A recent report, a joint project of GLOBSEC and the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), written by Andrea Marinković, Martina Valušiaková, Viktor Szűcs, examines the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin) and its derivatives in Bosnia and North Macedonia. The report enables a comparative examination of the progress Islamism has made in two European countries where the position of Muslims is quite different—a narrow majority in the one case, a large minority (about one-third) in the other.
North Macedonia has a varied Muslim population, divided between Albanian, Turkic, and Slavic ethnic groups. The Muslim community is officially represented by the Islamic Religious Community (IVZ), which self-organized in 1991 shortly after independence from Yugoslavia and was recognized by the state in 1994.
A prominent organization in North Macedonia that is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood network is the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations (FEMYSO), and particularly one of its sub-components known as the Islamic Youth Forum (FRI), headquartered in Tetovo. FEMYSO and FRI have large followings on social media: YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.
FEMYSO is circumspect about its Brotherhood connections, as is FRI. For instance, as the authors explain, “The FRI website also shows just one article on the life and work of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna. FRI’s activities revolve mainly around education and humanitarian aid, as is evident on their social media outputs.”
The most direct political content on the FRI website is about the gay Pride parade, where the group cautions Macedonian youth about the “unbalance of moral components” in their lives.
FRI’s desire to obfuscate not only its connections to the Brotherhood but to Islamism generally can be seen in the fact that it organized a conference in August 2011, entitled “Islam in Europe (Danger or Salvation)”, which garnered significant public attention at the time—not least due to the presence of Hani Ramadan, the brother of prominent Islamist intellectual Tariq Ramadan and grandson of Al-Banna—yet is unmentioned on the FRI website.
A notable participant in this conference was LEGIS, a North Macedonian NGO founded in 2009 Jasmin Redžepi, whose wife is the current president. Redzepi was a participant in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May 2010. Indeed, he was aboard the Mavi Marmara, the ship on which Israeli forces were nearly lynched and on which nine Islamist activists were killed. LEGIS’ “Muslim Brotherhood connections come through two Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members, Dr Mohamed Beltagui and Dr Hazem Farouk, who were arrested on board the flotilla ship … following the Israeli commandoes’ raid”, the authors explain.
The Freedom Flotilla was run by the radical Turkish “charity”, the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH). The events aboard the Mavi Marmara caused lasting damage in the relations between Israel and Turkey, as had been intended by the Turkish government in sponsoring this provocation. And Turkey is not, as the authors make clear, LEGIS’ only foreign connection: it has done ostensible aid work, a means of legitimating missionary activity, in Bosnia, Burma, Gaza, Greece, Somalia, and Syria.
The Turkish connection to LEGIS is most important in its transnational relations. “In all conversations”, write the authors, the influence of the Brotherhood-derived ruling party in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), “was outlined as significant”. Historical and cultural prestige for Turkey via its association with the Ottoman Empire, the ethnic connection of a large Turkic minority, and financial donations to the cash-strapped IVZ all serve to burnish Turkey’s reputation in North Macedonia and extend Turkey’s soft power in the country.
It is also claimed that Turkey has more direct, “hard” political influence through Besa, a centre-Right political party created in 2014. Besa is tied to a publishing house that carries books by Brotherhood ideologue Yusuf al-Qaradawi and its founder Al-Banna. Besa denies that it is funded by Turkey, but its media output shows a consistent admiration for, and alliance with the political positions of, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The fact that Besa is an Albanian party demonstrates the success of the Turkish government in leading with its Islamic identity over its ethnic one.
Until the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, the Hizmet movement of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist cult that was aligned with the Erdogan government, was powerful in the education sector in North Macedonia. Underlining the strong Turkish influence in North Macedonia, the post-coup efforts to purge the Gülenists from the Turkish state apparatus spilled over into North Macedonia, with pressure being applied to Skopje to close Gülenist-run schools.
An ongoing demonstration of the Turkish dimension to North Macedonian politics and society is the local manifestation of the tug-of-war between Turkey and the moderate axis of Gulf states, which has far less influence in the country. One interviewee “described [this contest] as of paramount importance, … suggest[ing] that ‘there is a fight for the new caliphate happening in the world right now’ … It is important to note that when this remark was made, the interviewee explained that, in their view, the AKP is the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood.”
Bosnia and Hercegovina
The area now comprising Bosnia-Hercegovina was first brought under Islamic rule in the fifteenth century. The Ottoman Empire captured the great Christian capital of Constantinople in 1453 and swept into the Balkans, formally incorporating Bosnia as a vilayet in 1463. Bosnia was occupied by the final iteration of the Habsburg Empire, Austria-Hungary, in 1878 and formally annexed in 1908. It was at this time, under Habsburg rule, that the extant official Islamic representative body in Bosnia came into being, the Islamic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ICBiH).
With the dissolution of Austria-Hungary in 1918, Bosnia was incorporated in the new “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes”, renamed “Yugoslavia” in 1929. After a horrific period of Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1945, Yugoslavia was taken over by Communists and would be ruled as such until the collapse of the federation and the independence of its member states in 1991.
The 1992-5 war that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia was worst in Bosnia, involving not only mass-displacement and -killing but episodes of genocide against Muslims, such as that at Srebrenica. The war also gave a chance to Islamists. Thousands of mujahideen came into Bosnia during the war to support the government of Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic, as did Iran’s operatives, and this helped entrench a radical current that had been building in Bosnia, as elsewhere, since the 1970s as part of the “return of Islam”. The naturalization of the foreign jihadists after the war and the entry of Islamic charities to rebuild the country further accentuated this dynamic.
Probably the most prominent post-war Salafist advocacy group was the Active Islamic Youth (AIO), made up of members of El-Mujahid, the main unit of foreign jihadists within the Bosnian Army, and their publication, SAFF. “Iran’s influence was also very prominent during the 1990s,” the report notes. The Iranian theocracy presented its investment in humanitarian terms, but substantial financial and military aid flowed into Bosnia, “including weapons, military instructors, and intelligence officers. The influence of Iran and Shi’ism in the post-war period was significant, although coming from a small group.” Bosnia has somewhat scaled down its ties with the Islamic Republic under Western pressure, but strong cultural links remain, organized often through the Cultural Centre of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and including academic exchanges—a convenient cover for espionage—and cultural journals like Beharistan.
Interestingly, though Bosnia’s cause in the 1990s was a major cause in Turkey and the Turkish government after the rise of the AKP in 2002 has certainly put more resources toward gaining influence in Bosnia, including through the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), Turkey was late to the game in Bosnia, is competing against numerous other foreign states, and has had significant disagreements with the ruling elite in Sarajevo—all of which has combined to mean that “the relationship between Turkey and Bosnia isn’t as close as widely believed.”
An additional reason why Turkey’s influence in Bosnia is weaker than might be supposed is that much of the influence before 2013 came through schools and institutions run by the Gülenists, which had now been uprooted.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in Bosnia is foundational. Izetbegovic, the first president of independent Bosnia, was a member of the Young Muslims, an organization modelled after the Brotherhood when it was created in Bosnia in 1939.
The Young Muslims were believed by most Yugoslavs to have died out in the 1940s when most of the leaders were tried for collaboration with the Nazis. But the group survived, worked assiduously underground to gain followers and influence—and establish networks that extended beyond Yugoslavia. It was this latter factor, the Young Muslims reaching out to the then-new Islamic Republic of Iran in the early 1980s, that caught the attention of the Yugoslav government and led to the arrest of Izetbegovic and the other Young Muslim leaders.
When the trial of the Young Muslims opened in Yugoslavia in 1983, it was a shock to most of the country that this organization still existed—or even could exist in a Communist state. Little could it be foreseen that in under-a-decade, the Communists would be gone and Izetbegovic would be in power with his political party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), controlled by old alumni of the Young Muslims.
One of the first things Izetbegovic did as Communist rule began to crumble and he was allowed out of jail in 1990 was republish his “Islamic Declaration”, first published in the 1970s. As the authors note, this document “remain[s] controversial until this day” because its contents—“based on Islamist ideology akin to that of the Muslim Brotherhood”—demonstrate the falsity of the myth-image of Izetbegovic in the West.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Bosnia, despite its influence in high places, is deeply contested and the subject of a lively public debate since much of the population, at least in the cities, is politically secular even if personally pious. This could be seen in 2014, when Izetbegovic’s son and successor Bakir was reported in “many … tabloid newspapers … [to have] welcomed a ‘delegation of the Muslim Brotherhood’ in the presidency. The articles also featured a picture of Bakir Izetbegović using the Rabia symbol, a known gesture of the Muslim Brotherhood.” This caused a firestorm in Bosnia and Bakir was reduced to claiming he did not know the delegation was from the Muslim Brotherhood. Likewise, Bakir encountered resistance in offering his support to the brief Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt under Muhammad Morsi.
“Another prominent figure in Bosnia and Herzegovina, former Reis-ul-ulema Dr Mustafa Cerić, has been alleged to hold connections with the Muslim Brotherhood and its leadership,” the report documents. “Cerić is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked European Council for Fatwa and Research, alongside Al-Qaradawi and other prominent Muslim Brotherhood figures. In addition to this, he is a member of the UK-based organisation ‘Radical Middle Way,’ through which he has had the opportunity to connect with various scholars associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Outside of the government and official institutions, the most prominent Ikhwani influence is the Association for Culture, Education, and Sport (AKOS), which has links to a Brotherhood organization headquartered in Brussels, the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe (FIOE). A relatively small organization with an annual revenue below $50,000 and a website that gets a few thousand “hits” per day, AKOS nonetheless provides a portal for bringing people into the Islamist universe.
In both North Macedonia and Bosnia, foreign sponsorship, from Turkey and inter alia Iran, respectively, has been very important in the spread of Islamism. One of the most notable differences is that the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood is publicly contested in Bosnia in a way it is not in North Macedonia, and the reasons for it are equally noteworthy. The Brotherhood has significant official backing in Bosnia, in a way it does not in North Macedonia, which makes it a political issue and inspires opposition.
The fact that in Bosnia there are simply more Muslims, and thus more opinions about what Islam is, and they have majority status, also dilutes the Brotherhood’s power and gives confidence to those advancing other forms of politics, whereas in North Macedonia a smaller, minority community is under greater pressure to avoid schism—and any dissidents are less able to organize without foreign funding, most of which goes to the Brotherhood and its derivatives.
To combat Islamist extremism, it is vital to map out its infrastructure, local and transnational, and this GLOBSEC-CEP report is an excellent start for the Balkans.