In the Balkans, perhaps it is time for an Ummah

In the Balkans, perhaps it is time for an Ummah

The fraying status quo in the region gives Islamists an opportunity to broaden and deepen their influence.

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By David B. Kanin

The exchange between Albanian and Serbian notables over the latest rhetorical conjuring of greater Albania in Tirana and Pristina (and Presevo) reflects one piece of the nascent search for alternatives to the faltering post-Yugoslav Balkan security cap. It is increasingly clear in the region that European Union rhetorical admonishments and fantasies of prosperity are wearing as thin as the ever-receding prospect of EU membership. At the same time, the Bosniaks and Albanians who have been the major clients of the United States are finding themselves largely ignored (except when they make noise) by a Washington that over time has forgotten its promises of the 1990s and early 2000s about crafting some sort of viable Bosnia and ensuring universal sovereignty for Kosova.

America’s major clients in southeastern Europe are a Bosnian Muslim community and an Albanian universe with a large Muslim component. Washington’s inattention to the region (and the EU’s congenital impotence regarding Balkan developments) therefore presents opportunities to Muslim outsiders with an interest in attracting even nominal Muslims in the Balkans to a more assertive, self-confident, and muscular approach to religious and communal identities.

The systematic deterioration of prospects for Bosniaks (to include residents of the Sanzak in Serbia and Montenegro) and ethnic Albanians (to include residents of Montenegro and Macedonia) has drawn attention to the region from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and elsewhere at least since the Bosnian War of 1992-95. Some foreign Mujahedin who fought in that war married locally and stayed on. Of these, some assimilated into prevailing secular or Hanafi society, while others served as exotic and attractive models to Bosniaks seeking a more affirmative and spiritually satisfying flavor of Islam. Islamist activists promoting the latter option can point to two decades of stunted economic prospects, poor international stewardship, breakdown of efforts at democratic politics, and intensification of inter-communal mistrust.

It should not be assumed that the traditional reputation of Balkan Muslims as harboring relaxed, tolerant, or explicitly secular attitudes toward Islam will keep the region largely immune from overt and assertive religiosity, especially in the context of another declining internationally-imposed security cap. Work on Muslims in Bulgaria illustrates the potential for relatively quick reorientation toward faith and greater micro-communal identification. By 2004, Mary Neuberger had identified the leadership provided by Bulgarian Muslim women who were pivoting toward their Muslim selves. ”Muslim women, through sustained refusal to de-veil or through deliberate re-veiling, transformed the veil…into an ‘armory’ of protest against state-defined emancipation and imposed modernity.” Yana Hashamova, from whose work I took this quote, cited similar findings by Kristen Ghodsee and analyzed the actions of Bulgarian Muslims who – with the encouragement of financial support from Middle Eastern states – are building mosques, schools, and introducing Islamic teachings from the Middle East unlike “indigenous” Balkan practice.

In my view, over time increasing numbers of Balkan Muslims will resist US and EU efforts to impose civic, multicultural, secular norms just as these Bulgarian Muslim women rejected the Communist version of modernity. The continuing influx of significant numbers of Muslim migrants to Europe could have a magnifying impact on this phenomenon by deepening a stagnant Europe’s dependence on their labor and thrusting a vibrant, disputatious religiosity against the contrasting self-absorbed sterility of European and Western culture. Islamists in the Balkans would do well to adjust their proselytization strategies to the range of Islamic expression likely to emerge in Europe.

Islamists need to overcome two problems if they are to increase their prospects for reorienting at least some pieces of the Balkan region toward association with the Muslim world. First, they must overcome the residual sense of “Otherness” that has relegated the idea of a Muslim identity to be something marginal to an individual’s ethnic, civic/national, or “European” self-awareness. Second, it would have to become clear that being “Muslim” does not mean cascading into the unending perverse pathology of sanguinary jihad.

Turkey periodically has attempted to influence Balkan Muslims’ struggles to grapple with the first issue – and likely will use President Erdogan’s recent constitutional self-aggrandizement to do so again. The example of his success at brushing aside EU hectoring and legal rulings while wielding leverage on the migrant issue will not be lost on those Bosniaks and Albanians who have grown tired of broken international promises and are looking for reliable, proximate, Muslim support. Any shift by elements of Vetevendosje, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), or the emerging Besa Party in Macedonia toward more robust support of Erdogan’s person or regime would be a sign of diminishing US ability to influence local politics and a harbinger of more muscular opposition – including overtly Islamic activisim – to local status quos.

Saudi Arabia and Iran will continue to attempt to attract Balkan Muslims toward their versions of Islam, but likely will remain less potent contenders for influence. The Saudis build a lot of mosques but their attention is diffused among internal succession issues, the general rivalry with Iran, and the playing out of that rivalry in Yemen. Right now, for the Saudis influence in the Balkans appears to be a “nice to have.”

The straitjacket of Wahhabi sectarianism – and Iranian Ayatollahs’ reactions to it – also clouds prospects for either state to deepen its inroads into local Islam. As much as Riyadh decries terrorism, it finances attitudes conducive to anti-social takfiri activity. The Iranians have a hard time selling Shi’a Islam to largely Sunni Balkan communities. Over the past couple of decades, these outsiders have not proven to be effective as patrons or social/religious models.

Muslim communities, like their non-Muslim Balkan counterparts, would do well to treat the outsiders as marginal, imperfect, and less than trustworthy actors. The selfish interests and extra-Balkan rivalries engulfing these greater powers make them more like than unlike the West Europeans, Russians, and Americans. The more endogenous, variegated and supple a future transnational Balkan expression of Islam (and Islamism) is, the more effectively Bosniaks, Albanians, Pomaks, Balkan Turks, and other Muslims in the region can find their place in a global Islamic mosaic that is moving toward a world lightened by diminishing Western hegemony.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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