Being conditioned by political interests, and
therefore being responsive primarily to political developments, Western media
coverage of the Balkans tends to take insufficient notice of social and cultural
issues – especially in cases where they have not yet manifested politically.
This is one of the primary reasons why they are always (and not only in the
Balkans) "too late" in getting to the heart of a story.
A case in point is the significant development of radical Islam in the Balkans,
especially in Bosnia and the Sandzak region that straddles the Serbia-Montenegro
border. While the media paid great attention to the May
21 referendum that divided Serbia and Montenegro officially into two separate
countries, they largely ignored related developments that are much more significant
than the political independence of an Adriatic statelet that was for all intents
and purposes already long liberated.
One such event, overlooked by everyone (though
not by us), was reported by Serbia's B-92 on June 5. Apparently, an ethnic
music concert in the Sandzak's major city of Novi Pazar was busted up by a gang
of Islamic extremists, the celebrated Wahhabis:
"[T]en young men donning long beards, short pants, and white hats broke
up a concert of the Balkanika orchestra. The hooligans were dressed like members
of the vehabit [sic] movement. They climbed up onto the stage and threw around
the instruments that were set up for the musicians to play. One of the young
men took over the microphone and told those attending the concert: 'Brothers,
go home, they are working against Islam here. This is Satan's work.'"
This bizarre event was not, however, unique. Various forms of thuggery and
intimidation have been going on for the last few years in what has become one
of the most extreme Islamic outposts in Europe. The Muslims of the Sandzak are
mostly Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), and see themselves as part of a contiguous
nation despite the largely ineffectual international border that separates them
from their ethnic kin to the north.
Bosnia: Enter the "Sharia Militia"
In fact, it has been in Bosnia itself that the
Saudi-influenced Wahhabis have caused the most mischief. A recent
AFP report discusses some startling examples:
"[I]n February, a young man who recently converted to Wahhabism killed
his mother reportedly because she refused to join him for morning prayers. After
the murder, the 23-year-old went to a 'Wahhabi' mosque with blood on his hands
and clothes, telling his fellow believers that he just made a 'sacrifice to
"In addition, several young couples have complained to the local media
and police that they had been harassed by 'bearded' men in parks while they
were kissing and hugging."
The report quotes a recovering former Wahhabi, 26-year-old Jasmin Merdan, who
has been appearing on Bosnian TV and other media in the past few months, urging
his compatriots to stand up to the intimidation of what he calls the "Sharia
militia," the extremists who seek to bring Bosnia "back" to a
past it never had as a puritanical Islamic state.
While almost every media report is quick to note that the majority of Bosnian
Muslims are fairly Westernized and not zealously religious – which is true –
the uncomfortable issue of how the extremists took root is usually avoided.
It is an especially embarrassing truth for the U.S., since it was the
Clinton administration that directly allowed Islamic states to send mujahedin
by the hundreds to Bosnia in the mid-1990s, in order to better defeat the Serbs
– regardless of the long-term social and political consequences.
Now, the U.S. is demanding that those foreign fighters who remained, intermarried,
and were given passports be deported; however, ensconced former mujahedin leaders
are warning that there will be "problems" if the Bosnian government
tries to enforce the U.S. request. In rural areas especially, fundamentalism
has taken hold; according to an American policeman formerly employed in Bosnia,
a handful of villages were even "given" to the mujahedin as rewards
from the government for their military contributions.
And, despite the liberal air of Bosnia's capital, locals are concerned about
the growing strength of the Arab-supported movement. AFP quotes Adnan, "a
young Muslim who lives near the [Saudi-funded King Fahd] mosque" as saying,
"sometimes I ask myself whether I am really in Sarajevo. The number of
bearded men and women dressed in chadors will soon be equal to other people."
A Little History
The Islamic heritage in the Balkans derives from
the Ottoman Turks, who ruled various parts of the huge region from the 14th
century right up until the previous one. Wars, population exchanges, and Communism
were the major reasons why Islam was greatly weakened in the Balkans throughout
the 20th century. The history is complex and violent, and all the relevant countries
have had different experiences, ranging from Greece, where Ottoman Islam was
all but eradicated, to Bosnia, apparently now drifting toward Islamic rule.
When Islam finally made a comeback with the demise of Yugoslavia in the early
1990s, the issue was radicalized by the strong interest of foreign states that
sought, and still seek, to colonize the region ideologically and economically.
Thus history was not to be repeated; the "liberal" Turkish Islamic
tradition was no longer the only option for a religious revival. Iran, Saudi
Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia, and many more sought to make their mark on the region
through all of the usual methods: Islamic charities, schools, development projects,
Islamic finance and loans, literature and video propaganda, and, in certain
cases, armed assistance from foreign mujahedin.
This ongoing and intense colonization effort has been complicated by the fact
that the foreign players do not necessarily share the same goals, nor do they
all operate from the same doctrinal schools as one another. And of course, they
have little in common with the collective experience, traditions, and lifestyle
of local Muslims. Further, these Balkan inhabitants have their own internal
distinctions, schisms and varying beliefs – even leaving out the issue of foreign
A New Identity
This is why it is neither accurate nor helpful
to generalize, as many do, that specific ethnic groups are more or less inclined
to extremism or sectarianism. Where the fundamentalist doctrine has taken hold
depends far more on local realities. Ethnically Macedonian (Torbeshi) or Bulgarian
(Pomak) Muslims, for example, are
susceptible to foreign overtures due to a history of having the "wrong"
mix of race and religion in areas dominated by people whose ethnic and religious
combinations follow traditional norms. Residents of an impoverished Albanian
village, or Roma slum, might on the other hand see an immediate economic benefit
in "converting" to an Islamic sect that offers financial incentives
for husbands to grow beards and veil their wives. And in places like Bosnia
and to a lesser extent Kosovo, the traumas of war have had a radicalizing effect.
Although the reasons for and rates of fundamentalist growth may vary, one thing
becomes clear through experience on the ground: that an Islamic identity is
becoming more and more important to Balkan Muslims than a simply nationalist
one. Political and religious leaders thus are gaining more power and using religious
issues to shape policy and society (though of course it should be noted that,
as with the former Wahhabi critics in Sarajevo, a backlash is also now being
In political campaigns, ostensibly irreligious party bosses are appealing to
Muslim voters by building them new mosques. In internal disputes, such as the
one that paralyzed Macedonia's Islamic community until early this year,
leaders have been asked to mediate. The role of Islam in society is now
more pervasive than at any time since before the Balkan
Wars of 1912-1913, when the Ottoman Empire was driven from Macedonia and
much of Thrace. And as political agitations in the region continue to develop
with the knock-on effects of Montenegro's referendum for independence and Kosovo's
likely upcoming independence to be felt in Sandzak, south Serbia, Macedonia,
and Bosnia, it is certain that the role of religion is only going to increase
in the years ahead.
Steering the increasingly high-stakes battle for
Islamic control in the Balkans are interested parties from abroad and from within
the countries involved. Given its former Ottoman legacy, politically
involved Turkey is naturally eager to reclaim its influence. The Turks are
also concerned, especially in Macedonia and Kosovo, over attempts to appropriate
"their" history and Islamic buildings by local Albanians, in some
cases acting under the influence of another major player, Saudi Arabia. Several
mosques in both places – priceless historical and architectural structures –
have been taken over by Wahhabi proselytizers and their Albanian devotees. In
a few cases in Kosovo, the foreign zealots have shocked locals by demolishing
"idolatrous" objects such as centuries-old Ottoman gravestones.
At the same time, the quasi-secular nature of the Turkish Republic has made
the Balkans (and especially Bosnia) a place where young Muslims can get away
with things they can't do at home (ironically similar to how Western peacekeepers
see in far-flung postings the possibility to enjoy exploitative acts illegal
in their home countries). This can be attested by the increasing
number of young Turks studying in Bosnia, where, unlike Turkey, the head
scarf is acceptable attire for students. Turkey has also taken a strong interest
in the Sandzak, as well as in the politically significant Turkish minority of
Local Muslim political authorities and Islamic leaders throughout the Balkans
have developed strong and competing relationships with foreign sponsors – making
the whole picture more opaque still. The phenomenon has manifested in a myriad
of charities and development agencies that often operate through more than one
country, and engage in more than the stated goal of helping the poor or educating
children. Specific cases of brazen terrorists hiding behind allegedly harmless
groups are not unheard of, as
I have reported in the past.
The whole issue has been complicated further by partisanship. Passionate defenders
or attackers of entire nations tend to over-generalize in their categorizations.
It is not a question of whether a certain ethnic or national group is either
virulently extremist or "mostly liberal" in its practice of Islam.
The question is whether specific local realities have created the conditions
for at least a small number of dangerous extremists to flourish.
For example, has massive funding from abroad caused an alien tradition to take
root (i.e., Bosnia)? Or, have geographic conditions allowed renegade extremists
to carve out a safe haven (i.e., remote mountain villages in Macedonia, Albania,
and elsewhere)? Or perhaps has a weak economy forced local Muslims to work abroad,
where they fall under the influence of radical mullahs, or else accept monthly
stipends at home for "conversion" (i.e., almost everywhere)?
In fact, the whole argument over whether or not the Albanians, or Bosnians,
or whoever are prone to extremism is not really relevant. In the big picture,
the question is just about the expansion of Islam in general. As with any other
group in the history of the world, the tendency toward schism and polarization
in Balkan Islamic societies grows in direct proportion to the growth of the
community. It is simply a question of scale. And, given demographic projections
over the coming decades, the amount of potentially dangerous Balkan Islamists
will only increase, even if their percentage relative to the larger community
decreases (though the latter outcome is itself far from certain). Indeed, as
we saw on Sept. 11, 2001, it doesn't take many extremists to produce a major
Nevertheless, the strategic goal of the governments
of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and so on is not to create a generation of Balkan
suicide bombers (this is the goal of the terrorist multinationals, which include
nationals of such states). The goal of the former is to establish religious
and thus political control in order to expand their markets and to increase
their diplomatic clout vis-à-vis the European Union, and to a lesser
While the new challenge of radical Islam in the Balkans cannot be blamed entirely
on the previous 15 years of Western intervention in the region, there is no
question that had it considered the long-term developing trends back then, the
West and especially the U.S. could have done much more to stifle it. But it
is too late now to put the genie back in the bottle. The toxic mix of religious
fervor and clumsy interventionism has resulted in an uneasy state of affairs
now where an overwhelmingly Muslim province (Kosovo) wants to break away from
Serbia, with the counterbalancing
threat from the Christian Serb half of the Bosnian Federation to join Serbia.
The former case has displayed more
than enough ominous signs already. But the greater danger may lie with Bosnia.
The continued presence of the oft-criticized Republika Srpska is actually what
is keeping confidence in the federation alive. Should the Serbs break away,
life for Christian Croats in the Muslim-dominated half of Bosnia will become
precarious, old animosities will be rekindled, and the path to an Islamic state
for the Muslim half of Bosnia will be cleared, with the extremists having nothing
left to lose.
Yet even in the best-case scenario, in which Bosnia would stay as one and a
"liberated" Kosovo would become shamelessly pro-Western and docile,
there are simply more than enough troublemakers around the neighborhood, now
and in the foreseeable future.