TCS Daily

Balking at Violence

By T.K. Vogel - February 10, 2006 12:00 AM

Whatever transmission mechanism may have helped a bunch of Danish cartoons inflame public opinion in the Middle East and Western Europe must have bypassed the Balkans. Europe's oldest indigenous Muslim communities seemed to have little appetite for the anger witnessed in Lebanon, Syria, or Palestine, nor indeed for the angst-ridden debates between secularists and believers that took place in Western Europe. Their protests sounded of ritual rather than fear and loathing.

Balkan Muslims differ from their co-religionists in the Middle East and in Western Europe in at least two crucial respects. Unlike the citizens of Syria, Egypt, or Palestine they live in free societies. And unlike Muslims in the United Kingdom, France, or Germany they are not members of a beleaguered and often despised underclass who are, or at least feel, excluded from mainstream social, political, and economic life. (In social and economic terms, Muslims in Bulgaria and Macedonia are to some extent exceptions to that rule, not least because they tend to belong to ethnic minorities as well -- Turks in Bulgaria, Albanians in Macedonia. But following Bulgaria's attempted assimilation and expulsion of its Turkish minority during the last stages of Communist rule and a brief civil war in Macedonia in 2001, both countries are now taking care to include their minorities in the political process.)

Living in freedom also means that Muslim leaders in the Balkans tend to work with the authorities rather than against them. In the Middle East, officially sanctioned Islam -- in itself often rigid and intolerant -- is frequently shunted by believers in favor of more genuine, and even more radical, clerics. But there is no serious Islamist opposition to the current rulers along the Egyptian or Syrian model anywhere in the Balkans, nor are there disaffected masses of unemployed and excluded slum-dwellers that can be mobilized at a moment's notice. Add to that the traditionally relaxed outlook of Balkan Islam, and one gets the ingredients for societies that, despite the serious social divisions that exist inside them, are essentially functional and stable.

This is of course all the more remarkable since Balkan Muslims have been subject to three waves of "ethnic cleansing" over the past 20 years or so. The first was a campaign by Bulgaria's Communists to assimilate or expel its Turkish minority. According to Mark Mazower, a historian of the region, around 300,000 ethnic Turks fled to neighboring Turkey in 1989 alone, though nearly 130,000 returned after the fall of Communism. Throughout the 1990s, ethnic Albanians (most of them Muslim but including quite a few Christians as well) were brutally oppressed by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, prompting NATO to finally intervene in 1999. And between 1992 and 1995, Bosnia's Muslim population was decimated in a genocidal campaign by Serbian forces (and a smaller campaign by Croats that was locally as vicious).

These are people with fairly raw feelings, then. But while that could have turned the Balkans into a fertile ground for Islamic extremism, few followed the calls of the Wahhabi impostors. Wednesday's cartoon demonstration in Sarajevo with its burning of the Danish, Norwegian, French, and Croatian flags and its racially loaded and anti-Semitic slogans was not a pretty sight. (Croatian flags were burned since a newsweekly there had published some of the cartoons.) But it wasn't a real threat to anyone and certainly doesn't mean that Bosnian Muslims have suddenly gone jihadist. The same goes for the reaction in Bulgaria, where newspapers had also reproduced the controversial drawings.

With all the layers of manipulation peeled off, what remains is an overwhelming feeling of pain among Muslim believers in the Balkans at the tasteless depiction of their Prophet by a Western newspaper pushing an obvious political agenda. But such feelings are entirely legitimate and worlds apart from those scribbled on the placards seen in London last week. Yes, the London demonstrators were a lunatic fringe. But the fact remains that not even among some of the most traumatized Muslim communities in Europe was it possible to whip up the hatred and violence seen in London, and not for want of trying.

For all is not well in the Balkans. Sarajevo's King Fahd mosque, built with Saudi money, has been a focal point of investigators for some years now. Several Bosnian citizens arrested on suspicion of terrorism -- including Arabs who fought alongside Bosnian government forces during the war and were rewarded with citizenship later on -- had links to the mosque and to Saudi charities that may have acted as front organizations for illegal activities. Of particular concern is the fact that the mosque stands outside the official structures of the Islamic community in Bosnia and in effect enjoys extraterritorial status, a fact that was confirmed by the local mayor earlier this month. Arrests last year and the discovery of equipment for suicide attacks jolted the Bosnian public out of its complacency, though the investigation is ongoing and no final conclusions have been made.

Accusations of Wahhabi parallel structures or indeed their infiltration of official Islam have also been made in Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria, though doctrinal disagreements often serve as a smokescreen for good old power politics. (A brief survey of these developments can be found here.)

While any blanket judgment of Balkan Islam is necessarily provisional given the dynamic nature of current political and social life in the region, and the global instability in which it's embedded, the reaction to the cartoon controversy is one more indication that Western Europe has nothing to fear from Muslims there -- certainly not more than from the Muslims in its midst.

The author is a South-East Europe editor with Transitions Online (, a newsweekly covering the post-Communist world. He has written for the Wall Street Journal Europe, the International Herald Tribune, and the Neue Z├╝rcher Zeitung. He lived in Sarajevo between 1999 and 2005.


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