We need to talk about Mevlid – Vehabije and extremism in Bosnia and Serbia

If overlying, systemic issues are not addressed, then misperceptions and security rhetoric regarding Wahhabism will put a serious strain on inter-community relations in the Western Balkans.

By Teddy Noel-Hill

Mevlid Jašarević’s attack on the United States Embassy in Sarajevo elucidates much about the nature and causes of extremism in the Western Balkans. The event has thrust Wahhabis in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia further into the forefront of public debate and caused concern across all sections of society. However, it is imperative that Wahhabism is understood as part of the wider environment that drives people to extremism, particularly in Bosnia and Serbia. If these overlying, systemic issues are not addressed, then misperceptions and security rhetoric regarding Wahhabism will put a serious strain on inter-community relations.

The reality of the Wahhabi (1) movement in the Western Balkans is a small number of people living in largely introspective communities in remote areas. Wahhabism is, of course, a foreign import.  It first came to Bosnia during the war, with the predominantly Arab volunteers of the El Mudžahid unit fighting within the Bosnian Army (ARBiH). Wahhabi ideas and practises have spread outside of Bosnia, and there are adherents in Sandžak (both Serbian and Montenegrin), Kosovo and Macedonia. The vast majority of foreign combatants who came to Bosnia to fight during 1992-1995 have largely been thrown out of the country. Furthermore, the influences of Saudi Arabian Islamic networks espousing Wahhabi ideals have been severely curtailed. Instances like the current controversy of the naming of the new University of Sarajevo library demonstrate the sensitivities over Saudi involvement in Bosnia, but the fact remains that Wahhabism is now a domestic issue within Bosnia and Serbia, and must be treated as such.

These days, the major external actor of Islamic orientation in Bosnia and Serbia is Turkey. Turkish religious organisations, as well as groups with no religious affiliation, have been very active in the fields of reconstruction, education and refugee assistance in post-war Bosnia. In Serbia at present, Turkish intervention to reconcile the Islamic community/communities is important on many levels, not least in helping to tackle extremism. The so-called ‘džamija diplomatija’ that is conducted through the Turkish Foreign Ministry, religious organisations and NGOs will hopefully bring cohesion to the Islamic Communities of Serbia, whilst concurrently removing some of its more outspoken figures from politics. The institutional weakness of Islam in Serbia is having a very negative effect when it comes to dealing with extremism. The rift between the rival Islamic Communities is damaging because it prevents concerted efforts to dissuade people, primarily young men, from taking extremist positions on matters of faith.

Additionally, it erodes the interpretative, administrative and representative authority (2) of a singular Islamic Community to which young disaffected men could feel a part of.  The rupture between rival Islamic Communities in Serbia makes it easier for extremist interpretations of Islam to pervade the Muslim population in Sandžak and elsewhere.

The other corollary of these Turkish-led initiatives, the separation of Islam from the politics of Serbia, will hopefully remove a crucial motivation for young men in Sandžak to turn to Islamic extremism. The conflation of Islam with politics, as most overtly embodied in Mufti Zukorlić, was seen by Wahhabis as an example of the abandonment of faith and corrupt practises which adds weight to the arguments they put to disillusioned youth in the region. Until Jašarević’s attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, almost all Islamic extremist acts, or planned acts, of violence or disruption were directed against Muslim political figures or the Islamic community more generally. This demonstrates that the first and most important steps needed to dissuade people for extremist viewpoints need to come from within the Islamic community itself. The threat posed to the state or “Western” targets, such as embassies, has remained relatively low. There can be no denying that Jašarević’s actions represent a worrying move away from this fact, but a sense of perspective is necessary. What is more, it may seem somewhat prosaic to state that not all Wahhabis are terrorists, but this truth is often neglected or purposefully omitted in popular media and the discourse of security professionals and unscrupulous politicians.

Tackling extremism in the Western Balkans, in all its forms, is dependent on changing systemic socio-economic factors. What drives young men to extremism and threatens social cohesion in the region is the overarching economic and political malaise. Young men are fed with a dearth of economic opportunities and their ineffective, often corrupt, political leaders.

Mevlid Jašarević is in many ways a typical example of an individual enticed by extremist sentiments. He is a young man from an economically depressed city with high unemployment and little opportunities. Novi Pazar has little economic, political or cultural engagement with the Serbian state, and Jašarević and many like him will not see themselves as stakeholders in the Serbian polity. What compounds these feelings in Novi Pazar and parts of Bosnia are mutually antagonistic assertions of identity between young men from different ethno-religious/ethno-national groups.  The root causes of extremist attitudes (unemployment etc.), are exacerbated in environments of existing inter-group tension where public assertions of difference are magnified and exaggerated. Religious extremism and/or extreme nationalism emanating from non-Muslim groups in Bosnia and Sandžak are inherent to the vicious cycle of provocation that Wahhabism is a part of. Even though it is primarily young men from rural areas who have been attracted to Wahhabism and Islamic extremism, there is a key urban dynamic pertaining to the proximity in which people live that needs to be addressed.

Economic, political and educational disenfranchisement of young men in places with troubled inter-communal relations is bound to cause an augmentation of disdain for the members of the other group and more extreme forms self-identification. It is clear that work needs to be done to bolster inter-community dialogue amongst the young and to improve their opportunities.  A combined approach of inter-community dialogue, political empowerment and economic opportunity is sorely needed. After all, the economic situation Bosnia, Serbia (Sandžak) is the same for everyone, regardless of religious identification or national identification

Perceptions and political manipulations of Wahhabis could lead to a dangerous process of securitising Islam. Securitisation of Islam in the Western Balkans will have disastrous consequences for the region, both in the domestic sphere and in relations between states. Securitisation takes issues out of the normal realm of politics and debate and into a dangerous state of exception in which law, rights and dialogue are disregarded. Securitisation will worsen paranoia and rhetoric portraying Bosniaks as latent fundamentalists, and lead to a degenerative process of repression, mistrust and societal polarisation. This will, of course, have a dire effect for the already difficult political situation in Bosnia, and further obstruct the inclusion of Bosniaks in the political and cultural mainstream in Serbia.

The attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo went largely unreported in the UK and, from what I have gathered, the rest of Europe. In some ways this is just as well, as there is a distinct lack of understanding and a tendency towards hyperbolic and sensationalist claims about the nature of the Wahhabi “threat” within the Western Balkans. If Islamic extremism becomes a policy driver for Western engagement with the Balkans then the consequences will be calamitous. Given that many EU member states have an, at best, ambivalent relationship with Islam, any mismanagement of the Wahhabi issue from a European/International perspective is possible, but must be avoided.

Teddy Noel-Hill is currently studying for a masters in Politics, Security and Integration at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London (UCL).  He is currently researching the nexus between nationalism, politics and culture in South-Eastern Europe.

This article is published as part of TransConflict’s newly-launched initiative, Confronting Extremism, further information about which is available by clicking here.

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1. Wahhabis of course would refer to themselves as Salafis. Discussion on theological, historical and ideational differences between the two is beyond the scope of this article.

2. See Eldar Sarajlić “The Return of the Consuls: Islamic networks and foreign policy perspectives in Bosnia and Herzegovina”. (Paper presented at the conference ‘After the Wahhabi Mirage: Islam, politics and international networks in the Balkans’) European Studies Centre, University of Oxford. The paper addresses this issue but in relation to the Islamic Community of Bosnia.



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