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Limited Opportunities and the Rise of Islamic Extremism in the North Caucasus, Balkans and Turkey

October 1, 2006


By Alisa Voznaya

The tenets of Islamic radicalism, often associated with Wahhabism, a fundamentalist form of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia, are slowly penetrating the previously secular populations in the Balkans and the North Caucasus. In Turkey, where 99 percent of the population identify themselves as Muslim, the unique sense of secularism is also beginning to disintegrate in the face of the resurgence of violence from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and rising national discontent, as illuminated by the most recent terrorist attacks in Marmaris, Antalya, and Istanbul.

The suppression of any kind of religion during the Soviet communist regime, the forced amalgamation of religions and nationalities in Yugoslavia, and the ascent in the dawning 21st century of politically, rather than religiously, motivated leaders in Turkey have secured what now appears to have been temporary secular rule. Today, secular politics face an internal threat from the emerging elements of international radical Islam. However, the degree of such incursion varies among these three regions: from marginal streams in the Balkans to growing unrest in Turkey and to fully formulated jamaats with strategic visions in the North Caucasus. Yet, the motivation behind these recent insurgencies stems from the same root; the flag of radicalism brings attention to the political and economic problems experienced by the marginalized groups, such as the Kurds, Balkan Muslims and Chechens.

The most recent concern regarding radical Islam in the Balkans is the fear that Al-Qaeda has begun a recruitment campaign of “white Muslims.” The arrest and pending trial of three young men in Bosnia, suspected of planning terrorist attacks on Western targets, has raised questions regarding Bosnia’s vulnerability of becoming a haven for terrorists. The suspects were arrested last October in the Sarajevo suburbs of Butmir and Hadzici.

Since their arrest, Bosnian police has appealed to Scotland Yard and the FBI for forensic assistance to strengthen the case against the men. Jamestown Foundation reports that this particular investigation has extended well beyond Bosnia, signifying the likelihood of a “white Al-Qaeda network” operating across Europe. Though it is highly unlikely that Bosnia would officially support Islamic extremism, it is nevertheless a home to several hundred Arab mujahideen warriors who came to Bosnia during the 1992-95 war to fight on the side of the Bosnian Muslim against the Serbs. Thus, the Jamestown Foundation speculates, Bosnia’s institutional weaknesses, primarily its decentralized power centers, and its wartime history of cooperation with Arab mujahideen could make it an easy and symbolic recruitment point for a new, “white Al-Qaeda” network.

The situation was aggravated by the recent decision by Bosnian authorities to deport 50 naturalized citizens, mostly former Islamic fighters. The Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) State Commission for the Revision of Decisions on Naturalization of Foreign Citizens began its work of reviewing the status of citizens who acquired BiH citizenship between April 1992 and January 2006 in March 2006. Around 1,500 people could potentially be affected by the work of this commission. However, the commission has yet to locate most of the people on its lists, as their coordinates are currently unavailable to the government. Meanwhile, the potential for conflict increases every day — the Muslim fighters, who see themselves as heroes and liberators in Bosnia may request outside support to bolster their right to Bosnian citizenship. Once again, external radical forces may influence the internal make-up of the Bosnian Islamic space.

Bosnia is not the only Balkan country undergoing an ambiguous Islamic revival. Indeed, the global trend for radicalism is appearing in Albania and Kosovo, predominantly populated by Muslims. According to TOL, Wahhabism seeped into the countries through energetic and enthusiastic graduate students who studied at foreign universities and through Islamic charities. The Islam conveyed through the prism of these two sources is a distortion of the traditional Hanafi Sunni Islam, known as tolerant and peaceful, and widespread in Turkey as well as the Balkans. Yet, the religious radicals have yet to secure a wide support base for their cause: last year in Albania, young radical Muslims attempted to change the statute of the Islamic Community to bring it closer to their way of more rigid worship. In Kosovo, the Wahhabi movement is in its early development and does not yet have a well-organized structure, albeit it has already inspired sensationalism in the local papers regarding the extensive proportions of Wahhabism in Kosovo.

While Wahhabism is making its inaugural appearance in the Balkans, radical Islam is beginning to reappear in Turkey. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, a branch of the PKK, quickly took on the responsibility for the recent bombings in the country’s tourist areas. The terrorist acts bring to light the existing problems that Turkey has yet to resolve with its Kurdish community. The Economist reports that around 60 new Islamically-minded groups have formed in recent years. Such groups offer scholarships, financial aid and “moral support” to the poor. In fact, disenfranchised Kurds are not the only segment that could be easily subverted to radicalism. Current disapproval of Israeli and American actions runs high among all members of Turkish society. Coupled with financial incentives and moral rigidity, the appeal of radicalism directly confronts the political and economic decisions of the secular government.

The May attack by Alparslan Arslan that claimed the life of Turkish Council of State judge Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin brings to light the growing conflict between the secular government and the increasingly religious sentiments among a substantial segment of Turkey’s population who oppose the ban of the hijab in public institutions. In fact, internal pressure has caused the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to consider overturning the longstanding ban. And although Turkish Islam, similar to its Balkan neighbours, is Hanafi Sunni, the inflexibility of the government’s secularism, the most recent policy decisions regarding EU membership and cooperation with the United States, and the continuous PKK attacks, it may soon develop a more widely supported radical base through the demands of disgruntled Turks. Thus, while Turkey is a far cry from a radical Islamic republic, its government must take heed of its population’s desires, without conceding a reverse of its efforts to give the Kurds a better deal.

Alternatively, many analysts have labeled the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia, as a breeding ground for tomorrow’s Islamic radicals. In part, the situation in the region could well support such statements, yet the rise of radicalism in this particular area has been a complex issue, with divergent factors influencing its continuous ups and downs.

Radical Islam originally emerged in Chechnya during the second war that has begun in 1999. During that time, Wahhabist groups entered Chechnya with finances and weapons to help the Chechen rebels resist the Russian attacks. Interestingly enough, Chechnya, where radicalism has been consistently suppressed by the efforts of the federal government and the pro-Kremlin regional authorities, is no longer the locus of separatist movement. Instead, Ingushetia and Dagestan have absorbed many of the radicals exiled from Chechnya.

One of the factors contributing to the popularity of radical Islam, such as Wahhabism, is the pressure and discrimination from the Russian government. Mosques have been consistently closed down not only in the North Caucasus but also in other parts of Russia. There are also reports that Russian authorities discriminate widely against people who appear to be Muslim. The Russian mistakes go much deeper than that, though — today’s youth in the North Caucasus have grown up in the midst of war, and have no employment opportunities due to destroyed infrastructure and a lack of investment in the region. The fundamentalist message, abetted by financial rewards, becomes lucrative in the face of repression by the Russian government and the lack of other opportunities within the region.

Similar to the Balkans, experts like Sergei Markedonov, the head of the ethnic relations department at Moscow‘s Institute of Political and Military Analysis, argue that the collapse of communism has left a void that was quickly filled in by religious ideologies. The problem of addressing Islam in the North Caucasus, however, stems from the bifurcation of the religion into official state-sponsored Islam, the Salafi Islam, and independent jamaats, or local communities of Muslims, organized at an often basic level to share spiritual pursuits.

These communities rely exclusively on the members from their locality and on their appointed leaders. Normally, they emerge spontaneously, although recently their growth has been propped up by the now deceased Shamil Basayev, who devoted his last few years to harnessing such movements. Some of the jamaats, like Dagestan‘s Sharia one and the Kabardino-Balkaria Yarmuk jamaat, have become quite influential, and thus more dangerous. The Yarmuk jamaat claimed responsibility for the October 2005 raid in Nalchik.

Jamaats, like the religious movements in Turkey and the Balkans, represent more than just a religious phenomenon — they provide a niche for the disenfranchised and unemployed to settle economic and territorial issues. Radical Islam serves as a conduit to resolve tensions that exist between the federal centre and the region, yet, if the Russian government does not take measures to restrain the spread of insurgent movements and the development of new jamaats through moderate policy toward Islam, it stands to lose the fragile political stability that the region is currently regaining.

The Balkans, Turkey and the North Caucasus have all recently experienced a revival of radicalism within their territories. Partially, this could be explained by the increasing dissatisfaction of its respective denizens with the inability of the secular governments to deal with pertinent political and economic crises and the lure of possibilities of radical Islam. Yet, although one could be inclined to assign the extremist trend to the global dissemination of Islamic ideas, the three territories discussed in this article are largely comparable due to their similar domestic situations. Thus, the efforts to curtail the spread of extremism should come from internal policies rather than foreign machinations. In order to maintain balance within their regions, the governments of these territories must address the demands of their populations or face a possibility of the disintegration of their secular states.

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