Idealization of „islamic“ threat in the Balkans – a New Challenge for Islamophobia in Europe

Kemal Obad

Balkan terrorism is again in focus after a recent statement by Croat President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović about the growing radicalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Specifically, the president wishes to point out that radical Islamic terrorists live in BiH, namely 10 000, who are a great threat to the region and Europe. Moreover, the Safe-Intelligence Agency (SOA) of Croatia has recently published a report that indicates the number of 10,000 Salafists, some of whom support terrorism. This report does not mention BiH, but uses the term south-east neighborhood.

Czech President Milos Zeman joined Croat President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović to present BiH as a potential threat to Europe. Zeman stressed out that there was a real threat that IDIL, after the defeat in Syria and Iraq, would make a good base for terrorists in European countries, specifically in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz has already said that “in Sarajevo or Pristina, women are paid to fully cover themselves (wear niqab or hijab) and to be on the streets, to change the picture of the city.” The minister, in other words, wanted to point out the problem of, according to him, the growing influence of Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the Western Balkans, hinting that Europe must take a tougher stance on the issue of integration.

All of these statements in the short period of time tended to undermine the image of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a country which cherishes a long historical heritage of various empires and cultures. But they opened up additional questions when it comes to re-etching the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Balkans, Bosnian Islam and the practice of Islam in general. This is not the first time that BiH is linked to radical movements or persons that might have links to terrorism. During the aggression on Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992-1995, Serbian media led the propaganda about the “Islamic threat” in Europe, coming from BiH, representing themselves as “guards” in front of the threatening radical Muslims of Bosnia. Over the last few years, terrorist attacks in European countries have prefix “Islamic”, especially because of the appearance of ISIS and the return of citizens of certain European states from the Syrian battlefield. However, the Balkans, and especially Bosnia and Herzegovina, have not had a serious security and terrorist threat in the last five years. Yet, idealizing Bosnia as a terrorist country and as a new milestone of ISIS comes as a result of political opportunism and populism. Instruments in this process are often emphasized by the departure of Muslims from BiH, the Salafis to the foreign war zones, although almost every European country faces the same challenge. Also, in the Balkans, Serbs or Croats are going to a foreign war zones, such as the one in Ukraine and the Crimea. Those are war mercenaries, so-called “dogs of war” who work for money for the sake of ideology. But media coverage or questioning of this phenomenon in the context of the “Christian” or Orthodox “extremism is not present or discussion about it, is quiet and enough unavailable to the public.

Historical aspect

The Western Balkans is a political area characterized by European institutions as an ever-present area of political conflict, which eventually has escalated into war conflicts. In fact, if we go a bit further in history, we will find that European leadership, and in a time when it was not institutionalized as a community, looks at the Balkans as a threat area. The traces of this standpoint that survived alongside elevation above all the classical, racial, religious, cultural and national differences contained in the European Convention on Human Rights can be found ever since the time of the first Muslim presence in Europe. Though the fall of Toledo in 1492 and the ultimate defeat of Muslim presence was perceived as a triumph over the Islamic empire at that time, southeastern Europe was simultaneously plagued by the strong Ottoman Empire, which assumed the primacy of spreading Islamic culture and civilization. In the Balkans, Ottoman Empire left most cultural and historical significance and architectural landmarks as witnesses of a strong Islamic presence in Southeast Europe.

Nevertheless, the Western Balkans have always remained ethnically and religiously diverse at the time of Ottoman rule from the 14th to the 19th century, but also after their total withdrawal and collapse of the empire. Of all the countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as a part of Sandzak and Kosovo, are particularly emphasized as places mostly inhabited by Muslims. Things have changed over the course of the 20th century. While the Muslims of the Balkans, due to political and security reasons, migrated to Turkey, after the Second World War, the wave of Muslims and their families from Africa and Asia gradually moved to various European countries, mostly Western, because of the employment, especially to Germany, France, and the UK. Balkan Muslims were also part of such migrations, but they were also forced by the politics of the communist government in Yugoslavia, which included six Balkan countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, to leave this area. The 1992-1995 period of Aggression on Bosnia has again resulted in the mass destruction of cities and villages, as well as large migrations, mostly Muslim population, to other countries of Europe and the world.

Europeization of the state and Muslims

Today, the mention of Bosnia and Herzegovina triggers the memory of the war and the genocide in Srebrenica. Although these memories create a sad picture of society and the state, however, the positive trend of growth of tourism and discovering the natural and cultural heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina, make this country the most desirable destination to visit. The rapid growth of Arab tourists had become a political issue of their presence and firms that are established here and provided materials to proponents of Islamophobia that re-create different political and ideological labels for the Muslims of Bosnia. These questions are not a stumbling block, for example in England or France, when the Arab businessmen also invest in real estate or hotel business.

Given the aforementioned history of Balkan relations over the last 100 years, these phenomena are not newspapers. But there is a question of the new relationship between Europe and the institutionally the European Union, towards Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their indefinite state of affairs at the beginning of 1992 resulted in a massacre and genocide. Today, when the European Union is determined that Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the entire Western Balkans, must be part of the Union in the years to come, ignorance and aggressive political populism of certain European politicians and leaders regarding the so-called “Europeanization” of Bosnia and Herzegovina still remains. Although aware of the ways and models of practicing Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the openness of the Islamic Community of Bosnian Muslims towards the world, their participation in the creation of inter-religious cooperation and fostering multi-religious and multi-cultural image of their homeland, it seems that some European leaders idealized picture of the state of Islam in the Balkans. Does this mean that Bosnian Muslims in the process of European integration will have to prove their “Europeanism” with a special form of Europeanized Islam? On the contrary, Islam in Europe and Muslim practice are best seen in the life of Bosnian Muslims over the past centuries. The Balkan Muslims did not break the links with Europe to become better Muslims, nor did they break the ties with their religion and culture to become greater Europeans. Mutual interaction between Islamic and European identity is one of the strongest adjectives of the Muslims of the Balkans, especially Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also of Croatia, Sandzak, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia. Alongside other nations, they participated in the creation of modern Europe with their knowledge, skills, and life in the past. And they still do it today.

Therefore, the creation of an imaginary image of “Islamic” threat that comes from Balkans can be interpreted as a political structure inspired by Islamophobia and interest to approach to extreme rightists in the countries of Europe and the world. The Muslim youth of the Balkans and other parts of Europe, educated in the major European university centers and with active participation in the social community, are the builders of a successful society and the European country in which they live, which is the best answer to the campaign of creating an artificial non-existent „Islamic“ threat.


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