A Constant “Othering”: Some Extremisms Continue to be Framed Differently than Others

A book review essay by Valery Perry

Aspects of Islamic Radicalization in the Balkans After the Fall of Communism

Edited by Mihai Dragnea, Joseph Fitsanakis, Darko Trifunovic, John M. Nomikos, Vasko Stamevski and Adriana Cupcea, 2023          

This book arrived in my mailbox a few days after the fortunately thwarted, biggest potential terrorist incident in the Western Balkans in a number of years – the attack in Banjska, in northern Kosovo. Well-armed Serbian gunmen in armored vehicles fought with Kosovar police, with one police officer and three of thirty attackers killed. Visitors to a nearby monastery huddled nearby as the attacks unfolded. Images and videos circulated quickly online. Serbia’s leadership denied direct involvement, Milan Radoičić, former deputy head of the main party of Serbs in Kosovo (Srpski List, which has been viewed by many as a direct tool of Belgrade) took the blame and claimed to be freelancing, and in the time since there has been a studied effort to downplay and forget the incident.  From the moment this story unfolded I was asking myself how different the regional, European and even global response would have been had the men holding the guns been in some way affiliated with Islam; it is hard to imagine that a mix of military, law enforcement, civil society and efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism (P/CVE) would not have been launched.

So I was therefore curious to see how this group of authors would approach the issue of “Islamic Radicalization.” Starting back in around 2012, and peaking during the height of the ISIS Caliphate in Syria and Iraq when tens of thousands of people from around the world went to the region (many in active support of ISIS’s aims and violent means, while some others made extremely ill-informed choices), this issue has shaped domestic and international engagement in the Western Balkans. A little fewer than 1000 adults from the Western Balkans went to the region. Some analyzed this number by looking at the numbers of country populations as a whole finding that the region was profoundly at risk; others looked at the numbers through the lens of percentages of the Muslim populations of countries and found that the Western Balkan region could be assessed as less at risk than countries in Western Europe. Once ISIS lost its territorial foothold, the issue as a policy and programmatic priority has receded somewhat, replaced by new programmatic trends such as countering mis/disinformation, for example.

The book is uneven in terms of its quality and approach to the issue, which is common in edited volumes with a large number of contributors. Some chapters add new ideas and approaches, while others offer little new data, perspective or analysis. There is a strong bias towards exoticizing Islamic extremism and framing it as a lurking threat to Europe. The issue of radicalization is largely pathologized in terms of focusing on what may have driven individuals or groups of individuals to take these paths; there was little analysis of the impact of the wars of the ‘90s and the aftermath on the overall socio-economic infrastructure that can shape such choices. There was also no exploration of the concept of reciprocal radicalization, which is unfortunate not only due to the region’s history and diversity, but because of the lessons that might have been derived for other regions (including “the West”) in dealing with this continuing phenomenon.

Some chapters provide interesting framing, conceptualization, new data and food for thought. Others are weaker, derivative, or repeat old yet convenient political narratives.

Joseph Coelho’s chapter, “Constructing a New Threat: The Securitization of Islam in Post-war Kosovo,” makes a contribution by applying securitization theory to its framing. “The strength of securitization theory, therefore, lies in its methodology for questioning how security threats are constructed from the political level to a higher level of emergency politics, and how this process might be de-securitized back to normal politics” (21). He looks at how both Kosovo’s elites, interested in presenting an unquestionable European face to the West in its quest for Euro-Atlantic integration, as well as the Western international community, found common ground in its analysis of and reaction to the engagement of Salafist actors and donors in the country, and then the departure of almost 400 individuals from Kosovo to Syria  and Iraq.  He frames the westward ambitions of elites as influenced by lasting Orientalist prejudices. While there was no space for a deep dive into history it would have been helpful to provide some basic context on Kosovo and the region prior to 1999.  His reference to the impact of securitization on “pious” Muslims was a useful reminder that religious adherence in itself should not be securitized. His frame could have been a useful conceptual thread for all of the contributions; or could be for some future work.

The chapter by Henrique Schneider, “Islamic Radicalization in Kosovo: A Case in Multi-Layered Identity” used theory on multilayered complex identities as a framework.  The author took the opportunity to explain that per capita far fewer individuals were motivated to go to the Caliphate than has been seen in other European countries, particularly when looking at the overall population of Muslims. It was interesting to learn of policies and elites almost bending over backwards to ensure the right of Christians, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, to engage in  missionary work, while banning proselytization or other religious activity by Islamic groups as “radical”. Schneider’s chapter includes findings from focus groups on these issues, which bear out a respondent preference for complexity, nuance and multi-layered identity options.  (My favorite line was, “A Google Scholar search of Islamic Radicalization Switzerland yields over 10,000 hits for the last decade alone. If the amount of literature on a topic were a proxy for the real phenomenon, this volume should be dedicated to the Alpine instead of the Balkan arc.” (41))

Gianfranco Bria’s chapter looking at Salafism in Albania does a good job at demonstrating the distinction of this fundamentalist interpretation of faith when compared to the majority of historical adherents in that country, while also touching on the erosion of unique traditional practices (such as nevruz) as a result of both broader secularization of the majority, and different emphasis by some more fundamentalist believers who reject the “corrupt” influences they see in the West, of capitalism, of non-Islamist practice.

A chapter entitled, “Mainstream and Online Media, a Useful Tool on Fighting Violent Extremism in Albania” was interesting for the data presented, though it seemed to contradict the author’s analysis.  Several pages are used to present polling data from several localities in Albania asking respondents about causes of and possible preventive approaches to violent extremism (VE). However, the role of media in prevention was a middling response at best;  other factors such as social services, religious leaders, civil society and schools were noted as more important factors.  For example, in Pogradec, schools were noted as the best place to counter VE by 64% of respondents, with only 14% noting media/social media; in Bulqizë schools were noted by 47%, and media by 45%; in Devoll schools 47% and media 37%. It was therefore difficult to understand why the author focused on media/social media rather than other social factors.

Cornel Andrei Crişan’s “Missionary Islamic NGOs in Romania: Da’wah Materials Disseminated among Muslims in Romania” is good in looking at a country that has not been substantially studied in terms of this issue, and it was interesting to learn about the small population of indigenous Muslims and also converts. While this is a work in progress, the interesting focus group questions presented were not sufficiently conveyed or explored. “Factors that Moderate Islamic Radicalization in North Macedonia” by Zhidas Daskalovski is interesting in making the case that “Islamic radicalism is nor on the agenda of Macedonian Albanians” (220), with a brief survey of post-Ohrid political dynamics that subtly displays the top-down role of political dynamics in promoting or discouraging such “phenomena”.

A chapter on the issue in Montenegro (“Building a Community Resilient to the [sic] Islamic Radicalism: A Case Study of the Muslim Community in Montenegro,” by Marko Savić and Almedina Vukić Martinović aimed to explore protective factors that limited the number of citizens gravitating to terrorist organizations,  but would have done well to ponder the trend of increasing social and political engagement by the Serbian Orthodox Church (and in turn the Russian Orthodox Church) in that country. Bogdana Todorova’s “Risks for Islamic Fundamentalism and Radicalism after the Fall of Communism in Bulgaria” considers the role of both Salafism and Turkey’s neo-Ottomanism in the country, while failing to explain – let alone grapple with – the forced expulsion of around 360,000 Bulgarian Muslims from the country’s Turkish national  minority to Turkey in 1989. The sentence, “Religion in Bulgaria is constitutionally separated from the state (only the country’s leading traditional religion – Orthodoxy, is stipulated into the constitution)” (126), represents in itself a huge set of assumptions, and highlights contradictions. These remain unexamined.

There are two chapters on these issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). “Mujahideen in Bosnia and Herzegovina and 1992 until 1995” by Mijo Beljo and Lucija Zadro suggest this is an “insufficiently researched topic”, yet their own references omit significant works, including anything by Vlado Azinović and Edina Bećirević, or Darryl Li’s The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire and the Challenge of Solidarity (2020). Instead they rely on ICTY testimonies, and, oddly, a 2010 work by Slobodan Praljak. “Foreign Fighters and Global Jihad in the Balkans: The Case of Bosnia and Herzegovina” by Michalis Marioras made links between the mujahid fighters in the 1990s to  the World War II crimes of the SS Handschar division, but fails to mention any other “comparative war crimes”. I had been waiting for mention of the threat of “blue-eyed terrorists”, and in fact he noted the ease of travel of Bosnian Muslims to Europe “due to the geographical proximity but also their physiognomic characteristics that helped them easily blend in with the European crowd” (199).  No new primary data or innovative conceptualization is offered.

Darko Trifunović’s, “ ‘Islamic Terrorism’ in the Serbian Sandžak under Salafi Influence” lacks either conceptual framing or up to date primary data, and provides a platform for anti-Muslim fear mongering. (On a side note, his footnote reference, “BiH refers to the tripartite Republic composed of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska and Brčko District” (222) at minimum illustrates the extent to which the volume would have benefitted from a factual, stylistic and typographical scrub.)

As a whole, which some of the chapters as noted above offer some interesting perspectives and facts, an uninformed reader would likely view the region as deeply at risk, with Islam as a religions something meriting if not fear, suspicion. They would gain no understanding of the impacts of the wars of the 90s on any of the issues surveyed, and would have no understanding of the way reciprocal radicalization or coterminous extremisms can interact, feed off of one another and impact social and political structures. They would not know that the perpetrator of the mass shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 that killed 51 people was fascinated by not only great replacement theory but also played a Serbian nationalist song as he livestreamed the attacks. For these reasons any reader coming to this book should be prepared to do so with a guarded eye, and to review the arguments and the references with an eye to what is not included, in addition to what is emphasized.