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Is Islamist Radicalism Rising in Serbia?

September 14, 2014

The Sandžak region of southwestern Serbia — what the Serbs call Raška — is home to most of the country’s Muslims, where they form about sixty percent of the population. They call themselves Bosniaks, just like their neighbors and co-religionists in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and there are close religious and cultural connections between Sarajevo and Novi Pazar, the Sandžak’s main urban center.

Islamist radicalism has long been a worry for Belgrade and Serbian nationalists, who have warned since the 1980’s of a “green transversal” linking majority-Muslim Bosnia and Kosovo via Sandžak, a potential land-grab at the expense of Serbia and Orthodox Christianity in the Balkans. While there has never been convincing evidence that such a plan exists, neither is it fully a figment of the Serbian nationalist imagination, as some Balkan Muslims indeed have spoken of their desire to unite all their co-religionists in Southeastern Europe in a common, religiously-based state. Moreover, Serbian paranoia has been stoked by the independence of Bosnia and Kosovo, leaving only little Sandžak in the way of achieving this Islamist dream.

Just how much radicalism there is among Sandžak’s Muslims is an open — and to Belgrade very important — question. There is no doubt that extremist views have taken hold in certain quarters, as periodic police raids have revealed, while the issue cannot be separated from the far larger problem of Salafi jihadism in neighboring Bosnia. Some terrorist incidents in recent years have a Sandžak connection, for instance the 2011 attack on the U.S. Embassy by Mevlid Jašarević, a native of Novi Pazar, while a few dozen Bosniaks from the region have gone to the Middle East, particularly Syria, to wage jihad, and some have been killed.

The biggest factor, however, is Muamer Zukorlić, a fiery preacher who has been the mufti (i.e. head imam) for Sandžak since 2007. Never missing a chance to act theatrically, the mufti, who has two wives and seven children, regularly gets into quarrels with Serbian authorities, having honed his ability to find hot-button yet mostly symbolic issues — the names of streets, for instance — that fire up Muslim hardliners and Serbian nationalists in equal measure. Zukorlić has carved out a niche as the defender of Bosniak rights in Serbia, while pushing a somewhat radical version of Islam that avoids the taint of overt jihadism. He has also spent energy on public quarrels with fellow Muslim clerics that have not contributed to Islamic unity in the region, while his attention-getting political stances have caused greater disharmony in an already troubled part of Europe.

Hence there have long been questions about what the mufti’s real agenda is. His political acts have veered towards the absurd, for instance his campaign to become Serbia’s president in 2012: he got 1.1 percent of the vote but garnered considerable media attention, while his call for autonomy for Sandžak predictably provoked outrage among Serbian nationalists who, having seen the Kosovo example, view that as mere cover for separatist revolt.

Zukorlić’s latest stunt has put him back on Balkan front pages. On September 5, the mufti led a parade of activists through Novi Pazar, men clad in military-style green uniforms and wearing red fezzes, carrying the flags of the Bosnian Army of the 1992-95 war. To make matters worse, they congregated to honor the memory of a local Muslim notable who served as mayor of Novi Pazar under Nazi occupation, overseeing the deportation of the region’s Jews to death camps, and was later executed by Tito’s regime for his collaboration, which included the murder of several thousand Serbian civilians.

Predictably, this parade generated press coverage and outrage. Rasim Ljajić, a Sandžak Muslim who serves as a minister in the Belgrade government, denounced the mufti’s stunt, observing that “Zukorlić is now demonstrating force to gain something more and promote his personal interests,” adding that the parade is harmful for the impoverished region: “It was hard to find investors for this area before, and this event removes even a theoretical chance of attracting them. The citizens of Sandžak should not look for culprits for this in Belgrade, Brussels, or Washington, but in their own backyard.”

On cue, Serbian nationalists have responded to Zukorlić’s parade — to them a pure provocation — with denunciations and hysterics. At last the feared “green transversal” is being made real, according to Belgrade hardliners, while bearded ultra-nationalists fighting in Ukraine with Russian-backed separatists have announced that, upon their return to Serbia, they will head straight to Novi Pazar to stage their own march, a measure that seems certain to harm the already precarious relationship between Bosniaks and Serbs in the region.

All this has led some to wonder what’s really going on here. This is the Balkans, after all, where intelligence agencies have a long history of penetrating extremist groups of all sorts and exploiting them for political purposes. As I’ve written about extensively, using agents provocateurs to manipulate enemies has long been Belgrade’s preferred method of neutering the opposition and reframing political debates. Balkan Islamists have had problems with Serbian intelligence for decades. Back in 1990, when Yugoslavia was falling apart, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the main Bosnian Muslim party, headed by Alija Izetbegović, was penetrated by Belgrade’s spies at the highest levels, while the wily Izetbegović, who had done multiple stints in Yugoslav prisons for his Islamist activism, himself had a relationship with Tito’s intelligence services than can be fairly assessed as complex.

Hence the recent analysis by the journalist Miloš Vasić in the Belgrade weekly Vreme, which asks important questions about what Zukorlić is really up to. Vasić has previously elaborated the problems that remain pervasive in the former Yugoslavia thanks to a lack of lustration. Communist-era secret services remain largely in place there, with baleful impacts on politics and society, as spies continue to play their old provocative games. As he observes of the mufti’s march:

The main question — namely, what this brings to Sandžak and its people and whom it benefits — has not been raised by anybody, but it is high time this thing was finally cleared up. Sandžak and its people have only harm from the mufti’s charlatan political adventurism. After twenty years (and more) of suspicions, pogroms, and discrimination, all they needed were the mufti’s uniformed thugs.

Cui bono? is indeed the relevant question in this case, and for anyone acquainted with Balkan politics and secret services, it must be asked, as Vasić does directly:

On the other hand, who benefits from the mufti? Well, those who made him, of course, those who brought him in, encouraged him, and push-started him way back when, in order that he should go on under his own steam until now, when fuel is running out. With this feeble-minded adventuristic gesture of parading uniformed louts, Mufti Zukorlić has come dangerously close to being branded as a paid agent provocateur in the service of forces to whom, in their desperation, Sandžak remains as the only “secessionist” bogeyman in a pandemonium of “haters of all things Serbian” and “destroyers of Serbia.” When such people do not exist, they need to be made up and at this activity, agents provocateurs have no match.

While there is a bona fide problem with Islamist radicalism in Sandžak, and it appears to be growing, there can be no doubt that the stunts of Mufti Zukorlić serve only to inflame internethnic passions and discredit his brand of extremism, at least temporarily. It certainly merits looking closely into what is really going on here. Belgrade’s spies have played such clandestine operational games for decades, sometimes successfully, sometimes with horrific consequences. Given the tinderbox that Southeastern Europe is today, thanks to war, instability, poverty, hopelessness, organized crime, and rising extremism, this is a dangerous game indeed.

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