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Saturday, 2 May 2015

The influence of Islamic fundamentalism and new security challenges

Andrew Heinrich (D.Phil Candidate, St Hilda's College, Oxford)

Dr. Kerem Öktem addressed SEESOX on 18 February on Religion and Radicalization in the Balkans and Beyond. Faisal Ahmed of Nuffield College chaired.

Dr. Öktem began by posing the question of whether there is justification to focus on “Jihadism in the Balkans” after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. He defined Jihadism as a combination of Wahhabism, a conservative Sunni movement, and Takfirism, the act of one Muslim accusing another Muslim of blasphemy. It is out of a combination of these two movements that radicialization is born, according to Dr. Öktem.

He then continued to define three waves of international Jihad. The first wave started with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The second was when these ideologies took hold in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Iraq, and the third became individual acts of terror throughout the world, including Europe. While none of these movements has ever succeeded in replacing mainstream Muslim beliefs, Jihadist attacks on civilians have become a defining nature of the outside world’s perception of Islam.
Öktem explained that Jihadism first appeared in the Balkans in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990’s as part of the second Jihadi wave. While some stayed in Bosnia after the War, others spread to Kosovo, which was always a secular domestic atmosphere. However, from Kosovo, Jihadi networks in the Balkans spread to Albania and Macedonia. There is now a significant presence of Jihadists in the Balkans relative to the size of the region’s Muslim populations.

The causes and enabling factors of this rise in Jihadism, according to Öktem, include severe poverty (such as of the Roma population in Bulgaria), systematic exclusion of minorities, a lack of regional understanding and coordination of anti-radicalization policies and measures, and funding from certain factions within Saudi Arabia. There is no immediately apparent role played by Turkey in developing Jihadist networks in the Balkans; while it has had a conservative, nationalist influence on the region, it has done nothing to promote the formation and growth of terrorist networks. However, the developing role of Turkey as the “Jihadist highway” for ISIS foreign fighters must be reevaluated in this sense.

Öktem’s closing prognosis was to “be afraid, but only a little afraid.” Radicalization in the Balkans certainly does pose a security threat to the region and needs to be taken seriously. Balkan governments need to come to a more informed understanding of Jihadi movements, how they start, and what can be done to curtail their growth. Most importantly, this leads to questions of social equality, anti-poverty measures, and social inclusion and multiculturalism. The question of funding originating from Saudi Arabia might also need to be addressed. However, it is also important to keep this threat in context; it represents only a couple of thousand of radicalized individuals in the Balkans, and not one of the three waves of Jihadism has succeeded in impacting the views of mainstream Muslims.

In his response, Dr. Ahmed noted that ISIS has explained its territorial expansion based on collective memory of Islamic history in the territories it occupies. It also attempts to radicalize European muslims by emphasizing blasphemous insults to the Prophet by Europeans, never Westerners more generally. There is no explicit reference to colonialism, so is this indicative of a growing success of Jihadism in Europe?

Öktem replied that the phenomenon of a recent wave of European radicalization is a matter of what he calls “pop-Jihadism”, in which individuals who are already prone to anger and violence self-radicalize. He argued that this has little to do with any substantive understanding of Jihadi or Muslim ideologies.

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