Are we witnessing religious radicalization in the Balkans? The case of the Republic of Macedonia

By Shad Joynal-Abedin, Participant in the G-20 at BEF 2016.

On September 22 2016, the President of Macedonia, Gjorge Ivanov, addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations during the 71st session of the General Debate. In his address, the number one issue the President mentioned was terrorism[i]. At first sight, this concern may seem surprising for an outsider who sees the Balkans as a place of religious moderation. However approximately 875 foreign fighters from Western Balkans countries have joined terrorist organizations such as ISIL or Jabhat al-Nusra[ii] and countries such as Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia are the most exposed.

Western Balkan Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq

Country Official estimate Last update Unofficial estimate
Albania 90 May 2015 200
BiH 217 October 2015 330
Montenegro September 2014 30
Kosovo 232 October 2015 300
Macedonia 146 August 2015 100
Serbia 50 July 2015 70

Source: The Soufan Group, December 2015

Religious radicalization in Macedonia

Macedonia is a small multiethnic and multi-religious state of two million inhabitants located in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula. 64% of the population is Orthodox Christian, whereas 35% of the population is Muslim, mostly Sunni, following the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. Ethnic Albanians represent 70% of Muslims in Macedonia but almost all the radicalized fighters. Behind the radicalization of a minority of this minority, what is the bigger picture?

Religious affiliation in Macedonia[iii]

Ethnic affiliation Official estimate Percentage of the total population Predominant religion
Macedonian 1 297 981 64% Orthodoxy
Albanian 509 083 25% Islam
Turks 77 959 4% Islam
Rhomas 53 879 3% Islam
Torbeši (ethnic Macedonian Muslims) 40 000 2% Islam
Bosnians 17 018 0,9% Islam

Source: National census of 2002 . This census has not been updated since 2002 due to political disagreements regarding the organization of a new census.

Beyond the symptoms, what are the causes of religious radicalization?

The radicalization of individuals is often linked to a lack of social inclusion, explained by discrimination and injustice. The situation of Macedonia offers great illustrations:

  • Interethnic divisions: Macedonia is a divided nation where ethnic stereotyping is rampant. Ethnic Albanians tend to blame ethnic Macedonians for being treated as second class citizens while ethnic Macedonians all too often tend to judge ethnic Albanians by their worst examples.
  • The political crisis: Macedonia is undergoing a political crisis which has been weakening its institutions since 2015. This crisis started in the midst of a wiretapping scandal orchestrated by the incumbent government and a police brutality case against a student. The incidents trigged the “Colorful Revolution” – a movement of protest against corruption and the impunity of the political elite.
  • The economic situation: Despite a 3% growth rate since 2013, Macedonia has one of the highest unemployment rate of the Balkans (25% unemployment rate, 50% youth unemployment rate). This situation creates exclusion and undermines the integration of all ethnic groups.
  • The organization of Islam: In Macedonia there is a national body called the “Islamic Community” (IVZ) who is currently in charge of organizing Islam by running mosques and training imams. This body is however losing its influence, and radical actors are tempted to occupy the empty space by playing the religious card to redefine Islam in the country.
Copyright: TheFAIR1 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Copyright: TheFAIR1 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

What are the consequences?

The birth of ISIL in the Levant in June 2014 has been luring radicalized fighters across the Balkans who do not fit in their respective societies. This has far reaching effects, as these fighters believe that it is the duty of every Balkan Muslim to liberate Syria from the Assad regime. This war in Syria is seen as a war of liberation and has been compared to the wars of the “liberation of Bosnia” (1992-1995) and “liberation of Kosovo” (1998-1999). It is for this reason that a propaganda video in Albanian language was released by ISIL in June 2015, which was designed to specifically target Muslims from Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia.

As yet the UN has not been able to implement a ceasefire in Syria as was planned in 2015 in Resolution 2254. In turn, the longer the war lasts, the more likely it is that the influx of radicalized fighters will continue to increase. At the same time, the weaker ISIL becomes, the more foreign fighters will return to Macedonia using the Balkan route.

In order to counter these worrying developments, policy makers will need to cooperate with religious leaders, parents and teachers to define a reintegration system and spread awareness. Knowing that in the case of Macedonia, home-grown religious radicalization has more to do with politics than religion, possible solutions will need to focus on fixing interethnic relations rather than promoting a clash of religions.

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.

[i] President Ivanov’s full speech during the 71st Session of the General Assembly of the UN

[ii] The Soufan Group, December 2015 quoted in The new lure of the Syrian war – The foreign fighters’ Bosnian contingent by Vlado Azinović and Muhamed Jusić, Sarajevo, 2016, p.18

[iii] Census of Population, Households and Dwellings 2002, p.34

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