Religion and Radical Islam

In the Balkans, religion and national identity are intimately, and fatally, linked. Religion has long been the primary national identifier and it has precipitated a history of division. At the time of the schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in 1054 CE, the Croats were Catholic, like their neighbors in Italy, and the Serbs were Orthodox, having been absorbed by the Byzantine Empire. Bosniaks—the Slavic people who lived in the medieval Bosnian state at the time—primarily practiced a form of Christianity that may have been part of the dualist Bogomil sect, though this remains a controversial subject[i]. The Bogomils were condemned as heretical by Orthodox Serbs, who expelled them, and by the Roman Catholic Church, whose calls for crusades were answered by the Kingdom of Hungary, then in a union with Croatia. Following the Ottoman conquests of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1400s, many Bosnians converted to Islam.[ii] Thus, religion, rather than ethnicity, has long sowed distrust in the region and been used as a pretext for political gains. Prior to the 1995 Srebenica massacre, in which thousands of Muslim Bosniaks were killed, Ratko Mladić, one of the architects of that horror, invoked the Ottoman Turks’ defeat of the Serbs in the year 1389: “The moment has finally arrived when . . . we will have vengeance against the Turks in this place.”[iii]

Each country has a different relationship with its primary religion. Of all the countries in the region, the church in Croatia has the largest influence over social and political life. The office of the president was only one of several political entities that supported recent calls by In the Name of the Family, a Roman Catholic NGO, for gender-segregated education and antiabortion measures. In Serbia, politicians regularly use religion to stir up nationalist sentiment, which can function as a distraction from painful economic realities, weak enforcement of the rule of law, and other unresolved domestic issues.

The inhabitants of the two countries that have large Muslim populations, BiH and Kosovo, now practice a very moderate form of Islam. Following a post–World War II campaign, women generally stopped wearing headscarves, mosques were decorated with representational figures, and drinking alcohol became common. However, a 2016 article in the New York Times, “How Kosovo Has Turned Into Fertile Ground for ISIS,” drew attention to the risk that Islamic extremists pose in the country.[iv]

Pristina Nights: Patrons at The Cuban bar in Kosovo.  [v]

According to the report, the self-declared Islamic State has found the highest number of European recruits per capita in Kosovo and the would-be Caliphate has chosen Albanian—the language of Kosovo—as one of the languages used by its propaganda arm. However, the risk that Islamic extremism poses is nuanced, say interviewees—depending on history, economics, and other factors—and varies from Kosovo to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“There is an issue with radicalism in Kosovo” says Petrit Selimi, Kosovo’s former acting foreign minister, “but The New York Times’ article did not realistically present the situation in Kosovo.” Comparing per capita recruits from a country that is 95.6 percent Muslim with countries that have only Muslim minorities does not present an accurate picture; it is “political mathematics,” says another high-ranking official. Lacking the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that dominates countries like Saudi Arabia, Kosovo’s practice of Islam exists in a country that recently held its first gay pride parade, where recognition of the LGBT community is part of the constitution, where 40 percent of ambassadors are female, and which elected the first female president in the region.

Similarly, BiH practices a more moderate form of Islam. It was only during the wars of the 1990s that foreigners who followed strict interpretations of Islam came to the country after Bosnian Muslims invited outside help to fight on their side.[vi] According to media reports, hundreds of these traveling mercenaries were given citizenship and remained in the country, where they formed communities, predominately in rural areas.[vii] “The issue with the Wahhabi Islamic practitioners is that they seem to be peaceful, but no one can enter these communities, so no one really knows what happens there,” says Dobrila Govedarica of the Open Society Fund Bosnia and Herzegovina. An increasing number of tourists from countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are buying property in BiH’s cooler, greener climate for vacation homes. According to some sources, this trend is exerting an influence on BiH’s practice of Islam.

Of more concern to security specialists is the ability of foreigners to open shell corporations for real estate transactions. Easy to open, these firms quickly become hubs for hundreds of millions of euros of property, facilitating all-cash transactions. Similarly, the funding of Islamic charitable organizations in BiH have come under scrutiny by U.S. counterterrorism agencies[viii]. If even a small fraction of this difficult-to-trace money is used to fund terrorism, the impact could be tremendous. For example, the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States cost just $400,000 to $500,000 to carry out.[ix]

Both BiH and Kosovo were early adopters of laws designed to deter fighters from joining the so-called Islamic State—returnees are jailed for a year in both countries. Of the 330 Bosnians known to have left, 26 were killed and 55 returned and were incarcerated.[x] Members of BiH’s Muslim communities are coordinating with BiH’s intelligence services to apprehend returning fighters and some Muslim leaders have demanded that the government shut down illegal madrassas that are not controlled by BiH’s officially recognized Muslim communities[xi]. However, the scope of the monitoring exceeds the government’s capabilities. There are reportedly dozens of Wahabbist communities in BiH, each with young adults who are susceptible to extremist messages.[xii] According to a high-ranking government official, there is an ongoing struggle against the Wahhabi movement in BiH. “The problem is that, even though we speak the same language, there is a misuse of religion and its influence over youth.”

Despite these efforts and a history of more moderate Islam, interviewees say that countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey are using soft diplomacy, in different ways, to promote a form of Islam that runs counter to historically moderate interpretations. Although they have differing objectives and roots in different schools of Islamic thought, both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are exerting influence and shaping perceptions amid high youth unemployment rates and governance challenges. They are building and restoring mosques in both countries, with Saudi-funded mosques often differing aesthetically from the local norms. Representational images, forbidden in most interpretations of Islam, nevertheless traditionally adorned mosques in Kosovo, but that is not the case in the new mosques, says an academic. Saudi Arabia is also educating imams and providing scholarships for study in Saudi Arabia. “Secularism is failing in Kosovo, as Turkey and Saudi Arabia introduce more conservative forms of Islam,” says Ilir Deda, a member of Kosovo’s parliament.

“We are concerned with the return of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq,” says Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, in reference to the allure of IS for disaffected youth in BiH and Kosovo, “and have been working with partners in that region.” President Grabar-Kitarović has gone so far as to ask President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey to put pressure on Turkey’s religious community, as she sees Turkey’s “neo-Ottomanism” to be of concern, along with the Salafist push of the Gulf States. With the decades-long presence of Wahhabis in BiH and the continued outreach by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, there exists the possibility that the more temperate form of Islam traditionally practiced in BiH would give way to a more extremist version in a country that in many ways already resembles a failing state.

The emerging threat is coupled with an important opportunity. Both Kosovo and BiH practice a moderate form of Islam with secular governments, and are willing partners in maintaining that tradition. Kosovo has taken a hard line against Saudi Arabia, closing Saudi-funded exchange programs, expelling rabblerousing foreign imams, and jailing domestic imams who incited violence. Both countries could form a bulwark against extremism, demonstrating to increasingly fearful and xenophobic societies in the rest of Europe that Islam is compatible with democracy.

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[i] Bogomil sect in the Balkans; Obolensky, D. (2004). The Bogomils: a study in Balkan Neo-Manichaeism. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

[ii] Bosnia in the Ottoman Empire during the 15th century; Malcolm, N. (1996). Bosnia: A Short History. New York University Print, p.43

[iii] Ratko Mladić’s statement from Srebrenica, 1995; Whitaker, J. (2015, July 11). The Legacy of Srebrenica, Twenty Years Later. Retrieved February 07, 2017, from http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-legacy-of-the-srebrenica-massacre-twenty-years-later

[iv] New York Times article on Kosovo; Gall, C. (2016, December 21). How Kosovo was turned into fertile ground for ISIS. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/22/world/europe/how-the-saudis-turned-kosovo-into-fertile-ground-for-isis.html

[v] Pristina’s night life and restaurant; The Cuban – Restaurants – Prishtina – Kosovo – KosovoGuide. (n.d.). Retrieved March 01, 2017, from http://kosovoguide.com/?cid=2%2C168%2C442

[vi] Inflow of Muslim fighters during the war in BiH; Bardos, G. Jihad in the Balkans: The Next Generation. Retrieved February 07, 2017, from http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/jihad-balkans-next-generation

[vii] Number of Bosnian Mujahedeen fighters that received citizenship; EUROPE | Analysis: Bosnian stability at stake. (2001, October 15). Retrieved February 21, 2017, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1600107.stm

Dzidic, D. (2015). Bosnia’s Wartime Legacy Fuels Radical Islam. Retrieved February 21, 2017, from http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/bosnia-s-wartime-legacy-fuels-radical-islam

[viii] Funding of Islamic NGOs and charitable organizations; Bardos, G. Jihad in the Balkans: The Next Generation. Retrieved February 07, 2017, from http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/jihad-balkans-next-generation

[ix] September 11, 2001 terrorist attack cost; THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT [Advertisement]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report_Exec.htm

[x] Number of BiH’ citizens that have joined IS; FOREIGN FIGHTERS – THE SOUFAN GROUP -DECEMBER 2015 JUNE 2014 An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq [Advertisement]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TSG_ForeignFightersUpdate3.pdf;

Anzinovic, V., & M. J. NEW ATLANTIC INITIATIVE RESEARCH: THE LURE OF THE SYRIAN WAR: THE FOREIGN FIGHTERS’ BOSNIAN CONTINGENT. Retrieved February 07, 2017, from http://atlanticinitiative.org/project-activities-nato-debates/491-new-atlantic-initiative-research-the-lure-of-the-syrian-war-the-foreign-fighters%E2%80%99-bosnian-contingent.html

[xi] BiH’s Islamic Community efforts to prevent radical teachings; Islamska zajednica u BiH: Hitno zabraniti molitve vehabijama! (2016). Retrieved March 02, 2017, from http://www.vecernji.hr/svijet/islamska-zajednica-u-bih-hitno-zabraniti-molitve-vehabijama-1051239

[xii] Wahhabi communities in BiH; http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/jihad-balkans-next-generation

[xiii] ISIS support in BiH; Ruvic, D. (2015, February 05). Islamic State flags appear, then disappear, in Bosnian village. Retrieved March 01, 2017, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-bosnia-islamicstate-idUSKBN0L920720150205

[xiv] Origin of weapons used in the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks; D. W. (n.d.). The Balkan route to Western Europe for Yugoslavia guns | Europe | DW.COM | 05.12.2015. Retrieved February 07, 2017, from http://www.dw.com/en/the-balkan-route-to-western-europe-for-yugoslavia-guns/a-18896280

[xv] Nasser bin Ali Al-Ansi’s involvement with the war in BiH;  Press Release – January 31, 2017, Press Release – January 26, 2017, & Press Release – January 23, 2017. (2017, January 12). Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi. Retrieved February 07, 2017, from https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/nasser-bin-ali-al-ansi

[xvi] Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s statement for the Washington Post;  See Holbrooke, “Lessons from Dayton for Iraq,” The Washington Post, 23 April 2008, A21

[xvii] Statement by Italian Minister of Interior Affairs, Angelino Alfano during his visit to Tirana, Albania; Italy on Alert Over Jihadist Threat From Balkans. (n.d.). Retrieved February 13, 2017, from http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/italy-on-alert-over-jihadist-threat-from-balkans

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