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Extremists accused of ‘hijacking identity’ of Muslims in Western Balkans

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The threat posed by radicals who are ‘hijacking the identity’ of Muslims in the Western Balkans is “real” and needs addressing urgently, writes Martin Banks.

That was one of the key messages to emerge from a hearing in the European Parliament on the ongoing threat from radicalisation.

The debate on Tuesday was organized by TRENDS Research and Advisory, Human Rights Without Frontiers and the European Foundation for Democracy. It sought to explore the drivers behind radicalisation in Europe and its impact on the EU’s neighourhood countries, including the Western Balkans.

Opening the discussion, Croatian MEP Marijana Petir voiced particular concern about the trend, “especially apparent” in BiH, to “hijack the ethnic identities” of Bosnians and Albanians.

She said: “Each are rich with centuries of tradition and a culture of tolerance but the overarching goal of militant Salafism in the region is to reduce them to nothing more than a single religious identity.”

The region, she noted, is seen by terrorist organizations, including the so-called Islamic State “for rest and recuperation or recruitment of new fighters, for their transfer to or from Western Europe and for the acquisition of weapons, ammunition and explosives”.

Croatia, she told the hearing, has the longest border in the EU which “makes preventing and exterminating radicalization all over Europe that more important.”

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She said that many surburban areas in BiH, including Sarajevo, were “harbouring” Salafi settlements.

Wahhabi settlements on the Croanian border serve as a “recruitment and training centres”  for Islamist radicals “that will then benefit from visa-free and cross-border travel” to the rest of the EU.

She added: “That is why Croatia needs strong support from the EU to protect the external border. Only by identifying the problem, isolating it and making a plan of action can we assess this successfully.”

Her concerns were endorsed by another speaker, Richard Burchill, director of research at TRENDS, who said, “The attempts by these radical and extremist groups seek to squash the identity of other Muslims is simply wrong. We must have freedom of religion and religious expression. This has to be protected although, equally, that does not mean there should be a free-for-all.”

While welcoming the opportunity to openly debate the possible catalysts of radicalisation, Burchill also expressed a degree of pessimism, saying: “We have to realize that while we may defeat such people militarily that does not mean that the ideology they are peddling will simply go away because it will not.”

Further contribution came from Vesselin Valkanov, head of the Brussels office of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) who also shared other speakers’ concerns about the growth of radicalisation and extremism in the Western Balkans.

He also said the region was “totally unprepared” for the task of trying to rehabilitate locals who, having left to fight for IS in Syria, had now returned home.

He agreed that Muslims in the region were now being targeted, saying, “The radicals are, indeed, trying to hijack the identity of Muslims. They are trying to reduce their identity of what the extremists call an ‘authentic’ version of Islam. This is a very pernicious development.”

He said: “The region is riddled with problems, including corruption and serious crime so that makes it very vulnerable to this sort of phenomenon and is one reason why it has become a shelter and fertile recruitment ground.”

He added: “I am not saying the region is a hotbed of terrorism and do not want to overstate the problem. But the risk is real and needs addressing.”

Valkanov, a Bulgarian, told the packed gathering that the focus of the incoming Bulgarian presidency of the EU will be the Western Balkans.

Valkanov also pointed to several iniatives by the RCC to tackle these and other related issues, citing as an example the creation of a ‘religious platform’ designed to counter the spread of radicalisation.

Willy Fautre, director of HRWF, told the debate the results of an investigation by the Belgian parliament into the twin terrorist atrocity which killed 31 and injured 250 in Brussels in March 2016.

One of the areas under investigation was the role of the Grand Mosque and Cultural Islamic Centre in Brussels which, said Fautre, gave “real cause for concern.”

Fautre said the parliamentary inquiry into the Brussels attacks had criticised the mosque authorities for refusing to register it under Belgian law, adding, “Registration means coming under some sort of control. You can only assume the reason they continue to refuse to register is because they do not want to be open and transparent.”

Magnus Norell, of the European Foundation for Democracy, spoke about the current situation in his native Sweden which itself was hit by a terrorist attack earlier this year.

He said that there was a thin dividing line to be straddled in the debate about Islamist radicalization, saying, “There is the danger of, on the one hand, being branded a racist and, on the other, accused of being too lenient. In Sweden, for example, there is still a reluctance to talk about these issues. While Belgium has produced four official reports into the 2016 attacks Sweden, so far, has produced none on the attack that happened in April this year.”

In a question-and-answer session that followed the main debate, Fautre pointed out that it was not only the Grand Mosque in Brussels that was not registered with the Belgian authorities.

He said: “There are others in Belgium as well. One of the reasons, clearly, is that they do not wish to be transparent about their finances.”

The Grand Mosque, he said, has an annual budget of some €1.4 million but has been accused of propagating Wahhabism and Salafism in Belgium. Wahhabsism proposes a radical view of Islam and “the others” who do not share Wahhabi ideas.

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