Balkan Imams and religious organizations wage an online war against extremism.

August 1, 2017 11:26 amViews: 13

A report that was published on July 10, 2017 entitled “Balkan Imams Take Counter-Extremism Struggle Online” examines how Balkan imams have taken up a strong stance against terrorism and have committed to countering the ISIS online rhetoric in hopes of saving as many young Muslim hearts and minds.

Ever since dozens of self-proclaimed imams have been prosecuted for recruiting fighters, state-backed religious organizations have joined the online fight to educate and enlighten young Muslims and make sure they do not fall in the traps of terrorist groups like ISIS that are extremely active on social network pages and other online platforms.

A Belgrade mufti called Mustafa Jusufspahic is among the few religious leaders in Serbia who use social media to communicate with their followers. In a caption to a photo he posted on Twitter of him holding hands with a Catholic and an Orthodox Christian priest, Jusufspahic wrote, “God gave us to each other so we could know each other, not make war.” The Balkans have always been a melting pot of various religions, and until recently, most religious leaders used traditional ways to communicate their beliefs through sermons at their churches, synagogues, and mosques. Following the decision by authorities to detain self-proclaimed imams for spreading violence online and inciting terrorism, imams from official and state-approved Islamic communities have risen to the challenge and joined Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube to get their messages across.

Another example is the Facebook page of the imam of Tanners Mosque in Tirana, Elvis Naci, who has become highly popular among Albanians. He uses his Facebook and Instagram accounts to communicate his moderate views with over half a million followers, among whom is the Albanian football star Lorik Cana, who often comments on Naci’s posts. Naci often takes to his accounts to call for peace and understanding among believers in the Balkans.

Ylly Gurra, a Tirana mufti and representative of the official Albanian Islamic Community to which Naci also belongs, says that imams who oversee religious life in Tirana and Albania in general have been advising their followers to stay away from informal mosques that are not recognized by the Islamic Community. Gurra warns against such mosques where radical clerics preach extremist interpretations of Islam, and he often uses social media to give counter-narrative arguments when Islam is incorrectly preached online.

In neighboring Macedonia, the official Islamic community has in the past several years become much more active on social network pages in an attempt to confront and deter people with radical views that divert from moderate Islamic teachings. Its spokesperson Goni Vojnika told BIRN (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network) that an increasing number of Macedonian imams, including the head of the Islamic Community of Macedonia (IVZ), Sulejman Rexhepi, are taking to social network pages for this purpose. Vojnika said, “We are trying to explain to our believers that ISIS does not represent Islam and that the IVZ has always been against any conflicts or wars. Whenever we can, we are condemning terrorism and explaining that violence in the name of religion is not the right way”. Vojnika added that it is not rare for imams to participate in online chats when radical ideas are being propagated in order to try to deter or warn people from succumbing to such views.

Authorities in the Balkans are showing no tolerance or mercy and are prosecuting the so-called imams who abuse places of worship to radicalize youth and recruit them to join the ranks of ISIS in hotbeds of tension abroad. Four imams are currently in jail in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia and are serving between seven to 18 years in prison for recruiting people and inciting terrorism. Albanian courts in May 2016 jailed imam Bujar Hysa for 18 years and his colleague Genci Balla for 17 years. Authorities in neighboring Kosovo arrested 14 imams in the summer of 2014. In Macedonia, Rexhep Memishi, an imam at two mosques in Skopje, was jailed for seven years in March 2016.

All those arrested and jailed represent a hardline and radical form of Islam. Three of them studied and lived for years in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. Shpend Kursani, a researcher at the Kosovar Center for Security Studies, a think-tank, told BIRN that the way they preach reflects their studies in countries like Saudi Arabia.

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