After dozens of self-proclaimed imams were prosecuted for recruiting fighters for Middle East wars, state-backed religious organisations have joined the online fight for the hearts and minds of Muslims in the Balkans.
By Fatjona Mejdini, Denis Dzidic, Filip Rudic, Dusica Tomovic, Sinisa Jakov Marusic and Marija Ristic
“We are not terrorists and we love to share baklava [Turkish dessert] with our neighbours,” says one of the messages posted on Facebook by a Belgrade mufti called Mustafa Jusufspahic.
Jusufspahic is among the few religious leaders in Serbia who use social media to communicate with his followers.
“God gave us to each other so we would know each other, not make war,” Jusufspahic said in the caption of a photo on Twitter of himself holding hands with a Catholic and an Orthodox Christian priest.
The Balkans have been a melting pot of various religions for centuries and until recently, most religious leaders used the old-fashioned ways to communicate their beliefs – through sermons at their churches, synagogues and mosques.
But after the authorities in many Balkan states put dozens of self-proclaimed imams behind bars for spreading violence online and inciting terrorism, imams from the official, state-approved Islamic communities have decided to join Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to get their message across.
Joining forces with football stars
The Facebook page of the imam of Tanners Mosque in Tirana, Elvis Naci, has become highly popular among Albanians. His Facebook and Instagram accounts, which he uses to communicate his moderate views on Islam and call for peace and understanding among believers in the Balkans, currently have half million followers. Among them is Albanian football star Lorik Cana, who often comments on Naci’s posts.
Ylly Gurra, a Tirana mufti and representative of the official Albanian Islamic Community, to which Naci also belongs, says that imams who oversee religious life in Tirana and Albania in general have been advising their followers – especially the younger ones – to stay away from informal mosques which are not recognised by the Islamic Community, where radical clerics preach extremist interpretations of Islam.
Gurra admits however that the use of social media by imams is still in its early stages.
“Most of the imams believes that preaching and giving advice through social networks is not necessary all the time. I personally use them, more to give the counter-narrative in the cases when incorrect forms of Islam are preached online,” he told BIRN.
In neighbouring Macedonia, the official Islamic community has also become much more active on social networks in the past several years, trying to confront or deter people with radical views that divert from moderate Islamic teachings.
Its spokesperson Goni Vojnika told BIRN that increasing numbers of Macedonian imams, including the head of the Islamic Community of Macedonia (IVZ), Sulejman Rexhepi, are taking to social networks for this purpose.
“We are trying to explain to our believers that ISIS does not represent Islam and that the IVZ has always been oriented against any conflicts or wars. Whenever we can, we are condemning terrorism and in particular explaining that violence in the name of religion is not the right way,” Vojnika said.
Vojnika added that it is not rare for imams to participate in online chats when radical ideas are being propagated in order to try to deter or warn people from succumbing to such views.
Jailed Albanian imams radicalised abroad
Four imams are currently in jail in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, serving between seven to 18 years in prison for recruiting people to join so-called Islamic State and other extreme Islamist groups and inciting terrorism through their preaching.
Albanian courts in May 2016 jailed imam Bujar Hysa for 18 years and his colleague Genci Balla for 17 years.
The authorities in neighbouring Kosovo arrested 14 imams in the summer of 2014.
So far one of them, Zeqirja Qazimi, an imam in Gjilan, has been convicted and jailed for, among other things, mentoring ISIS fighters including the notorious Lavdrim Muhaxheri, a key commander from Kosovo who died in June.
Prosecutors have accused five others of recruiting for and inciting terrorism through their preaching.
Enes Goga from Peja, Idriz Biliani and Mazllom Mazllomi from Prizren, and Bedri Robaj and Shefqet Krasniqi from Pristina are all awaiting trial. No security measures have been imposed to ensure their presence in court.
In Macedonia, Rexhep Memishi, an imam at two mosques in Skopje, was jailed for seven years in March 2016.
All those arrested and jailed represent a hardline and conservative form of Islam. Three of them studied and lived for years in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. Prosecutors said Zeqirja Qazimi was sponsored by Saudi organisations and others from the Gulf that are working in Kosovo.
Shpend Kursani, a researcher at the Kosovar Center for Security Studies, a think-tank, told BIRN that the way they preach reflects their studies in countries like Saudi Arabia.
“Their education and religious development without doubt had an impact on their conservative way of preaching and life in general. As a consequence, their sermons were more conservative than those that the official Islamic communities would like,” he said.
But Kursani said conservatism in Islam was not necessarily linked to extremism or to violent radicalism.
“Many studies show no direct connection between conservatism and extremism, although in certain situations a follower might not be satisfied with peaceful conservative sermons and seek those who are both conservative and violent,” he said.
Two jailed imams in Albania started their studies in Syria and Jordan and later lived in Saudi Arabia and studied at the Islamic University in Medina.
However, only Bujar Hysa finished the course, while trial records say that Genci Balla was expelled because his behaviour was considered problematic.
Media reports say this was also the case with jailed Skopje imam, Rexhep Memishi, who was not able to finish his course at the Islamic University in Saudi Arabia.
Kaltrina Selimi, a researcher in security issues at the Analytica think-tank in Skopje, told BIRN that the connections these people formed outside their universities were more important in pushing them toward radicalisation.
“Most of them [arrested imams] were students who dropped out from their studies in some Arab countries but then remained in those countries and got connected at some point with local extremists there,” she said.
She urged Balkan countries to develop their own higher-degree Islamic studies courses and strengthen the verification process of the diplomas that students of religion get in Middle Eastern countries.
Catching up with the extremists
The other major Muslim group in the Balkans are the Bosniaks, who predominantly live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in Serbia and Montenegro.
While imams from Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia have been radicalised abroad, Bosniaks from Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina were radicalised in Bosnia itself.
The most famous and notorious preacher of radical Islam in Bosnia who ended up behind bars has been Bilal Bosnic, who in his village of Gornja Maoca created an unofficial recruitment centre where people from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro would come for what Bosnic decsribed as religious education. Later, many of them would end up in Syria and Iraq.
Although Bosnic has been jailed, his influence online remains huge, as most of his YouTube lectures calling for violence are still available.
But the official Islamic Community in Bosnia is now trying to fight what it sees as an abuse of religious thinking.
Muhamed Jusic, the Islamic Community’s media adviser and noted theologian, told BIRN that the Community is trying to promote traditional Islamic values in Bosnia and Herzegovina, both in mosques and educational facilities, as the best possible response to radicalism.
“All research points to the fact that the traditional form of Islam, which has existed in this region for hundreds of years, is the best preventative programme for the abuse of religion. That is why this traditional Islamic Community is the first in line for attacks by violent extremists,” said Jusic.
He cautioned however that while violent extremists are well versed in new technologies, the traditional Islamic community is only now catching up.
The Community now has an online presence, with 12,000 followers on Facebook. Its newspaper Preporod has 17,000 followers, while the Islamic radio station BIR has more than 22,000 followers.
Muhamed Velic, a Sarajevo imam with almost 65,000 followers, said his community is only now exploring these digital possibilities.
“I find communicating with people who come to my mosque online to be a very effective tool. However, unfortunately, many do not use this tool. Many imams are passive and have no understanding that much of the communication today is online and it’s so important,” Velic told BIRN.
“I know some imams who use online tools and communicate. They do it in an excellent manner, but unfortunately, they are few. I try to encourage some of my colleagues to use more online forms of communication,” he added.
Samir Kadribasic, an imam from the Montenegrin town of Pljevlja, said that Montenegro’s Islamic Community decided to take to social media in order to influence young people in the country who were being led astray.
“Many young people have misinterpreted the religion, they read and heard things online, decided to go to war, took their families, they took them into the unknown, to fight on the side of the extremist groups and ended their lives in the deserts of Syria and Iraq,” Kadribasic told BIRN.
Kadribasic said he is trying to use social media to counter extreme influences.
“I am trying to point out that problem, to express my views, which will help to identify the most radical and extremist groups. The mission of imams in today’s society is to communicate daily with their believers and show this anomaly [of extremism],” he said.
Ivan Ejub Kostic, an Islamic religious expert and director of the Balkan Centre for the Middle East NGO, told BIRN thatsocial networks are a “key battlefield” for the hearts and minds of believers.
Kostic warned that the followers of radicals are sharing and spreading their leaders’ messages “like an army”.
“How would you reach some young man in a village? Today it takes 30 seconds via computer and you’re already in his apartment. He sits at the computer and all of a sudden he is bombarded with notifications, and he is engrossed,” he said.
Belgrade mufti Jusufspahic agreed: “Unfortunately, whoever wants to manipulate this [online] space has a good opportunity,” he said.
But Sarajevo imam Velic offered advice to imams in the region who are trying to counter radical influences: spread positive messages that present a more hopeful and benevolent outlook on religion and life itself.
“I constantly remind those who follow me who we are – God’s creations and his slaves. I remind them of our maker. I tell them to be good and noble. I speak about nice things and offer hope. I tell them nice stories and about the energy I get from my life and faith,” Velic said.
This is the third story produced as a part of Resonant Voices Initiative. To read our first and second story click here and here. To learn more about our project follow Resonant Voices Initiative on Facebook and on Twitter.