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Two faces of Islam in the Western Balkans: Between Political Ideology and Islamist Radicalization



The paper aims to explain specificities of Islam in the post Yugoslav political space today described as the Western Balkans. It focuses on two aspects of Islam in the region: Islam understood as political ideology and Islam through its Islamist face providing some basic concepts related to both phenomena. To what extent these aspects of Islam have been "imported" and do they truly impose a real threat to political stability in the region? Can we consider any threats in terms of terrorist acts in the region? These are some questions and doubts the paper, by using the descriptive method of analysis, tries to give answers.
Dr Marko Babić
Two faces of Islam in the Western Balkans: Between Political
Ideology and Islamist Radicalization
The paper aims to explain specificities of Islam in the post Yugoslav political space today
described as the Western Balkans. It focuses on two aspects of Islam in the region: Islam understood
as political ideology and Islam through its Islamist face providing some basic concepts related to both
phenomena. To what extent these aspects of Islam have been “imported” and do they truly impose a
real threat to political stability in the region? Can we consider any threats in terms of terrorist acts in
the region? These are some questions and doubts the paper, by using the descriptive method of
analysis, tries to give answers.
Key words: Islam, Islamization, Western Balkans, Wahhabies, terrorism
Various issues related to Islam should be simultaneously viewed through two axes:
paradigmatic and syntagmatic. The paradigmatic axis includes a set of several stable constants
and general permanent markers of Islam itself. Such timeless Islamic paradigm has been
intersected for centuries with syntagmatic levels of their specific “earthly” realization: in
different historical contexts and various political constructions [1]. Historical challenges Islam
has been facing as transhistorical category and one of the great world religions have always
been connected with its instrumentalization in the processes of creating new states and/or
through nationalistic abuses of different kinds. The region we today describe as the Western
Balkans1 and the states that emerged from the ruins of former Yugoslavia are not an
Prior to dissolution of the country, Yugoslav Muslims in general perceived as a
national community, could not have been considered religiously inclined2 [2]. Moreover, their
1 The Western Balkans includes the countries of former Yugoslavia (with Albania, without Slovenia) and:
Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo (under the 1244 UN Resolution)
2 It is interesting to mention the meanders of identity of Muslims in Yugoslavia after World War II. Since they
were not recognized as a separate nation Muslims were given the opportunity for national self-
determination” (nacionalno opredeljivanje). During the first post-war census in 1948, Muslims had the
opportunity to opt either voluntarily or by administrative measures as members of other nations (Serbs, Croats,
Montenegrins, etc.), or to choose the category “unspecified” (neopredeljen). During the 1953 census all
national identity, in the modern European sense, was not sufficiently crystallized neither. In
the eve of the civil war in Yugoslavia they found themselves in an ideological vacuum.
Descended from the same ethnic substrate as Croats and Serbs, but unlike them, Muslims did
not have their authentic national traditions, programmes or institutions. It seemed obvious to
return to the only shelter of their unique identity Islam. Possible ways of filling this
ideological vacuum were through Islamism understood as political ideology and religious
radicalization mostly interpreted as Salafism.
Neither one of the two phenomena were the products of Muslim communities in the
region. Yet, both were accepted and adjusted to local circumstances and conditions. The first
part of the paper will focus on the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina as an example of a vivid
connection between Islam and nationalism, and will use the descriptive method of analysis.
The second part will explain the appearance of the Salafist radical Islamist movement in the
region and its consequences. In order to put the issues in perspective, a brief background is
provided at the outset of each chapter as well as a consideration of some of the basic concepts
related to both phenomena.
Islamist Movement and Political Ideology
A conservative American analyst, Daniel Pipes explains that traditional Islam seeks to
teach humans how to live in accord with God's will, whereas Islamism aspires to create a new
order. The first is self-confident, the second deeply defensive. The one emphasizes
individuals, the other communities. The former is a personal credo, the latter a political
ideology [3].
The appearance and rise of Islamist movements can be explained looking at different
angles: from a chronological point of view, the strengthening of Islamist ideas in the Middle
East, and then in the world, can be traced down to the humiliating military Arab defeat by
Israel in 1967. New impetus for the expansion of this process gave the anti-imperialist Iranian
Islamic Revolution in 1979. In the following decades, this process would gain new intensity
and dimension associated with the jihad in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and geo-strategic
Yugoslavs with previous “identity unspecified” were introduced a new statistical category “Yugoslav
undefined”. The 1961 census introduced another statistical category “Muslims in an ethnic sense”. The 1971
census introduced for the first time “Muslim in the sense of nationality”. The 1981 census introduced the
option of “Muslim” (without any additives, equal to other national categories). Starting from the general
census of 1971 we can see a change in the formal treatment of Bosnian Muslims (the appearance of the name
“Muslim” – with a capital letter as an electoral category).
processes in the Persian Gulf region in the 1990s. On the other hand, Islamist movements can
be viewed as the attempt to create an ideological counterpart to the once dominant conflicting
ideologies of capitalism and communism and their narrative of struggle and control over that
part of the world. It can be also viewed as a reflection of the Muslim world frustrations due to
their lagging behind the technically and scientifically superior West and the consequences of
brutal colonization. The consequences of the colonization were to impose a system of thought
and values that Muslims considered foreign and therefore they decided to return to their own
traditional values generally based in Islam in order to develop their own vision of revival and
renovation that would guarantee them prosperity and welfare [4].
Although Islamist ideas in former Yugoslavia started spreading in mid-1970s (which
coincides with the general strengthening of Islamism throughout the Islamic world) some
specificities should be mentioned. The status of Muslims in the country was privileged when
compared with Muslims in other European countries, particularly the countries of the
Communist Bloc (for instance, in Todor Živkov’s Bulgaria in 1980s). The renewal of Islamist
ideas was influenced by the fact that the Yugoslav Slavic-origin Muslims were then
recognized as a constituent nation according to the Constitution of 1974, which significantly
contributed to their emancipation especially in their religious and spiritual dimension.
Freedom to travel and to obtain religious education in other countries allowed the Muslims of
Yugoslavia to maintain and expand their contacts with the Islamic world. As a result, a
growing number of Muslim students from Yugoslavia studied in Islamic countries. However,
in their totality, Muslim masses in the region remained away from Islamist influences until
early 1990s the problem of Islamist radicalism and its socio-political influence was almost
unknown. This does not mean that some radical groups and movements especially in urban
communities were not active particularly in the deepening Yugoslav economic and political
crisis of the 1980s [5]. Some contacts between the Muslim institutions in Bosnia and
Herzegovina and those in Islamic countries were established at the time. Nevertheless, this
way of obtaining political power and radicalization of Muslim in the region from abroad were
not important issues in the security policy.
Islamism as Nationalism. The Case of Bosnia and Herzegovina
In symbolic terms, Alija Izetbegović and his 1970 “Islamic Declaration, a Programme
of Islamization of Muslims and Muslim peoples” [6] is a starting point of the appearance of
political Islam Islamism in the Balkans. This publication resembled the political programme
of Egyptian “Muslim Brotherhood” or similar Islamic modern programs but without
fundamentalist puritan activism typical for Salafi radicals. It seems that a comparison with
Islamic nationalists such as “Muslim Brotherhood” gives a relevant insight into Izetbegović’s
Declaration. They were concerned primarily with Islamizing national politics: “Some people
think of us as a group of preachers, concerned only to call people to virtues and abstain from
sins. Others believe it is a mystical trend. We are not any of those, we call to return for true
Islam, which is a belief and application, a home and a nationality, a religion and state, a spirit
and body, and a Qur’an and sword.” [7] Among the objectives set out in Izetbegović’s
Declaration were the establishment of the Islamic state and the establishment of “Islamic
governance”. Available U.S. sources show that Izetbegović approached the Iranian spiritual
leaders in the late 1970s: “After the power takeover by Khomeini in 1979, Izetbegović
stepped up its efforts to establish an Islamist government in Bosnia and was arrested by the
Communists in 1983” [8]. He was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment, but was released in
1988. In 1990 he established the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), and the same year was
elected to parliament and became the first president of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Western
experts and the American deputies were suspicious of Izetbegović and his party due to
fundamentalist elements of his politics: “Radical tendencies prevailed in the party especially
during the war in 1992-1995 where instead of being a tolerant, multi-ethnic government they
claimed to be, it was evident that the party leadership around Izetbegović was guided by the
principle of radical Islam” [9]. As Darko Tanasković notices: “(during the war) Izetbegović
could not dare to be what he actually was an Islamic fundamentalist, and as far as
circumstances allowed, a pragmatic unitary Bosniak nationalist” [10].
Islamism and nationalism are conventionally thought of as antithetical ideologies, yet
there is in fact often a nationalistic dimension to Islamism. Henry Munson makes an
interesting parallel between the relationship between Marxism, Islamism and nationalism: “In
principle, Marxists condemn nationalism, as do Islamists. Yet the revolutions waged in the
name of Marxist ideology since World War II were all fuelled by nationalistic resentment of
foreign domination. Such resentment, among other things, also fuelled the principal Islamist
movements of the late 20th century. In both cases, an ostensibly universalistic ideology has
actually often had a more parochial nationalistic character in practice” [11]. Peri Pamir
explains that the sources of dogmatic fundamentalism, whether of the nationalist or of the
religious variety, appear to spring from the same psychological roots, the principal component
of which is probably the question of identity. “In this case, religious faith is used as a means
to assert or reaffirm a separate identity, which is why we consider it to be a manifestation of
nationalism”3. This was the case of political Islam of Alija Izetbegović. His Islamist ideology
of “Islamizing Muslims” [12] has transformed into Islamist ideology of “nationalizing
Bosniaks” in Bosnia and Herzegovina of, this time a religious leader, Grand Mufti of the
Islamic Community (IC) (Islamska Zajednica, IZ)4 [13] of Bosnia and Herzegovina,
Mustafa Cerić.5
After the dissolution of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav
Islamic Community disappeared. New independent states of the former Yugoslavia created
their own Islamic Communities and rather stayed under dominant influence of the IC of B&H.
This Islamic Community derives its importance and power from the number of believers as
well as from its territorial range. In fact, this community includes Muslims not only from
Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also from of Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and part of the Raška
region in southern Serbia (also known as Sandžak).6 Therefore, the IC of B&H strives to
maintain a dominant influence on the newly formed Communities in these countries.
Relations between the IC of B&H and the IC of Serbia can also be viewed as a part of the
politics of “nationalizing Bosniaks wherever they live”. The IC of Serbia (Islamska Zajednica
Srbije) with its headquarters in Belgrade7 wants to be independent and completely separated
from the IC of B&H. But, there is another Islamic Community that calls itself Islamic
Community in Serbia (Islamska Zajednica u Srbiji)8 with headquarters in Novi Pazar (the
Raška region Sandžak) supporting the dominant role of the IC of B&H and staying in legal
union with the latter according to the 1997 Constitution of Islamic Community of B&H [14].
Both Communities accuse each other of being illegal and illegitimate. The unwillingness of
Mufti Cerić to come to terms with the independence of Serbian Muslims from Sarajevo
3 As we read in his Declaration.
4 There was a slow process for the IC to become a major Islamic political player in the region, and not only. As
Eldar Sarajlić explains: “There is little doubt that the IC is now one of Bosnia’s major Islamic foreign policy
actors, a reflection of the emergence of Bosnian Muslims as autonomous political actors. However, the IC’s
transformation from a communal organization to a political actor is not a recent phenomenon. Its development
can be traced to the late 1960’s, when Bosnian Muslims slowly transformed from a religious community to a
political (or ethnic) one. Especially indicative of this shift was the change in the official title of the IC in 1969.
Namely, following the official recognition of Bosnian Muslims as a distinct ethnic (instead of religious)
community by the Yugoslav Communist authorities in 1961, the IC changed its name from the Islamic Religious
Community (Islamska vjerska zajednica) to the Islamic Community (Islamska zajednica) of Bosnia and
Herzegovina. This change indicated a clear tendency to transform the IC into a national institution of Bosnian
Muslims that would fill the absence of Bosnian Muslims’ cultural institutions in socialist Yugoslavia. Indeed, the
IC eventually became the ‘national church’ of Islam in Bosnia.”
5 Officially he was in position of Grand Mufti between 1999 and 2012. Unofficially, he has led the Islamic
Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1993.
6 This region is usually reffered to as Sandžak by local ethnic Bosniaks or by its official administrative name of
Raška District (Raška oblast). It is a southern province of the Republic of Serbia.
7 Its leader is Mufti Adem Zilkić.
8 Its leader is Mufti Muamer Zukorlić
indicates the distinct ethnic and political role assumed by Bosnian Islamic leadership. This
role is also indicated by the conflict between the two different institutional cultures of Islam
one independent and politically sovereign, and the other dependent and state-related [15].
Furthermore, on 29 December 2012 Great Mufti Mustafa Cerić and Mufti Muamer
Zukorlić of Sandžak jointly established the World Bosniak Congress (Svjetski Bošnjački
Kongres, SBK) in Sarajevo. The founding documents claim that “Bosnia and Herzegovina is
the homeland of all Bosniaks” and that Bosniaks wish to have “all that the other peoples of
the Balkans also have: a self-aware nation and a sovereign state” [16]. The SBK defines itself
as a “national, supra-party organization” that will monitor “national policy in securing the
vital national interests of the Bosniaks, the majority people in Bosnia and Herzegovina and
Sandžak”. It calls for replacing decision-making in B&H by consensus among its three
constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, M.B.) with majority rule (that would
evidently prefer Bosniaks, M.B.). Esad Hećimović, Sarajevo’s journalist and publicist warns
that this might create: “(…) an explosive mix of Islam and nationalism in B&H and Sandžak
[that can easily get out of control]. One Islamic terrorist can certainly make some damage if
he is allowed to carry out his act, but it is nothing compared to the damage which Reis Cerić
can make fuelling Bosniak nationalism and frustrations” [17].
Radical Islam and Terrorism Salafi movement in former Yugoslavia
First we need to answer the question: what is terrorism? Despite a broad research
interest in this phenomenon, a generally accepted definition of terrorism has not been
achieved yet. Walter Laqueur [18] was correct when he argued in the 1970s that there was no
definition of terrorism as no definition can fully cover all versions of terrorism throughout its
two centuries’ long history [19]. Moreover, his predictions that such a definition would not be
achieved even in the foreseeable future [20] have proven to be true. Nevertheless, every
terrorist act is related to the question of power, will and domination. Imposing violence (or
terror) on others means imposing will. Terrorism is linked to political processes characterized
by political actors’ attempts to achieve political change, to exercise power and domination. As
a political strategy [21], terrorism is focused on achieving political changes by taking over
power or maintaining political status quo (struggle for power and attaining power), while on
the other hand it is the expression of power itself.
Suggestions of an American economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, regarding the types
of power can be very helpful for the purpose of our analysis. He suggests there are three types
of power: compensatory power in which submission is bought, condign power in which
submission is won by making the alternative sufficiently painful, and conditioned power in
which submission is gained by persuasion [22]. But power alone cannot do much. Adolf Berle
in his “Power without property” warns that no collective category, class or social group has
power in itself now can it use power alone. Another factor that must always be present is the
organization [23]. Galbraith claims that increase of his third type of power conditioned
power encourages the creation of the organization, and vice versa.9 It is necessary to
emphasize that conditioned power has a special significance in analyzing terrorist
organizations. Conditioned power means that from the organization as a form of connecting
people with similar interests, values and perceptions, follows the persuasion necessary for the
submission to objectives of the organization [24]. Another dimension of terrorism lies in its
social and political contexts: it reflects the crisis, social contradictions and dissatisfaction with
political and social movements as well as different and conflicting interests. Terrorism means
conflict. Conflict means the interaction of opposing parties trying to achieve their own,
mutually different, interests and goals by securing superior position and defeating an opposing
side. Tore Bjørgo claims that terrorism is a (tactical) radicalization of other types of political
conflict. It is beyond dispute that the social deprivation of some groups, ethnic or religious
discrimination, as well as mass victimization in post-conflict environment can lead to a
polarization of society (“us against them”) and the occurrence of violence motivated by hatred
with extreme political leadership [25].
All of the above theoretical explanations can be applied to the historical context and
Islamic radicalization (including terrorism) in former Yugoslavia. The main elements for
understanding it were the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo in 1990s, long-term
economic crisis, lack of prospects and, above all, the absence of serious vision for the future
in the region. The collapse of communism followed the re-nationalization of all national
groups in post-communist countries of the Soviet Union, through Eastern Europe to the
Balkans. In 1990s Muslims in former Yugoslavia became autonomous political actors. This
evolution was a logical consequence of the collapse of communism and a sign that the
Muslim population was part of the process of European not only political modernity.
9 In terms of power, the organization has to be able to point out three important characteristics. First is its
bimodal symmetry, meaning that it achieves goals beyond itself, provided that it achieved subjugation inside
itself. The second characteristic is the association of all three forms of power (condign, compensatory and
conditioned power) and other sources of power (person and property). Third, there is a connection between
the power of an organization and the number of various objectives for which it was formed. Galbraith (1983),
Modern society is characterized by a process of rationalization in many areas of life such as
the division of public and private spheres, the state and society, church and state, the
dominance of the scientific perception of the world, a division of reason and mind,
instrumental and substantial rationality10[26]. This in many aspects can be applied to Muslims
particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina as their intellectual and spiritual life as well as their
culture was more developed than in any other Muslim ethnic group in the Balkans. At the
same time, they were placed under some sort of ideological glass bell which largely kept them
isolated from the ideological and other turmoil in the rest of the Muslim world. That glass bell
was broken in the flame of war that occurred in the former Yugoslavia after the collapse of
the Communist regime [27]. As Muhamed Jusić, Islamic theologian from Bosnia and
Herzegovina explains: “Muslims of the region and their religious communities did not have
enough time to gain the necessary experience and knowledge in order to cope with the
invasion of ideas, ideologies, sects and other social phenomena inspired by Islam that
splashed Bosnian society destroyed by the war. Due to half a century isolation to which
Bosnian Muslims were subjected, they have not been able as a community in the early years
of the war and post-war to develop some kind of “immunity” to an ideological interpretation
of Islam, nor to form a clear attitude towards pluralism within the Islamic thought (…) (which
might, M.B.) keep them away from religious and ideological adventures” [28].
Of various movements and sects in the Islamic world, the greatest attention in the
region has been drawn by the Salafi movement (popularly known as the Wahhabis). Due to
the number of its supporters and incidents in which they were involved in the last decade, the
movement has attracted significant media attention for their activities [29]. Salafis (Arabic:
salaf predecessors of the first generation of Muslims) or the Islamic traditionalist movement
was created around the teachings and actions of Muhammad ibn Wahhab (1703-1787), a
reformer from the Arabian Peninsula. This is a movement that insists on the preservation of
the Islamic doctrine of monotheism opposing to all innovations in the Muslim practice and
teaching11 [30]. They see themselves as a movement aspirating to return to the original
10 According to Zygmunt Bauman, one of the essential characteristics of modernity is the revolution in the
mindset of people - rely on your own understanding and mind, searching for new opportunities, belief in the
power of reason
11 “The most extreme form of Salafi ideology has evolved under the influence of militant Islamist movements
from Egypt who on Afghan battlefields and training camps combined Salafi religious conservatism with ideas of
Takfir (declaration of Muslim communities and individuals who live in them infidel, or non-believers) and can
be classified into a group Selefijjetu al-Jihad al-Takfir and international jihadists tend to Takfir. Due to the fact
that the Salafi movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina came along with the Arab volunteers, very often those
who in Afghanistan were in contact with carriers of ideas of Takfir, which in that time still was in its beginning,
traditional Bosnian Muslim community was again targeted by another Islamist ideology. The organizational and
teaching of the Qur’an the holy book of Muslims, the Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet
Muhammad) and the practice of the first generation of Muslims [31].
According to Oliver Potežica, the activities of the radical movement in the Western
Balkans have gone through four phases since the 1970s [32]12. In the first phase that lasted
from the first half of 1980s to 1992 and the outbreak of civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina,
the main supporters and followers of Salafi teachings were graduates of Islamic Studies
educated in Saudi Arabia and Islamic universities under Salafi influence in other countries.
Significant increase of official donations from Islamic countries for the construction of
Islamic centres, mosques and religious schools in the region is the main characteristic of the
phase. Interestingly, late 1980s and early 1990s showed increased tensions between the local
Muslims and the followers of Salafi ideas. Balkan Muslims saw puritanical and conservative
“Arab” Salafi as a “foreign body” and a threat to their identity. The second phase was the
period of civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995 when “disagreements”
between traditional Islam in the region and Salafi and other Islamist movements were
overcome. During and immediately after the war, new Islamic groups, often conservative and
some adhering to Salafi teachings appeared in Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially in
Sarajevo, Zenica, Mostar and parts of Central Bosnia. Muslim foreign fighters were given
official status, when the El Mujahed unit was established as part of the ABH 3rd Corps in
1993. Between 2,000 and 5,000 fought in Bosnia and Herzegovina before the 1995 Dayton
Peace Accord, after which most were expelled under strong U.S. pressure [33]. Nevertheless,
a number of them remained to live in Bosnia and Herzegovina to become a growing internal
and foreign policy problem for the country. Activities of numerous charitable, humanitarian
and other Islamic non-governmental organizations with vast financial resources were of
essential importance for the second phase of spreading Salafi ideas in the region. Direct
donations from Saudi Arabia alone amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars. Funds from
several Gulf countries and Iran gave substantial financial support, including for several
Muslim organizations to engage in religious activities [34]. Some funds most likely also went
into private pockets and so the distribution of funds was related to a number of frauds and
scandals in Bosnia and Herzegovina [35]. But, probably the most important aspect of the
second phase was the maximization of the number of young people from across the region
ideological strengthening of the rogue Salafis who advocate the incompatibility of Islam and democratic order
of society, have found their supporters among the new generation of young Bosnian origin Salafis. For the first
time one could meet people who do not recognize the laws of BiH, the court, or do not want to possess identity
documents of BiH or any other state”.
12 In this chapter I will use his explanations of the four phases on pages 170-181.
that went to study in Islamic educational institutions in Saudi Arabia, especially at the famous
Salafi Islamic University al-Madinah al-Munawarah (Medina), as well as in other Arab
countries in the Persian Gulf.
The most important feature of the third phase in the 1996-2002 periods was the
increased number of followers of Salafi ideas and teachings among local Muslims as well as
the formation of the first local organizations of the Salafi orientation. Most notable among
them was the Active Islamic Youth (Aktivna islamska omladina, AIO) which was established
in late 1995 in Zenica, a town that had become one of the Salafi strongholds in Bosnia and
Herzegovina. A group of young Bosnian Muslims decided to form an organization to promote
the fundamentalist Islamic teachings they learned while fighting with Arab volunteers in a
unit called El Mujahid. As Ena Latin discovers: “AIO’s mission is to awaken the religious
feelings of Bosnian Muslims who have been deprived of ‘traditional’ Islam for too long, first
by the communist regime of the former Yugoslavia, and later by moderate Muslims. AIO
emphasizes that it aspires to original Islamic teachings as preached by Mohammed, and that it
does not accept any ‘novelties’ in Islam” [36]. Until its final closure in 2006 due to lack of
funds (as many of its former donors stopped sending money because of the bad reputation that
the organization had acquired), AIO remained the target of almost all investigations connected
with terrorist activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina [37].
While the Salafi ideas and teachings during the first three phases met with
understanding and support of the Western powers, the fourth stage saw lack of such support.
The fourth stage came after 11 September 2001 and the Western powers began suppression of
all Islamist movements. This phase has lasted until today. Due to the numerous evidence of
connections between “the Bosnian Afghans”, some local Islamists with global Islamist
organizations as well as the increase of religion-based anti-Americanism, the Western
countries and United Nations began to take more radical steps to combat Islamist activity in
the country. For example, in 2002 six Algerians (officially they worked for a humanitarian
organization) were arrested on charges of preparing an attack on the U.S. Embassy in
Sarajevo. Bosnian authorities extradited them to the American Government and later they
were transferred to military custody of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Domagoj
Margetić in his “Islamist Terrorism in Southern Europe” [38] explains that protests in
Sarajevo, caused by the extradition of six Arabs proved the intention of Islamists in Bosnia
and Herzegovina to optimally exploit the political and media situation caused by the
extradition. “Demonstration of religious fanaticism unknown in Bosnia and Herzegovina with
the willingness to sacrifice, even invoking the victims and expressing the desire the “Muslim
blood” to flow. These people possess strong motives and ultimate goals. There would not
have been such militant Islamism in Bosnia and Herzegovina had external factors not been
active coupled with domestic ones” [39]. For this occasion a Coordinating Committee of
Islamic Youth Organizations was formed and was consisted of: Youth Circle of Islamic
Community, Active Islamic Youth, Young Muslims, Al Furqan, Bosnian Academic Clubs
and War Veteran Association Fatih. Margetić claims that this Coordinating Committee might
have become the head of the organized activities as logistical support of potential terrorist
The fourth phase is characterized by not only reduced humanitarian and charitable
activities of Islamic organizations many of the organizations were even banned. Financial
and material donations from the Islamic world were significantly reduced. Since 2003 openly
radical and aggressive appearance of Salafis followers could be noticed. Arising tensions
contributed to numerous arrests of local Muslims accused of terrorism or links to terrorists.
Public opinion grew more aware of numerous problems associated with the Salafis and other
Islamist groups. “There are no incidents, but that does not mean there cannot be incidents”
[40] says Mehmet Bradarić, a member of the Joint Commission for Defence and Security in
the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Professor of Islamic Faculty in Sarajevo, Adnan
Silajdžić argues that “Salafism is well spread in Bosnia and Herzegovina today and is being
run by local Salafi followers not foreigners or missionaries from other regions as before” [41].
This statement is perhaps the most important feature of this last phase of the expansion of
Salafism in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Salafism in Bosnia and Herzegovina must be analyzed in the context of social and
political circumstances. It is a religious reflection of these circumstances13. The same
dimension can be applied for other regions of former Yugoslavia under Salafi influence. For
example, the region of Sandžak in southern Serbia is a reflection of developments in B&H,
but on a much smaller scale. The differences are substantial: in Sandžak there was no
presence or influence of foreign Mujahideen fighters, there were no financial donations from
Islamic donors and there was no substantial presence of missionaries from various suspected
Islamic charities. For the same reason, the influence of Salafis in Kosovo and Montenegro
was also much lower than in B&H. Salafism in Macedonia became evident after secession of
the Republic from Yugoslavia in 1992. Its first followers were Imams who returned from
Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia. Relatively small, but strongly organized group of Salafis was
13 The organizations came to Macedonia after the 1999 NATO-Yugoslavia conflict.
spreading its influence especially after 2000 assisted by humanitarian and charitable Islamic
organizations in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates [42]. In the
period from 2003 to 2006 Salafis became more aggressive first towards other Imams of the
Islamic Religious Community of Macedonia. As a result, in 2005 Macedonia’s Reis ul-Ulema
Arif Emini resigned from the post (before his resignation Salafis held him hostage). They
demanded of Emini to appoint only the Imams as theologians who had completed religious
studies in Saudi Arabia [43]. Moreover, “in a related incident just days after Emini’s
resignation, a group of Skopje Imams was attacked and beaten upon returning from a
wedding. The chief Imam of the Skopje Hudaverli mosque, Šaban Ahmeti, later told the
daily Utrinski Vesnik: The people who attacked us were definitely representatives of radical
Islam, or as we call them, Wahhabis, who for more than a year have been trying to take over
the Islamic Community” [44]. In 2013, some estimation showed that there were about 3,000
Salafis in Macedonia, mostly among the Albanian minority and Bosniaks, in the Skopje
region, Tetovo, Struga and Kumanovo. Their work was financed by donations from Saudi
Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Iran. Especially Iran was concentrated for a deeper penetration into
Europe, using the Balkans as a springboard [45].
Similar to Macedonia, Salafis in Kosovo remain a relatively “closed” community.
They recruit new followers on an individual basis, mainly by attracting “heads of families”
(this is particularly important for Albanian families as family members must respect their
elders, and above all, father whose word means law within the confines of his family) as well
as throughout activities mainly in rural areas [46]. Salafi leaders and their followers retain
rather conspiratorial approach, so it is difficult to collect accurate data on their numbers in
Kosovo. Salafis contributed a great deal to violence throughout Kosovo organized by
Albanian separatists in March 2004, which left 19 killed and 900 injured. The objectives of
violent Albanian nationalism and Islamic radicalism are complementary, claims Russell
Gordon [47]. In 2006, BBC Monitoring Service quoted a statement issued by Raško-
Prizrenska Serbian Orthodox Eparchy from which we learned that since 1999 in Kosovo
around 400 new mosques had been built while 150 churches had been demolished [48].
Gordon points out that this changes the religious “topography” of Kosovo and leaves lasting
political and religious repercussions for the whole region. The fact is that Salafis began to
change the identity of the Albanian community in Kosovo by destroying the famous old
mosques, Islamic historical monuments, changing the spiritual, cultural and historical map of
Kosovo both Christian Orthodox and Islamic, by building Islamic Centres and mosques with
two minarets donated by Saudi Arabia (in the Balkans traditionally mosques were built with
one minaret). They create a new generation of Albanian Muslims in Kosovo more than older
generations open to other Islamic (Arab) countries. There are also tendencies of fighting
against ideas of the Albanian nationalist movement. Without a doubt, Salafis try to delete all
historical traces in the region in creating the “world of pure Islam” [49].
One can understand Islam only as a grand and complex religious system defined not
only by its metaphysical principles and ethical requirements but circumstances and conditions
in which its followers Muslims as individuals and their Communities as organized groups
live in today’s world.
The process of “ethnicization” of Bosnian identity and growing Bosnian nationalism
through the Bosnian Islamic Community was a Muslims’ response to immense challenges
imposed on them by Croatian and Serbian nationalism in the region. There is no doubt that in
the case of Bosniak nationalism it is religious faith used as a means to reaffirm a separate
identity from the Croatian and Serbian. It is a tool of political mobilization and at the same
time a tool for realization of political goals of the Islamic Community.
The end of socialist Yugoslavia and the vacuum that was created by the breakdown of
the entire social fabric in the region was filled with activities of external actors and their local
proxies. The region’s exposure to external influence also provided a leeway for many Islamic
players to exert their influence and power. The role of Salafist radical movement explains this
element of Islamic presence in the region. The Western Balkans region is still home to
ongoing political processes that foster corruption, organized crime and ethnic disputes which
challenge socio-economic progress. To the extent that these conditions persist, it will
represent fertile ground for radical Islamists. But is there Islamic terrorist threat in the region?
Crisis Group Europe Briefing claims that according to most international experts, Bosnia and
the rest of the Balkans is not a key region for harbouring or funding terrorists. They have only
a secondary role, as a transit or recuperation area. Nevertheless, B&H’s continuing political
and economic problems make it vulnerable to terrorist groups in the future. A senior Bosnian
law enforcement official summarized: “In B&H, like in every other country, there is always a
possibility of a terrorist attack by an individual. However, if we are talking about organised
terrorist groups we do not see them here at the moment” [58].
However, the fact that Islamist radicals’ efforts have not been particularly successful
to date in the Western Balkans region should not provide comfort or a false sense of security
because many of the conditions that are conducive to the growth of terrorist operations and
recruiting still persist.
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29. Ibidem
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2007. Crisis Group Europe Briefing, ibidem p.14
33. Ibidem
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2012 in: Crisis Group Europe Briefing, Bosnia’s Dangerous Tango, ibidem
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European Times, 30 June 2003
36. Ibidem
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Publisher 2006
38. Ibidem pp.8-9
39. Taleski, M., Law enforcement re-examines Islamic groups in the Balkans, Skopje:
South European Times, 6 May, 2013
40. Sarajevo’s Daily Oslobodjenje, interview with prof. Adnan Silajdzić: Vehabizam u
BiH će biti još snažniji i agresivniji, 11 November 2006
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42. Zafirovski, E., Sukob radikalnog i sekularno islama izazvao dvogodisnju krizu u
makedonskoj Islamskoj zajednici, Zagreb 2006. Available from:
(Accessed: September 17, 2013)
43. Karajkov, R., The Young and the Old: Radical Islam Takes Root in the Balkans,
Florence, 3 May, 2006. Available from:
(Accessed: September 17, 2013)
44. Ivan Babanovski, analyst and former security studies professor at Security Faculty in
Skopje. In: Taleski, M., Law enforcement re-examines Islamic groups in the Balkans,
Skopje: South European Times, 6 May, 2013
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46. Gordon, R., Behind Kosovo façade, Washington: The Defense and Foreign Affairs
Strategic Policy 2006 p. 7
47. Strong Wahhabi cells of Saudi Arabian origin in the Kosovo villages, BBC
Monitoring Service, United Kingdom: published on November 15, 2006
48. Potežica, O., Vehabije izmedju istine i predrasuda, ibidem p. 209
49. Crisis Group Europe Briefing, Bosnia’s Dangerous Tango, ibidem p. 19
Dr. Marko Babić is Assistant Professor (Adiunct) at the Institute of European Studies
of the University of Warsaw. His research covers contemporary Western Balkans region
geopolitical position, state building processes, ethnic conflicts including such determinants as
history and religion.
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The paper examines the problem of the identity of Bosnian Muslims – one of few autochthonous European Muslims. T heir recent history shows a cleavage between the professed Islam as a religion and tradition and the building of a modern national identity as a condition sine qua non for existence of the nation. It remains an open question whether a return to their historical name – Bosniaks would mean the dominance of the Islamic component in their nationhood or creation of a secular and religiously undecided Bosniakdom. The question is even more valid in the context of existing contemporary projects of Europeanization and integration processes with the European Union.
This paper analyzes the emerging relations of power between various Islamic networks in Bosnia and Herzegovina and their foreign policy perspectives. It seeks to determine the most active Islamic networks and the most influential Islamic players that affect foreign policy choices and perspectives in Bosnia, and explore the main points of interaction and contestation between them. The paper argues that there is a new quality of the agency of Islamic networks in Bosnia and Herzegovina in which the direct humanitarian/missionary approach of Arab networks, characteristic of the immediate postwar period, is being replaced with a more nuanced and Turkish-dominated web of activities aimed at promoting a new vision of Bosnia and Herzegovina, of Islam, and of their position within a broader European framework.
Muslimanstvo and Bosniakdom: Islam in the discourse of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, South-East Europe review
  • A Beinsen
Beinsen, A. Muslimanstvo and Bosniakdom: Islam in the discourse of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, South-East Europe review 2 (1) 2002; p. 20.
Sukob radikalnog i sekularno islama izazvao dvogodisnju krizu u makedonskoj Islamskoj zajednici Available from: (Accessed
  • E Zafirovski
Zafirovski, E., Sukob radikalnog i sekularno islama izazvao dvogodisnju krizu u makedonskoj Islamskoj zajednici, Zagreb 2006. Available from: (Accessed: September 17, 2013)
Suspicious Islamic Missionaries: Active Islamic Youth
  • E Latin
Latin, E. Suspicious Islamic Missionaries: Active Islamic Youth, Sarajevo: South East European Times, 30 June 2003 36. Ibidem 37. Margetić, D., Islamistički terorizam na jugu Europe, Zagreb: Domagoj Margetić Publisher 2006