Firestone first met Bardhi in Macedonia six years ago, when the latter was helping organize an international conference on religion and peace, the first to bring together the country’s Muslim Albanians and Orthodox Christian Slavs.
The conference coincided with a violent build-up between the two ethnic groups—including shootings, retaliation shootings and torchings of churches and mosques—that put the young nation on the brink of civil war. But the dialogue that began with Bardhi and his Orthodox Christian counterpart helped dissolve the tension, and the conflict fizzled.
“In Skopje, Mr. Bardhi was the voice of Muslim moderates who greatly promoted in a nonpolitical manner the process of reconciliation between Albanian Muslims and Macedonian Orthodox,” Paul Mojzes, organizer of the conference and co-editor of The Journal of Ecumenical Studies, wrote in a letter of recommendation. (Last March, in an essay titled, “Orthodoxy and Islam in the Balkans,” Mojzes identified Bardhi as “the best Muslim proponent of inter-religious dialogue in the Balkans.”)
The Macedonian peace, however, was short-lived, and two years ago, when Bardhi was nominated to become president of the Islamic Religious Union of Macedonia, he discovered that the problems had bled into his own religious community. After a former student who had become affiliated with the Muslim nationalists smashed Bardhi’s face with the butt of a gun, Bardhi spent weeks secluded in his home, withdrew from the political race and eventually lost his job for political reasons, he said.
“During the latest elections within the Islamic Religious Union of Macedonia, professor Bardhi has been the most prominent and trusted candidate,” Ahmet Sherif, a professor at Macedonia’s Institute of National History, wrote in a letter to the Scholar Rescue Fund. “But unfortunately, due to the threatening and sinister actions toward him and his collaborators he chose to withdraw his candidacy as an act of protest.”
Bardhi’s problem was an unwillingness to politicize his faith. He is, as Firestone described him, an “Islamic humanist,” a religious progressive willing to see Islam as “the perfect expression of the divine will,” but not alone and superior on the world stage.
“My topic is quranic exegesis and how we have to be more open between the Quran and Torah, to see how they could speak together,” said Bardhi, 50. “We have spent too long using religion against each other. This is not good for religion or for human beings.”