Special report: Religious radicalism and extremism as a security threat

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times May 29, 2015 08:19

Special report: Religious radicalism and extremism as a security threat

This conference report has been prepared by the Albanian Institute for International Studies, a Tirana Times partner organization.

On May 27, the Albanian Institute for International Studies held its annual security conference, focusing on the new and concerning reality of increasing religious radicalism in Albania and in the wider Western Balkans region. The conference was organized jointly with the U.S. Embassy in Tirana and supported by the NATO Public Diplomacy Division.

This event gathered decision makers, experts, researchers, Muslim Community officials and theologists as well as a wide audience of civil society, diplomatic community members and national authorities.

Greeting the opening panel, Minister of Interior Affairs Saimir Tahiri highlighted that Albania just like any other country is not immune to the threat that religious radicalism and extremism manifested mainly through the issue of foreign fighters. Minister Tahiri mentioned the engagement of the executive with the assistance of the U.S. State Department to step up the efforts of combating the phenomena. Commenting on the latest Albanian citizen to be killed on the front, Tahiri said that he was among the fighters who had become disillusioned with the extremists and wanted to return home, but he was trapped in the conflict and punished. The minister invited civil society actors to contribute to the drafting of the new and comprehensive strategy that the Albanian government is going to compile for this specific issue.

U.S. Ambassador to Albania Donald Lu started his speech by congratulating the engagement of the Albanian government on this matter, which as he said can be taken as an example to other countries. Ambassador Lu also gave a brief but concerning panorama of various terrorist organizations’ crimes around the globe. In his remarks, Ambassador Lu noted that “I share Albania’s dream of a Europe whole, free and at peace. ISIS and other extremist groups threaten that dream. We must not delay in rising to meet this challenge. And we cannot leave this work to our children’s generation.”

The first panel of the conference gathered researchers and experts from the region and presented their assessment of what is going on in each specific country.

AIIS researcher Ebi Spahiu, recognizing the difficulty of drawing a profile for foreign fighters, gave some prominent features observed in the research such as the age of Albanians travelling to Syria which is higher than average, being mainly in the 30s. She emphasized the increasing presence of women and children that have also traveled to the region as part of “family jihad,” affecting the lives of children as young as two and as old as 15 years of age. Compared to several foreign fighters from western European countries that have joined extremist groups, such as ISIS, citizens from Albania have joined with their family members. In addition, she gave a brief mapping of the most affected areas where most foreign fighters have traveled from, which are mostly in central Albania, but other cities in northern and southern Albania have been affected as well. She also observed that a significant number of individuals have also been exposed to Western lifestyles. From secondary testimonies during field interviews, she found that a few of the recruits had been long-time immigrants in neighboring Italy, Greece and due to the EU economic crisis and increasing unemployment in these countries they had returned home to Albania to an environment that offers few opportunities and sense of belonging for them, leaving a vacuum for radical ideologies to take hold. She also explained the role of the Muslim Community of Albania in countering radical religious narratives, but also pointed out that a lot of the initiatives have not been enough because different religious waves have a stronger presence in mosques and social media propaganda tools that target Albanian-speaking audiences.

Serbian sociologist Srdjan Barisic made a very interesting presentation on the two kinds of radicalism in Serbia, first that of the extreme right wing groups displaying nationalist sentiments while being associated strongly with the Serbian Orthodox Church and adopting a lot of religious symbolism in their logos and slogans. Barisic also described the dual Muslim Community in Serbia with two centers, one in Belgrade and the other in Novi Pazar which also adds to the complexity of the issue. Serbia’s officials Barisic said make the situation worse by avoiding to visit the Muslim authorities and institutions in their visits to Sandjak, a predominantly Muslim populated area in southern Serbia. This behavior strengthens the extremist narrative. Barisic also described the interesting feature of Serbian right wing groups being linked to their Russian counterparts.

Shpend Kursani from the Kosovo Center for Security Studies brought some interesting insights from a recent study that his think tank has published recently. Kursani highlighted the fact that although radicalism is a threat we should not lose sight of other threats who are after all the causes that produce the phenomenon. Kursani shared the fact that almost 40 percent of Kosovo people who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of ISIS have had criminal pasts and convictions.

He focused on the importance of reintegration measures for returnees a topic which was also picked frequently from other speakers. According to Kursani the philosophy of ‘imprisonment for all’ is an obstacle to use the potential of these returnees who are often regretful and advise others against joining foreign fighters’ ranks.

Metodi Hadji-Janev from Macedonia highlighted the importance of distinguishing between general push forces that drive people to extremism and factors that are very specific to the historical and current context in their countries and communities. Metodi Hadji- Janev also mentioned the importance of Internet, illustrating it with a survey done with secondary school pupils in Macedonia who revealed that while they talk to their parents for few minutes they spend hours navigating online. He stressed that legal measures focused on punishment often backfire and are in any case difficult to implement, encouraging instead more energy to be spend in understanding the social drivers behind the occurrence.

One interesting element that the Macedonian scholar mentioned is the general confusion especially among youth who cannot differentiate between secular forces against the state in Syria and the religious extremist waging battle there.

Vlado Azinovic, a professor of University of Sarajevo gave a very interesting presentation illustrated with real life photographs from Bosnia. As Professor Azinovic explained the difficulties inherent in the complex system of authorities in Bosnia where there are several overlapping police forces make the phenomenon much more difficult to manage. Azinovic described two different groups of foreign fighters from Bosnia, the old fighters that participated in the Bosnian conflict in the 90’s mainly in the Mujahedeen Unit and the second group of late teens seeking adrenaline and self-validation.

Azinovic mentioned a few facts that illustrate the social media savviness of the extremist. ISI has around 25.000 Twitter accounts and with an average of 200.000 tweets per week they can flood the online world with their propaganda.

Azinovic concluded on a call to do more since until now as he said ‘we are failing the families, we are failing in the schools’. Even though de-radicalization is very difficult more can be done about prevention.

The next speakers was Jacob Zenn from the Jamestown Foundation in Washington D.C. currently engaged in Nigeria. Zenn stated that there are different groups in the world pledging their allegiance to ISIS. Further he explained that ISIS is using different propaganda tools such as YouTube, social media, etc. Propaganda is spread through the use of Arabic, Central Asian Languages and among others Albanian. According to Zenn, ISIS is more capable to appeal to the Youth and to spread globally than Al Qaeda, which is currently losing some of its influence. Furthermore, Zenn added that ISIS is fascinated by the prospect of attacking Rome and in this regard, the Balkans will play a crucial role. “ISIS is more successful at recruiting people from areas with sectarian conflicts, such as the Balkan countries. Counter de-radicalization is very hard to evaluate, but workshops and debates organized by CSOs and religious communities might help to establish critical thinking among the people, who are more exposed towards radicalization”, said Zenn.

The second panel of the conference brought together some of the people that are dealing with issues of extremism and countering it in their daily engagements.

Greeting the conference on behalf of NATO, Mikael Switkes made a comprehensive presentation of the international community’s efforts and resources to aid the fight against extremism and address the security issues that derive from it. Switkes focused mostly on the projects and programs put together by the United Nations, OSCE and NATO itself which vary from research to field engagement.

The head of the State Committee on Cults, Ilir Hoxholli, focused in his address on Islamophobia and the alienation of moderate Muslims from the rest of the society through prejudice and discrimination. Hoxholli speaking on a case of a girl refused education on grounds of being covered claimed that refusing the basic constitutional rights to Muslims reinforces the arguments of extremists and causes a lot of societal harm. Hoxholli praised the organizers for inviting members of the Muslim community and well versed theologians, whose engagement is absolutely decisive in the fight against extremism. The State Committee on Cults is currently undertaking a project that brings the Albanian Muslim Community and the local government institutions together in establishing a relationship of trust and collaboration in order to strengthen prevention mechanisms and approaches.

Isolating Muslims as a measure to secure their persistence of radicalization was a recurrent theme that all speakers agreed was one main issue to address in countering terrorism.

Former deputy head of the Albanian Muslim Community and a well-known theologian, Ermir Gjinishi, frequently speaks to the Albanian media on these matters. At the conference, he focused on the religious roots of the problem and highlighted the problems within the institution of the Albanian Muslim Community as the key to understanding and countering the radicalization and extremism in the country. Gjinishi said the Alanian Muslim Community has been very passive in confronting the phenomenon since the beginning and do not actively engage in explaining to believers that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are not their fight.

Gjinishi contradicted the Interior Minister’s declaration that the flow of foreign fighters from Albania has stopped, saying that to the present day boys even from Tiran are traveling to join ISIS.

Gjinishi proposed a three pillar approach to countering the phenomena of extremisms starting with the theological treatment in order to make the tekfirism doctrine disappear. Other pillars include the strong cooperation between official Muslim Communities in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia as well as the engagement of media and civil society to raise awareness.

The head of the Muftiat Council of Elbasan and an active religious moderate figure, Arben Ramkaj, focused on the role of imams themselves in preventing and fighting radicalism. Ramkaj who lives and works in Elbasan, one of the largest Muslim communities in Albania, spoke of the efforts that are coordinated there for the reclaiming of the authority of the Albanian Muslim Community. Ramkaj focused on the importance of bringing together the old and new imams who have received different education, with the new imams often in need to adapt their religious understanding to the traditional Albanian practices. Ramkaj mentioned the low level of education of the imams in general. There are only 5 PhD Muslim scholars and very few scholars with MA in theology for a country with more than 1000 mosques – he said explaining that in rural and remote areas often imams have only elementary education. Ramkaj has led several initiatives such as the moderate newspaper ‘Mendimi’ (accessible online), together with his fellow community members he also organized a march on the occasion of the Charlie Hebdo massacre to counter the narrative of extremists using religion for such criminal acts.

AIIS Deputy Director Alba Cela concluding the event announced the plans of AIIS to build a regional coalition of expertise with the think tanks engaged in the issue in order to coordinate research and most importantly the policy recommendations that will help the state and society respond to the phenomenon.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times May 29, 2015 08:19