Tag Archives: religion

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 http://webtv.un.org/search/the-former-yugoslav-republic-of-macedonia-president-addresses-general-debate-71st-session/5137328970001?term=MACEDONIA

[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 http://www.stat.gov.mk/Publikacii/knigaXIII.pdf

Understanding Lahore: the Dynamics of Religious Minorities in Pakistan

by Laurent Glattli, MEF Association Member

On Sunday 28 March 2016, a suicide attack killed 70 people and wounded 300 in a Lahore park. Responsibility was claimed by a scission from the Pakistani Taliban Movement as an attack against the Christian community of Pakistan. On the same day, in Islamabad, 2,000 people from hard-line Islamist movements protested violently against the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, hanged for assassinating a former Punjab governor who had spoken against the law criminalising blasphemy. Pakistan is a divided country, in which religious minorities (Shia Muslims, Ahmadis, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians) are regularly the targets of attacks by Sunni extremists, and this state of affairs is the result of four decades of instrumentalisation of religion by the political power.

Although Pakistan was founded as a safe home for South Asian Muslims, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, father of the independence, envisioned a country where freedom of religion was guaranteed[1]. To him, Islam was to be understood as a cultural marker to distinguish Pakistanis from Indians, and be a source of national cohesion. Indeed, Pakistan regroups a vast diversity of ethnolinguistic groups. Local identities are strong and have hindered the construction of a national consciousness, even leading to separatist movements[2]. In addition, democracy remains fragile in the country: Pakistan has always oscillated between military and civilian democratic rule, the type of regime changing every decade with a remarkable regularity.

Internal tensions culminated in 1971, when the province of Bengal seceded from Pakistan to form Bangladesh. The trauma caused by the loss of Bengal prompted a revival of Pakistan’s definition as an Islamic country, with religion being a powerful instrument of mobilisation and national cohesion. Accepting demands from Islamic political parties, Prime Minister Bhutto enforced a new Constitution reflecting stricter observance of Islamic rules. On the international stage, he initiated a rapprochement with Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

The rule of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988) was marked by a policy of islamisation of the society. 1979 marked a turning point, Pakistan feeling the shockwave of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, and of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Pakistani secret services (Inter-Services Intelligence, ISI) and the CIA funded, armed, and trained Afghan Mujahedeen in Pakistan’s North Western tribal areas, with the support of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom was also involved in ideological mobilisation by financing the construction of hundreds of madrasas to spread the Wahhabi school of thought. General Zia introduced a parallel justice system based on Sharia law, school books conform to conservative Sunni ideology and a law on blasphemy. All of this paved the way for a rise of Sunni militant groups and the gradual loss of control of Pakistani authorities over them.

The 1990s saw an increased radicalisation of society, and a multiplication of religious signs in public space. While public education lacks means, privately-funded madrasas became more attractive. A 2015 report by Karachi-based NGO HIVE found that the number of madrasas belonging to Deobandi sect (a South Asian Islamic school of thought close to Wahhabism) had risen from 1779 in 1988 to 7000 in 2002, while in the same period, the number of Barelvi madrasas (a sect associated with moderate Sufi Islam) had risen from 717 to only 1585[3].

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Image copyright Wasik Malif

The radicalisation of society on the religious issue has led to what researcher Mariam Abou Zahab[4] has called a movement “self-purification” of the Pakistani society. The “Land of the Pure” (the etymology of Pakistan in Persian) has put a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam as it state religion, at the expense of its religious minorities. Although no recent and reliable demographic statistics exist in Pakistan, it is estimated that 3 to 5 % of its population is not Muslim. After independence, the Hindu population that stayed gradually dwindled to 2 percent today[5]. Part of Pakistani nation-building has consisted in getting rid of Hindu influences in cultural practices, while affirming that Pakistan’s identity was Middle-Eastern rather than South Asian. But the definition of an “Other” did not stop at Hindus: it targeted Ahmadiyya Muslims with a law passed in 1974 declaring them as non-Muslims. Christians form 1.6 % of the population. Since the beginning of the 1980s, they have been increasingly victims of intimidation and harassment made possible by the controversial blasphemy law, and terror attacks target churches since 2009.

Within Islam itself, the term “minority” is used more and more to designate Shia Muslims who make up to 20 to 25 % of the population. Since 1979, Pakistan has been the site of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that uses Shia and Sunni militant groups. These groups mobilised on existing socioeconomic divisions to exacerbate sectarian identities, leading to the radicalisation of the two sides, with Shia forces conducting a two-day siege of Islamabad in 1980 in a recreation of the Battle of Kerbala, involving multiple attacks claimed by Sunni militant groups against Shia mosques, shrines, or houses.

Using extremist militants as a foreign policy tool in Afghanistan and India, the army and the ISI and have been inefficient, if not reluctant, to curb extremist violence on Pakistani soil against minorities. After 9/11 and Pakistan’s decision to help the U.S. in Afghanistan, the Taliban turned against the state. It is finally in 2014, after an attack on Karachi airport claimed by TTP, that the army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb against militant stronghold in North Waziristan. After the Peshawar Army School attack, the operation was completed by a National Action Plan against terrorism.

The Lahore attack is but a reminder that the disastrous situation of Pakistani minorities is the result of four decades of political intrumentalisation of a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam, both by civilian and military authorities. They are now innocent pawns caught in the middle of a deadly battle between the state and terrorists.

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.

[1] Speech at Constituent Assembly, 11 August 1947

[2] Christophe Jaffrelot, Le syndrome pakistanais, Fayard, 2013

[3] The Madrasa Conundrum — The state of religious education in Pakistan, Umair Khalil, Hive, 2015

[4] Conference « Islam et politique au Pakistan » by Mariam Abou Zahab, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris, 12 November 2015

[5] Figures from the 2004 National Census