The Young and the Old: Radical Islam Takes Root in the Balkans

The Islamic Community in Bosnia and radical groups like the Young Muslims and the Active Islamic Youth hold sharply conflicting views on Islam. (Photo: Elvis Barukcic / AFP-Getty Images)

Recent debates on immigration and integration in Europe have revolved around millions of Muslim newcomers to Europe. But Muslims are a constituent part of Europe, and have been for many centuries. The continent's southeastern region is home to eight million Muslims, roughly one-third of all Muslims in Europe.

But speaking of a "Muslim community" is as misleading in the Balkans as it is in Western Europe. Belonging to four ethno-linguistic groups, the position of Muslims in their Balkan home countries differs considerably, as does the sociohistorical context in which their communities developed.

Bosnia has seen a realignment of ethnic and religious identities over the past 15 years. In Albania — declared the world's first atheist state in 1967 — Islam is the dominant religion, but the majority of the population is secular.

Muslims in Bulgaria belong to the million-strong Turkish minority and in Macedonia to an ethnic Albanian community that makes up around a quarter of the country's total population. Kosovo, apart from the Serb minority and a few pockets of Roman Catholicism, is almost completely Muslim, but pronouncedly secular. Muslims are a majority in Albania and Kosovo (the latter formally still part of Serbia and Montenegro), a plurality in Bosnia, and a minority everywhere else. (In some areas, however, such as the Sandzak region straddling the internal border between Serbia and Montenegro, they are a compact community forming a local majority.) Historically, the region's Islam is Hanafi Sunni, known as tolerant and peaceful, and widespread in Turkey, though mystical groups such as the Bektashi and Alevi are also prevalent.

Indeed, Wahhabism, a fundamentalist form of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia, has been actively promoted within the region's Islamic communities over the past 15 years, both by (mainly Saudi) humanitarian groups and by locals returning from religious studies in the Middle East. (Some Saudi religious charities have since been accused of involvement in terrorist financing.)

Nathalie Clayer, an expert on the topic with the French National Research Council, told the Italian online magazine Osservatorio sui Balcani in 2002 that this double import — by charities and returning students — was one of the most interesting features of the evolution of Balkan Islam in recent years, and had led to "its deep transformation." But that transformation has taken a different course in different countries.

Macedonia: Moderate Muslims Retreat?

Following more than a year of inner turmoil, including many incidents of violence, the head of the Islamic Community in Macedonia, Arif Emini, was forced to resign from the organized body in June 2005. He relented to pressure from a radical wing led by Zenon Berisha, who now wants to take over the leadership. Berisha and his followers are accused of being Wahhabis.

The Macedonian public was shocked when Emini was held hostage in his office by some of Berisha's men: while the country had indeed gone through violent turmoil in 2001, it was along ethnic lines; Islam had played no role in the conflict.

In a related incident just days after Emini's resignation, a group of Skopje imams were attacked and beaten upon returning from a wedding. The chief imam of the Skopje Hudaverli mosque, Saban Ahmeti, later told the daily Utrinski Vesnik, "The people who attacked us were definitely representatives of radical Islam, or as we call them, Wahhabis — proponents of Zenon Berisha, who for more than a year have been trying to take over the Islamic Community."

For the first time since Macedonia's independence in 1992, the central morning prayer for Ramadan Bairam, one of the two most important Muslim holidays, last October took place not at the main Jaja Pasha mosque but at the Sultan Pasha mosque instead. Insiders commented that this signaled a retreat by the moderate Islamic leadership since Berisha's radicals had managed to establish themselves at Skopje's main mosque.

But not everyone agrees that the troubles at the Islamic Community are evidence of a decisive split between different versions of the faith. A report issued in mid-January by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, a think tank that monitors conflicts around the world, concluded, "despite insinuations that the division is rooted in religious theology, religion rarely is mentioned in discussions about the community's troubles. Access to property, money and influence are what is at stake, with religion an afterthought."

Moreover, the ICG noted, "there is no realistic prospect that fundamentalism is gaining a genuine foothold [in Macedonia]."

Albania: The Young Scholars

A similar story seems to be playing out next door, in Albania. Here, the media refer to the radicals as "the young." Educated in Arab religious schools, they endeavor to bring a stricter form of Islam back to their native lands. Last year they tried to change the statute of the Islamic Community, to make it closer to their way of worship — but they failed. Immediately afterward, the head of the Islamic Community, Selim Muka, and the chair of the government committee for religions, Ilir Kula, received death threats. The police assessed the threats as genuine and put the men under protection.

Alongside their activity within the Islamic Community, the radicals are also creating parallel structures — for example, the Muslim Forum of Albania — to further their cause.

But while these streams may be radical, they're also marginal. In Albania, as well as in Macedonia, the overwhelming majority of Muslims practice their faith in a peaceful and tolerant manner. Perhaps due to the communist heritage, religion for many is more a matter of preserving their tradition than devotion with political implications.

Questions remain, though, and the West is asking with increasing insistence: Will these groups remain marginal? Does their presence provide a breeding ground for terrorist cells and structures?

Bulgaria: Islamophobia in the Media?

The Bulgarian Islamic community has also been experiencing divisions.

One wing, led by the former head of the Community, Nedim Gendzev, has been accusing its opponents (led by Fikri Sali) of spreading Wahhabism and having tight connections with the Netherlands-based Al-Waqf al Islami foundation, often accused of having links with Al Qaeda. These allegations, denied by the foundation, have not been proven.

The Bulgarian media have been providing continuous coverage of the semi-legal Islamic schools mushrooming throughout the country. These institutions deliver radical teachings that differ from the traditional Islam practiced by Bulgaria's large Turkish minority.

Georgi Krustev, from the Bulgarian state directorate for religions, has little doubt that Wahhabism is being preached in these schools. He told the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (I.W.P.R.), "There are a number of young people who graduated in Saudi Arabia and Jordan and who must have been influenced by those countries' conservative traditions." At the same time, he cautions against equating the Wahhabi belief with terrorism.

This view was echoed by General Atanas Atanasov, a former chief of Bulgaria's intelligence, who told the I.W.P.R. that the country's Muslims were "peaceful" and not prone to extremism. He believes the radicalization of Muslims in Bulgaria has been exaggerated.

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee has warned that the media were spreading Islamophobia.

But while quite a few observers argue that the clash within the Bulgarian Islamic Community is about power and influence rather than doctrine and faith, the division is real. So are the numerous Islamic courses and schools that operate under murky circumstances, though their association with one side in the dispute or the other is far from clear.

Kosovo: 'Wahhabism Acquires Alarming Proportions'

In Kosovo, Albert Haziri-Zejdi, from Gnjilan, a 29-year-old graduate from a Jordanian university, is considered one of the leaders of the province's Wahhabis. They are early in their development and do not yet have a well-organized structure.

"In the past this group did not exist in Kosovo," Resul Rexhepi from the Islamic Community told local media, "they appeared in the past 20 years, but for the major part after the [1998–99] war in Kosovo."

Rexhepi said that Wahhabism came to Kosovo via the regular route: through graduates from foreign universities and Islamic charities. He doesn't consider them a threat to the established Islamic Community and thinks they would be stopped if they tried to set up parallel structures.

Zejdi, on the other hand, hopes for precisely that. "For the time being we are independent but we hope to be able to give life to an organization [of our own]," he said, according to local media.

"Due to the legal and religious doctrine it adheres to we do not have any relations with the Islamic Community in Kosovo," he added.

Kosovo's leading daily, Koha Ditore, wrote in November, "The phenomenon of 'Wahhabism' has assumed big and alarming proportions in all Albanian lands and in the Albanian diaspora in the West." The paper condemned recent acts of vandalism and desecration of graves aimed to eliminate inscriptions of names and photographic images, which is counter to Wahhabi religious doctrine.

Bosnia: Terrorist Links

Relative youth is a hallmark of radical Islam in Bosnia as well, some proponents having returned from educations abroad, some having fought in the notorious El Mujahid brigade, a militant irregular unit that operated in central Bosnia during the 1992–95 war.

Two youth organizations are at the forefront of the movement: the Young Muslims and the Active Islamic Youth (A.I.O.).

One of the founders of the A.I.O., Muris Cupic, a former fighter himself, has repeatedly argued that there is no danger of militant Islam in Bosnia. But his colleagues in the A.I.O., which has a few hundred members, are often identified as promoters of fundamentalism. They have issued strong statements of criticism addressed to their fellow Muslims for not behaving like true believers and having acquired too much from their Christian neighbors.

The A.I.O. were put under surveillance in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and were found to have been funded by the Saudi Al-Haramain Foundation, later declared by the United States to be a sponsor of terrorism.

The Islamic Community in Bosnia, under the leadership of Rreis-ul-Ulema (Chief Imam) Mustafa Ceric, often described as a pro-American promoter of tolerance, has been trying to assimilate these groups even though they hold sharply conflicting views on Islam.

Ceric, who holds a Ph.D. in Islamic studies from the University of Chicago and is a recent recipient of a UNESCO award for intercultural understanding, seems to be able to keep a fine balance between reassuring the West that Bosnia is safe and cultivating relations with the radical Muslim offspring in his backyard.

A case that put A.I.O. in the spotlight was the 2003 murder by a young Muslim fanatic of three ethnic Croat returnees on Christmas Eve. The killer claimed he was a member of the A.I.O., which the organization denied, conceding that he might have attended some lectures. Ceric swiftly condemned the act and called on young Muslims to "stay away from superstition, false books, and teachers who do not want to understand the authentic life in our homeland," a clear reference to outside hardliners.

But in an interview he gave last year to the Islamic youth magazine Saff, Ceric rejected anonymous statements by fellow Muslim officials that organizations such as A.I.O. should not be considered part of the Islamic Community. "The Islamic Community is more important than me, us, and them," he said. "Thus, we are all the Islamic Community."

Part of Global Trends

The Balkans have always served as an arena for struggles that went far beyond the region, or that have came from outside. And so it is with Islamic radicalism. While some might find it easy to be Islamophobic in the Balkans today, it may be more a reflection of the bombings in Madrid or London, and the growing global division between the West and Islam, than an outgrowth of the region's own history and concerns.

The fear largely comes from domestic TV coverage, and in this, the region is merely following a global trend.

These days, one woman wearing a veil can even make front-page news.

Witnesses claim to have seen Osama bin Laden in Bosnia shaking hands with this or that fellow during the war in Bosnia. Blurry photos are circulating to prove one or the other accusation. If you are a Muslim charity, you are viewed with suspicion automatically.

Organized religion experienced a renaissance after the fall of Communism in the Balkans. The void left by the demise of the previous ideology has been rushed into by religions of all sorts. And as there are conservative and radical tendencies within the Muslim community, the various Christian faiths, above all Catholicism and Orthodoxy, have given rise, too, sometimes in opposition to a perceived "Muslim danger."

Marko Orsolic, a respected liberal scholar of religion from Bosnia said, "There are marginal extremists groups both in the Christian and the Muslim tradition [in Bosnia], but they also come in atheist packaging."

Wars and economic decline pushed some communities closer to the Muslim world, whether to secular Turkey or to hard-line Saudi Arabia or Iran. Bosnia's largely Muslim wartime government, which had no one else to turn to during the war, received support from many Islamic countries, including arms deliveries from Iran with the tacit approval of the U.S. government.

But if Islamophobia is the wrong response to the renewed vigor and assertiveness of certain forms of Islam in the Balkans, so is an ideologically induced, politically correct blindness. The death threats and assaults are real enough, but so is the fact that Islam in the Balkans has overall been peaceful through the centuries.

The global events of the past few years seem to bear out Huntingtonian fears of a "clash of civilizations." [See "The Clash of Civilizations?" by Samuel P. Huntington, in Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993.] It would be tempting to project that picture onto the Balkans, despite the many factors that don't fit — the relaxed tradition of Balkan Islam, the fact that to this day no serious Islamist violence has taken place, the small number of Muslims who are susceptible to the radical message. But if these are pieces that don't fit Huntington's matrix, we also need to consider that in the past few years a new deadly ingredient has come into the mix: transnational Islamic terrorism.

Indeed, the arrest last year of an alleged terrorist cell in Sarajevo, consisting of very young Muslims, and the recovery of weapons, explosives, and paraphernalia of suicide bombings are a frightful reminder that all it takes is a small group of committed radicals. And it is only too likely that those can be found in any of the countries surveyed here.

This article first appeared in Transitions Online (

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