Radical Islam in the Balkans
by Stephen Schwartz
Following recent statements by Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said that the Balkans, especially Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo, are a future seedbed and stronghold for Al-Qaida, we questioned Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, a specialist on Islam in the Balkans, and leader of a non-governmental organization, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, in Washington. Here is what Mr. Schwartz, the author of numerous books and publications, among them The Two Faces of Islam, Sarajevo Rose, and The Other Islam, told us:
"I think Minister Lieberman, in describing the Balkans as a future base of global terror, exaggerated. There is definitely a problem of radical Islamist influence in the Balkans, especially involving Wahhabism and similar tendencies. In my opinion, the problem is currently worst in Macedonia, where the Wahhabis have real control over the Islamic Community, while those who are not Wahhabis, are mistreated and attacked. There are also problems with Wahhabi influence on the Islamic elite in Bosnia. My friends, including Professor Rešid Hafizović, Mustafa efendija Spahić and Professor Enes Duraković, clearly and loudly said that radical Islam has no place in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Wahhabis have infiltrated there and in Kosovo, but, as I said, the worst situation is in Macedonia, where the radicals head the community, as well as in Albania, where there is no attempt to control the radicals at all, and where, I would say, they can do what they want. To understand, however, which areas of the Western, democratic, or if you like, anti-terrorist countries require special attention, calls for much more than mere speculation; it requires reason, logic and analysis. It is quite clear that the current main center of world struggle against radical Islam is in South Asia – Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, to an extent, India. These are areas where there has always been a strong presence and influence of radical Islamic movements..."
VOA: "Mr. Schwartz, in speaking about radicalization in Bosnia, would you say that after the Balkan wars it become attractive, especially among young people, the young generation, precisely because it is new, as some sort of trend or fashion?"
Schwartz: "In my experience, which is quite long and constant, there is a certain attraction to radical Islam among some young people, and this is true in every Islamic community in the world. These are young people trying to find their identity, to understand themselves... in Bosnia one often heard such statements as 'people were killed in Bosnia because they were Muslims, so let us become better Muslims,' and some think that the radical way makes one a better Muslim ... Girls are now covering their faces, or wearing full body covering, and this is something previously seldom seen in Bosnia. Thus, there is a fashion, there are some youth who is are attracted in this direction to gain media attention. I believe and I hope that for most of them this will be simply a juvenile phase. During this period, unfortunately, some will be recruited to terrorism, and cause serious trouble. However, a group which to my mind is a lot more susceptible in this regard, is the elite within the official Islamic Community. This is because the elite is vulnerable to corruption, and I think this cannot be denied. There is a big controversy over the building which is being erected by the Bosnian Islamic administration (Rijaset). The Reis ul-Ulema [head cleric Mustafa efendija Cerić] said that Wahhabism does not exist in Bosnia-Hercegovina ... There is a relationship between the Bosnian Reis Cerić and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the well-known fundamentalist from Qatar, a relationship that bothers many Bosnian Muslims ... So there is an elite open to corruption because they want to live well, and some young people in search of something new ... But when you count all such people, they can not be more than 10 percent of the [Muslim] population in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and more likely only five per cent. However, the influential elite, with its publicity, and every young man who grows a long beard and wears the Wahhabi-style short pants, or reads the quite radical magazine Saff, are visible to everybody. Nevertheless, I say, the percentage is not large. The vast majority of what we call rayah, meaning ordinary people, workers, peasants, who are acting to support their families – they want absolutely nothing to do with radical Islam. Their Islam is traditional, Hanafi, and Ottoman."
VOA: We asked Mr. Schwartz for his feedback regarding an arrested New Yorker, an immigrant from Bosnia-Hercegovina, 25 year old Adis Medunjanin, and how his case may reflect inside Bosnia-Hercegovina, and among the Bosnian community in America, and he said:
Schwartz: "This can be reflected in Bosnia-Hercegovina in some way, but if you look at the number and scope of terrorist plans and atrocities from 11 September 2001 until now, they include an insignificant number of Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians. We should hope this young person, a young man who may have been isolated from society, was lured into the group linked with Najibullah Zazi while trying to find friends, and just went on the wrong path. I believe that the American Bosnian Muslims in this case will completely reject, revile, and condemn these people, and most of them would never support any similar activity. I do not think that the American media reaction has been too strong, because so many other terrorists and suspects come from South Asia. [CIP Note: Later media report that Medunjanin was trained as a terrorist in Pakistan.] My message to this young Bosnian Muslim is: Return to the right path, do not go the wrong way, you represent Bosnia here, you represent Islam, and on the Last Day you will have to answer to God for your actions. Do not follow this deviant path, because it is not the way that made Bosnians strong Muslims, it is not the way by which the Ottoman Empire maintained its power, and it is not the way that has made Islam one of the world's great religions. Return to the straight path, and help the American authorities in this investigation."