white, even the minaret slathered in white plaster." He says that in scores of villages, the Saudis had war-damaged but restorable historic Ottoman-style Bosnian mosques demolished and redone Saudi-style. All of the colorful Balkan-Muslim interior decor was eliminated, and separate entrances were added to segregate women.

To drive home the significance of the Saudi destruction in the Balkans, Riedlmayer says, "Imagine, if you will, some terrible catastrophe affecting the historic churches of Rome and Tuscany, and then having [U.S.   evangelist] Oral Roberts or Mormon missionaries coming in, taking charge, and insisting that they be redone in 'proper Christian style.'"