The Islam of the Balkans, an unknown galaxy
Mattia Del Conero 14 September 2011

There is a “green belt” in former Yugoslavia. A pocket of militant Islamism set between Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo, as well as in Albania, filled with fighters ready to deploy to Afghanistan, Iraq and the various fronts of the holy war. After 9/11 the Italian and international press published many investigative reports on jihadism in former Yugoslavia, portraying it as a wholly alarming situation. Experts considered this portrayal an exaggerated one, ruined by the journalistic desire for a provocative story. Looking back now at this region, there have occasionally been radical manifestations of Islam in the former Yugoslavia, but it is certainly not all jihadist. Nor, as the green belt theory led people to believe, is it homogeneous. The former Yugoslavia rather contains multiple forms of Islam with variants in belief, customs and traditions.

Rituals and doctrine

Muslim communities in former Yugoslavia belong to four ethnic-linguistic groups, the largest of which is formed by Slavs. Muslims of Slavic ethnic origin and language have mainly settled in Bosnia and to a lesser extent in Kosovo, as well as in the historical regions of the Serb and Montenegro Sandžak area.

In addition to the Slavs there are Albanian-speaking groups, present in Kosovo, Macedonia and to a lesser extent in Montenegro, Turkish-speaking groups, in Macedonia and some areas of Kosovo, and Roma, spread all over the region’s districts.

There are also many differences among these groups concerning Islamic Law. Most of the communities adhere to Hanafism, one of Sunni Islam’s four schools of thought. Hanafism has its origins in the Ottoman Empire and therefore became the main school of thought in the Balkans.

Other denominations that are common in this region are the Alevites and the Bektashi order, without counting the mystic tradition of Sufism. As mentioned, the picture is therefore extremely varied.

The identity factor

In spite of its varied nature, there is one common characteristic shared by most Muslims in the Balkans. Nowadays, Islam is deeply entrenched in identity. In many cases there is a tangible link between adherence to Islam, belonging to an ethnic community and “faith” in a national cause. The explanation for this phenomenon lies in the conflicts of the nineties and, in a broader sense, in the process involving the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The break-up of the federal states and the birth of many small homelands (seven to be precise), as well as the ethnic theories used to justify the wars, have given the Muslim communities greater visibility. These factors also have transformed Muslims’ role, sanctioning the change from a religious minority to the representatives of a nation or of a nation-state.

It was thus that Muslims in Bosnia used Islam during and after the war, with the objective of marking their specific historical-cultural identity and separating themselves from the country’s two other ethnic groups, the Croatians and the Serbs. In Macedonia, the Albanians rediscovered Islam with the intention of claiming greater unity vis-à-vis the Slavic majority. In the Montenegro Sandžak, and even more so in the Serbian Sandzak, the story is the same, and the same applies to Macedonia vis-à-vis Kosovo. The Albanians in Kosovo, however, unlike these other groups, represent the country’s majority group.

The Bosnian case

Bosnia is the context within which Islam plays a more important role, both numerically, seeing that the Bosniacs (as Bosnian Muslims call themselves) are the majority, and politically, bearing in mind that during and after the war Islam has increased its influence in the public sphere and in imposing its values. Let us briefly revisit the stages of Bosniac Islam’s evolution.

Political Islam emerged powerfully in Bosnia when, in 1970, Alija Izetbegovic, who was later elected president in the nineties, published the Islamic Declaration, proposing a closer relationship between religion and politics, all with a context that accepted Western culture, and without the final objective of creating an Islamic government. The Yugoslav authorities arrested Izetbegovic for his declaration.

In 1990-1991, when the winds of war began to blow over Bosnia, the Islamic cause authoritatively reappeared on the scene and became the pillar that sanctioned the re-elaboration of the Bosniac identity. Religion became the unifying factor for Bosnian Muslims and the means with which they could distinguish their historical-cultural identity from that of Serbs and Croatians.

In the course of the war, international radical Islam also arrived. Many Islamists, mainly coming from Saudi Arabia, arrived in Bosnia and enrolled in the Armija, the Bosniac army, where, according to many experts, they held “dress rehearsals” for the holy war.

After the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreements, some Islamists moved to the Chechen front and later to Iraq and Afghanistan, while others instead remained in Bosnia, forming pockets of radical Islamism that are still left behind and form a minority group.

After 9/11 the E.U. and the American government applied pressure on Sarajevo to expel former veterans considered dangerous. The Bosniac political elite mainly complied with the European and American demands.

Today, twenty years after the war in Bosnia the union between politics and religion has been consolidated. The clergy has greatly influenced the political elite, but this happens everywhere in the Balkans and in Christian Orthodox countries. The Party of Democratic Action, or SDA, the main Bosniac political movement founded by Izetbegovic, has a programme imbued with Islamic ethics. But there are no traces of radicalism, nor are there references to Shari’a. Furthermore, the capital and Muslim stronghold Sarajevo is not the “European Tehran” that the Serbs describe in their propaganda. However, the city is now a Muslim one in its cultural and political rhythms. The days in which the city proudly boasted its reputation as “The Jerusalem of Europe,” because of its Serb, Muslim and Croatian traditions, are now nothing but a faded memory.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)