Muslims of Macedonia: Identity Challenges and an Uncertain Future

The population of Macedonia is currently two million people, of which approximately 30-35% inhabitants are Muslim. This paper examines the reality of Muslims in Macedonia and the challenges they face today. It outlines their future based on ethnic and religious indicators.


A Gypsy woman holds her baby and begs for money, while muslim belivers pray [AP]

According to its demographic structure, the Republic of Macedonia is classified as one of the traditional countries of Eastern Europe. Macedonia, similarly to the rest of the Balkan countries, therefore has a long history of multicultural traditions and its demographic structure has been described as multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Certain changes have been introduced to the society that has remained relatively stable over the centuries. The changes indicate the representation of various groups within.
Demographics and Characteristics

The current population of Macedonia is approximately two million inhabitants. Orthodox Christians represent 64 to 66%; Muslims represent 33 to 35% of the population, and 1% of the total population represents Catholics, Protestants and other ethnicities. (1)

Macedonians of Albanian origin represent the majority within the Muslim Macedonian communities; they number approximately 72% or 509,083 people out of the 702,492 Macedonian Muslims. On the other hand, Macedonians of Turkish origins represent 11% or number 77, 959 people, and the Romans number 8%, and number 53,879 people. The Toribash, Gorani and Macedonian Muslims are nearly 5%, 35,000 people, while the Bosniaks constitute about 4%, 25,000 people. (2) Since Macedonian Muslims have lived for over a century within the borders of the vast Ottoman Empire, which was considered a Muslim state until the spur of the Balkan War in 1912, their numbers have been higher and they have been more evenly spread within the Republic of Macedonia.

One of the main direct results of the Balkan wars was the end of the Ottoman Empire. This occurred with the Serbian invasion of Macedonia, which led to a significant decline in the number of Muslims, specifically after campaigns were organised to chase them out of Macedonian cities and villages. Moreover, these campaigns led to altering their distribution in Macedonia, forcing them to seek refugee in safer shelters for Muslims on the borders of significantly Muslim populated areas. Such areas included the northwest, with an area near Kosovo in which a Muslim Albanian majority with a considerable number of Turks occupied its urban centres; the west, where Muslim-inhabited areas were adjacent to Albania; and the south-west towards the areas adjacent to the northern parts of modern Greece, particularly the areas with an existing Muslim majority.

Due to the sudden demographic changes, more than two thirds of the Macedonian Muslims currently live primarily in the northwest areas, and in the west and southwest of Macedonia. The largest numbers of Muslims are situated in the capital Skopje, followed by the cities of Kumanovo, Tetovo, Gostivar, Kicevo, Debar, Resen, Struga, and Ohrid. The other third of Macedonian Muslims is almost equally distributed within different parts of rural and urban Macedonia.

Hundreds of thousands of Bosniaks came to Kosovo and Macedonia after the occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1878. Some 10,000 Bosniaks also immigrated to the coastal areas of Albania near Durres, which at the time belonged to the Ottoman Empire. They expected to return to their homes when conditions improved.

The leaders of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia inherited the same hostile attitude that had been adopted by the Royal Serbian government during the reign of the Yugoslavian Kingdom. This led to the emigration of a great number of the first two Bosniak generations, who fled to Kosovo and Macedonia in the wake of the Austrian- Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and who were subsequently forced to immigrate to Turkey in the fifties and sixties in the century. The Muslims in Macedonia have therefore decreased in number and have accordingly lost their role as a main demographic influence in the region.

The remnants of the Bosniaks in Macedonia number about 30,000, and represent a small part of the total number of Bosniaks who temporarily or permanently lived in Macedonia in the last century. Accordingly, it is worth noting that 90% of Muslim Bosniaks in Macedonia descend from Kosovar origins. The number of Bosniaks descending from Bosnia and Herzegovina in Macedonia is very limited. The current decrease of the number of Muslims in Macedonia is also attributed to the campaigns of forced displacement, which have affected Turkish and Albanian Muslims alike.

One significant and widespread misconception about the Muslim representation in Macedonia is that 'the first manifestation of Islam goes back to the fourteenth century, due to the expansion of the Ottoman Empire'. Modern research emphasises that the indigenous inhabitants of this part of Europe (the Balkan Peninsula) started to embrace Islam during the seventh century, and that during the eighth century, Islam became deeply rooted in the southeast of the Balkan Peninsula which hosts modern day Macedonia. (3)

In addition to Al-Andalus, which was built by Muslims in 710 AD in the Iberian Peninsula, this proves that Islam as a religion and a civilization started influencing the European territory three centuries before many parts of Europe, and before the entire Scandinavian area, had even heard of Christianity, and before Russia and the north and central European countries had embraced Christianity.

It is taken for granted that the Muslims of Macedonia, like their brethren of the Balkan Muslims, are the indigenous inhabitants of Europe, and that they have been continuously working on enriching Islamic civilization, history and culture for the past thirteen centuries. This historical fact provides concrete evidence that strongly refutes the widespread claims that Islam is an unwelcomed expatriate in Europe that Muslims are strangers without the right to live in Europe, and that Islamic culture and traditions are the sworn enemy of the so-called native European culture and civilization.

The Muslims who currently live in Macedonia, and the Muslims in the Balkan Peninsula including the inhabitants of the European part of Turkey through Bulgaria, Romania and Greece up to Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia, are undoubtedly part of the indigenous Europeans of the region.

The cultural and historical features of the Macedonian Muslims have contributed to their position within the relatively harmonized Macedonian society. Although Macedonia is renowned for being secular, with separation between state and religion, its constitution implicitly recognizes Islam as equal to other religions. The establishment of the Association of Macedonian Muslims, also known as Dar al-Ifta, was an important factor in helping to preserve the position of Islam and its legal manifestation and practices. This Islamic institution manages the affairs of the Macedonian Muslims, and defends their rights as citizens of Macedonia.

There are also a number of other cultural and educational organisations, as well as publishing houses and relief organisations, that focus on care for Muslims and on raising awareness. They also aim to celebrate Islamic culture, defend the legitimate constitutional rights of Muslims and uphold the rights according to the Islamic educational and spiritual upbringing. There are a number of political parties that consist primarily of Muslims, and they have about 30 representatives of a 123 in parliament. Additionally, a number of Islamic youth forums work extensively on bridging the gap between religions, and on spreading the virtue of tolerance among the youth both within and outside of Macedonia.
Macedonia has about 600 mosques, 580 of which open their doors to worshipers on a regular basis. According to certain reliable statistics, the number of Muslims practising the rituals of their religion on a regular basis is about 230 000, and about 350 000 worshipers perform Jumu’ah (Friday) prayers every week. The Macedonian Muslims also benefit from the fact that the Friday sermons and religious education in mosques and Islamic schools are performed in Albanian, Turkish, Macedonian, Bosnian, and Roma languages.

Current Challenges

The main challenges facing Muslims in Macedonia seem to be concentrated primarily within one of the characteristics of Muslim groups. Since Macedonian Muslims are among the indigenous people of Europe, their Islamic identity relates back more than twelve centuries. This represents one of the most important idiosyncrasies of Macedonian Muslims as well as a thorn in the eye of the anti-Islamists who exert unremitting efforts to defame Islam, stigmatise Muslims and fight their presence through political, cultural and media-oriented pressure groups.

In this regard, it is worth recalling that a number of new right-winged extremist and fascist politicians have launched several campaigns in a number of Western European countries in order to incite fear of Islam among the general populations. Among such examples include the right-wing leader in France; Marie Le Pen; Hans Christian Streich; the successor of Joerg Haider in Austria; and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, among others.

This has been occurring alongside hostile statements made by Serbian political figures aiming to exploit all opportunities to vilify Islam and portray Muslims as a threat to the peace and stability of Europe, and specifically this part of the continent.

Moreover, other smear campaigns that may appear less radical although are not less influential, attempt to portray Islam as an anarchist ideology, and present Muslims as terrorists whose main aim is the elimination of European values.

The future of Macedonian Muslims has thus been consistently under pressure. Muslims and their institutions started to be targeted at the end of the Balkan wars in 1912, however the situation improved with the last Balkan war in 1991, when Macedonia officially became a multi-ethnic republic. Since then, Muslims have been able to form political parties on an ethnic basis to participate in political action, which strongly contributed to the establishment of the political movement that resulted in a number of parties with strong and clear Muslim sentiments. Such parties represent the cultural and religious identity of the Macedonian Muslims.

This alteration in the political scene has certainly not contributed towards ending the inundation of accusations launched against Muslims in Macedonia. Moreover, it did not succeed in fulfilling the legitimate demands of the Muslims in Macedonia, or prevent the multiple atrocious attacks that were aimed at eliminating them. This tendency to plot and fabricate charges haphazardly and without evidence is due to doubting Muslims, and preventing them from practicing their lives as legitimate citizens of the country.

The same approach was employed by the Macedonian authorities, which led to the 1991 nationalisation movement of properties of individuals and institutions. Subsequently, the decisions of returning property to its owners reflected intentional discrimination. The Macedonian Orthodox church retrieved its entire property while the Association of Macedonian Muslims were not able to retrieve its property, based on different procedures and conditions required from the two parties. The number of Muslim applications that were rejected was more than double the number of applications that was granted for non-Muslims. On occasion the Muslim applications did not even find their way to the authorities. The Association of Macedonian Muslims was never able to retrieve more than a small portion of its endowment of property, lands or even mosques, while the procedures for retrieving the entire property of the Macedonian Orthodox church was straightforward.

The same approach has been applied through extensive political pressure campaigns to vilify Muslims, which is put forward by prominent political figures in the Macedonian government. Most are from the extremist right-winged 'Macedonian Revolutionary Party' that won 55 seats in parliament, and which has several ministers in government. For instance, the murder of five young men near Skopje resulted in the charge without evidence and arrest by the Ministry of Interior of some Macedonian Muslim citizens on the claim that they belonged to a Jihadist group that fights alongside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their parents and relatives were taken to the police stations for investigation, and all the evidence to prove the charge of terrorism against them has only included copies of the Quran translated into Macedonian and Albanian.

Despite the evidence that the defendants have never even been to Afghanistan or Pakistan, or fought with the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, and despite not finding a weapon that might have been used in executing the murder, three of the Macedonian suspects are still in prison while the others have been handed to the Kosovar authorities from Kosovo. The police and judicial authorities did not take action against the newspapers and television channels that mounted a relentless campaign depicting the case as an organised terrorist act committed by Muslims against Orthodox Macedonians. The judiciary also neglected the lawsuits that have been filed by Muslims for rehabilitation. Although the security authorities have not found the perpetrators, there is a general tendency in the Macedonian media to vilify Muslims and accuse them of terrorism.

The main issue is related to the demonization of Muslims purely based on their identity, which is demonstrated through acts committed by the security in violation of legal procedures, with the support of the anti-Muslim media.

Despite the established and sound cooperation between Muslim and non-Muslim political circles, especially within the Macedonian parliament and other political circles, tension still prevail on the religious level with the lack of trust in Muslims.

Features of the Future

The Republic of Macedonia has been characterised by a high degree of multiculturalism and religious tolerance. As such the lack of confidence in the Muslim population and the future uncertainties have become entrenched despite a lack of logical or historical justification.

The anti-Islam tendency has recently taken a more aggressive form, particularly with reports from the European Union that reveal certain European dissatisfaction with the presence of Muslims in Macedonia. These reports have fuelled a hostile campaign, which has in turn incited fear against Muslims. The media outlets and political bodies put forward arguments that show hatred towards Islam, which is clear evidence that Macedonia shares a close ideology with the European Union (4).
The reality of the Macedonian Muslims is also reflected in their educational, economic and political position in society.

All reliable research studies and statistics have proven that with regards to education, Muslims fall at the bottom, and they are the poorest of the Macedonian social sects. Moreover, their political participation in the public sector is scarce compared to their representation in society. According to these figures, Muslims of Albanian origin are in a much better position than those of Turkish origin, while the position of the Bosniak, Toribash/Gorani and Roma Muslims are at the bottom. This demonstrates that the Macedonian society is gradually transforming from being multi-ethnic to politically polarised between two national groups, namely the Macedonian Orthodox Christians and the Macedonian Muslims of Albanian origins.

One of the most prominent hardships facing Macedonian Muslims today is accordingly the political strife between mono-ethnic Macedonian parties; the Macedonian Orthodox and the parties of exclusive Albanian ethnicity. Political competition and the battle to impose power in this charged atmosphere contributes towards significant competition without a clear boundary between religion and ethnicity.
The raging conflict between the Albanians and the Macedonians seems to be new to Macedonia, since a strong conflict between them has only sparked recently, with specific factors that contributed to the rise of actions on both sides. Both parties have mobilized supporters from the same religion and ethnicity; Orthodox Christians with support from international Western forces, and on the other hand, Albanian Muslims. The conflict between them was sparked in 2001, ending in August that year with the signing of the Ohrid Agreement. This agreement succeeded in moderating the fundamental groups within each party, but not in actually dealing with the deep-rooted animosity between the groups. For instance, in 2001 in Prilep, which is entirely Orthodox Christian Macedonian, certain Macedonian extremist Orthodox burnt a mosque built in the sixteenth century. Their motive was claimed to be their inherent hatred towards Albanians, despite the fact that this mosque was built by the Ottomans, and no Albanian even lived in Prilep. Twelve years later, the current Macedonian authorities, which is mostly Orthodox, has still not sought to rebuild the mosque. They also never granted Muslims, represented by the Association of Macedonian Muslims, the license to rebuild it. Moreover, mounting a cross on two Islamic Ottoman landmarks in Prilep and Bitola was aimed at provoking Muslims, and illustrated a strong desire to marginalize and humiliate them.

Under such conditions, the future of Macedonian Muslims is still unclear and unstable, oscillating between promising and challenging conditions. There is no doubt that hostility towards Islam provokes most of the clashes. Support of coexistence between Muslims and Orthodox on the other hand, contributes towards the same stability that the adherents of the two religions experienced in Macedonia for many centuries. This is key to maintaining the security of all Macedonians, despite their religion or ethnicity.



(1) The State Statistical Office of the Republic of Macedonia, Census of Population, Households and Dwelling in the Republic of Macedonia, 2002 (Skopje: State Statistical, Office, May 2005).
(2) The number of Toribash, Gorani and Bosniaks is approximately estimated due to the lack of accurate statistics for these ethnic groups since many Toribash introduce themselves as Muslim Albanians, Turks or even Macedonians while some Bosniaks prefer to be identified as simply Muslims, considering Islam their origin.
(3) For more in depth details refer to Haverich Javed’s study: History of the Muslim Discovery of the World: Islamic Civilization within the plurality of Civilizations, pp.171-210 (Deakin University 2012)
(4) This oriented smear campaign seems clearer through the material presented by a number of right-winged newspapers, magazines and media institutions that have aimed at reproducing campaigns of anarchism sponsored by influential Serbian circles in Macedonia in the early nineties of the last century. Foremost were the Slobodan Milosevic's government and a number of his military generals, and their associated strategic research centres. Such centres included the Serbian Academy for Science and Arts, which has conspired, without any facts or evidence, to frame the Serbian attacks against Bosnia and Herzegovina as a plot to get rid of the Albanian Muslims and chase them till they drown in the Adriatic Sea, the same way in which the Serbian attacks on Macedonia were presented. This attack on Macedonia was planned to be a response to the Macedonian failure to swiftly adopt the stance of President Slobodan Milosevic, which called for maintaining the unity of Yugoslavia and for not declaring Macedonia's independence. The Macedonian authorities then confirmed its allegiance to Belgrade, agreeing to later declare its independence with a Serbian blessing. This was all presented and propagated by the West as 'an attempt by the Serbian people to protect the Christian nature of Europe against the barbarianism of Muslims, and to defend the European values against the Barbarianism of Islam' in order to justify the ethnic cleansing campaign that targeted the expulsion of Muslims from Macedonia.


* Ferid Muhic is a professor of philosophy at the University of Saints Cyril and Methodius in the Macedonian capital of Skopje.