The challenge of para-jamaats in Bosnia-Herzegovina

By on June 20, 2018

Several issues are at the basis of the phenomenon of violent Islamist radicalisation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and most of them go beyond the sphere of religion and spirituality. A dire economic situation, high unemployment especially among youth, disillusionment towards state institutions and their inability to provide basic welfare services offered a fertile ground for radicalisation, together with the rise of alternative Islamic movements in the country, whose existence dates back from the arrival of Muslim foreign fighters during the war and who have been since then promoted by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf counties and Iran – often through unofficial channels. In Bosnia, these tendencies have often converged in places dubbed ‘para-jamaats’ – Muslim organisations and groups who carry out religious services and teaching outside the authorisation of the official Islamic Community, sometimes operating from private houses and apartments. These unofficial, parallel congregations are led by Islamic missionaries called da’is who studied and graduated in Islamic universities outside of Bosnia, especially in the Gulf, without having the prerequisites to predicate and work under the auspices of the Islamic Community. Da’is tend to propagate an allegedly ‘purer’ version of Islam compared to traditional Bosnian religious identity, which is heavily criticised as apostate, secular and distorted, by often relying on Salafi and Wahhabi teachings as well as funds from Saudi Arabia and Gulf States.

Para-jamaats managed not only to provide a more attractive Islamist narrative to several disenfranchised Bosnian young people, giving them hope and a sense of purpose often lacking in the difficult economic and political context offered by Bosnia. They are also filling the vacuum left by Bosnian institutions in terms of welfare and education, as they are increasingly unable to meet the needs of their citizens (because of political obstructionism, corruption, nepotism and incompetence) through public services. Para-jamaats have established parallel or alternative structures for education, health and social protection, providing services such as kindergartens, daycare, language courses and vocational training, all without any formal approval by authorities or the relevant qualifications. Such parallel congregations have therefore provided the bulk of radicalisation processes underway in Bosnia, as well as recruitment centres for many of those who left the country to join the Islamic State and Al Nusra in Syria and Iraq: the plot for a terrorist attack that should have taken place in Sarajevo in 2015 was allegedly prepared in the para-jamaat of Briješće, a neighbourhood of the Bosnian capital.

In the last few years, the Islamic Community has become extremely aware of the growing appeal radical Islamic teachings have on many Bosnians and their extensive reache throughout the country, involving not just isolated rural communities but urban centres as well. In 2016, following months of negotiations with representatives of 38 para-jamaats (mostly in Sarajevo, Zenica and Tuzla), the Islamic Community proposed an agreement aimed at admitting these congregations in the official Bosnian Islamic institutions. However, only 14 of them agreed to join the Islamic Community and to recognise the authority of its Gran Mufti, while, however, not being forced to align themselves to its official ways of preaching and its moderate messages. Moreover, the other 24 para-jamaats are still free to keep their recruitment activities ongoing, as the authorities do not seem keen either to shut them down or to impose a legal framework to regulate their role and their foreign financing. Without further police and intelligence oversight on the para-jamaats, their potential as hotbeds for violent radicalisation and recruitment remains stronger than ever, especially since the demise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq shifted again the threat of terrorist attacks towards Europe.

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