Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Islamic Fundamentalism in the Balkans

The latest development in a disturbing story:

Trial of Wahhabi Extremists in Serbia Begins

Before I go on, a disclaimer: I do not believe that most Muslims in southeast Europe are fundamentalists, or radical Islamists, or nascent jihadists. Not even close. Nor do I for a second believe there was any credence to Serb nationalist claims that they were fighting a defensive war against a revived caliphate inside Europe's own borders.

However, the danger from the ongoing presence of even a small group of militant Wahhabi fanatics in the region is greater than simply giving Balkan revisionists and anti-Muslim nationalists some post de facto justifications for the crazed rhetoric and worse of over a decade ago. The specter of radical Islam in the Sandzak and/or Bosnia could not only provide ammunition for Orthodox and Catholic nationalists, but could feed very real--and justifiable--fears among ordinary Christians who might not otherwise engage in or be responsive to nationalist hate-mongering.

And it is worth noting that these bearded thugs are, after all, on trial at least partially because they threatened to kill the mufti in the area. As always, the majority of the victims of Islamist violence are other Muslims. The rise of Wahhabi Islam in the region would only be bad for Slavic Muslims there.

So a thorough and unforgiving crackdown on these religious fanatics on the part of local Muslim authorities wherever they appear would not only send a strong, and comforting, signal to Serb, Croat, Macedonian, and other non-Muslims in the Balkans; it would also be doing their own societies a big favor. Violent religious extremists are simply outside the pale; it does a secular, liberal civil society no favors to attempt to compromise or negotiate with medieval fundamentalists. A fragile and vulnerable civil society like in Bosnia or the Sandzak simply cannot afford to waste too much time learning this lesson the hard way.

And while this story is from the Sandzak, not Bosnia, we should not ignore the stronger communal sense of "Muslimness" which was tempered in the fire of genocide over a decade ago. The ties between the two regions and two populations are not insignificant.

As the years pass, the foolishness and recklessness of the decision to allow foreign jihadists enter the country and fight for Islam during the darkest days of the Bosnian war becomes tragically clearer. It is true that the number of mujahideen and their military importance has been inflated by Serb nationalists and some Balkan revisionists; it is true that they often clashed with native Bosnian Muslims who were too secular and not properly "Islamic" enough to suit their jihadist guests; and it is true that their attempt to take over and remake Bosnian culture essentially failed. However, they managed to establish a small foothold. Now it appears that that small foothold is still holding on.

Bosnia's Muslims paid a dear price in their valiant struggle to preserve a secular, liberal, cosmopolitan democracy against a vicious assault by ethnoreligious fundamentalist fanatics. How cruelly ironic it would for their society to be corrupted by a religious fundamentalist movement from within.

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