Rad­i­cal Ism breeds in deprived corner of Ser­bia

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

In a coun­try proud of its Ortho­dox Chris­tian­ity, the Ser­bian city of Novi Pazar is a place apart: young bearded men in an­kle-length trousers stroll the streets, the restau­rants don’t serve al­co­hol, and the call of the muezzin punc­tu­ates the daily rou­tine. Faced with mas­sive un­em­ploy­ment and a feel­ing of ex­clu­sion against the back­drop of the Syr­ian war, this Mus­lim ma­jor­ity area of south­west Ser­bia has be­come a breed­ing ground for Is­lamist ex­trem­ists.

“Death in the way of Al­lah in Syria, 14 May 2013, aged 27” was a no­tice once posted on the con­crete walls of Novi Pazar, which lies in the re­gion of Sandzak. Killed in Aleppo, El­dar Kun­dakovic used to be one of the young men aim­lessly strolling the town, where around half of the 100,000 res­i­dents are job­less and a third of the pop­u­la­tion is un­der the age of 19, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est cen­sus.

Kun­dakovic, who be­longed to the ultra-con­ser­va­tive Salafist move­ment, di­vided his time between prayer rooms and the tai­lor shop run by his fa­ther, who since the death of his son has spent time at mosques try­ing to dis­suade young­sters from be­com­ing vi­o­lent rad­i­cals. Novi Pazar is a city with­out an air­port or train sta­tion, served by bad roads and en­closed by moun­tains, where the poverty rate is 50 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to Ser­bia’s sta­tis­tics in­sti­tute, mak­ing the Sandzak re­gion the most deprived area of the Balkan coun­try. A cen­tre of tex­tiles and com­merce, it did not with­stand the bloody breakup of Yu­goslavia in the 1990s. A large num­ber of the ware­houses which em­ployed thou­sands of work­ers fell into dis­use.

‘Silent rad­i­cal­iza­tion’

Ser­bia es­ti­mates around 40 of its cit­i­zens have left to join the ji­had in Syria and Iraq, some of whom have since re­turned or died there. They were mostly ei­ther youths from the Sandzak re­gion or mem­bers of the eth­nic Al­ba­nian com­mu­nity in the neigh­bor­ing Pre­sevo val­ley. Those who re­turn are mon­i­tored by pow­er­ful in­tel­li­gence ser­vices that date back to the Yu­goslav era. East­ward de­par­tures have dropped off since the Is­lamic State group has be­gun to re­treat.

But the pres­ence of Salafist “humanitarian or­ga­ni­za­tions”, osten­si­bly help­ing the needy in Sandzak, have be­come a cause of con­cern. In an April 2015 re­port, Da­maD, a lo­cal cul­tural cen­tre, said these groups had “com­pletely iso­lated them­selves from the rest of so­ci­ety” and were “com­mit­ted to very con­ser­va­tive views on re­li­gion which sup­port ji­hadist fights”. The re­gion’s of­fi­cial Is­lamic au­thor­i­ties have mean­while be­come weaker af­ter split­ting into two ri­val struc­tures.

Ac­cord­ing to Ser­bian me­dia, youths who left for Syria fre­quented in par­tic­u­lar an as­so­ci­a­tion called Furkan, whose fol­low­ers are linked to a hard­line Wah­habi com­mu­nity in north­east­ern Bos­nia. One of them fired shots at the US em­bassy in Sara­jevo in Oc­to­ber 2011. In 2014, the as­so­ci­a­tion dis­ap­peared af­ter the dis­man­tling of a ji­hadist net­work whose mem­bers were also part of Furkan. “But where are the peo­ple who were part of it?” asked Fahrudin Klad­ni­canin of Fo­rum10, an ini­tia­tive deal­ing with in­te­gra­tion is­sues. “A lot of young peo­ple par­tic­i­pated in their ac­tiv­i­ties, their con­fer­ences. I think that... they are still work­ing on silent rad­i­cal­iza­tion of some young­sters.”

‘Dou­ble stan­dards’

In his pizze­ria close to the city’s foot­ball sta­dium, 44-year-old Ad­mir, who de­clined to give his last name, ac­knowl­edged that “pen­ni­less stu­dents” re­ceive aid from his reli­gious as­so­ci­a­tion “Put Sre­dine” (The Mid­dle Way). He de­nied any for­eign fi­nanc­ing, claim­ing his as­so­ci­a­tion ran on money from its mem­bers. He also re­jects vi­o­lence, but ex­pressed dis­gust to­wards Shi­ites, “a sect”, and Is­rael, “the world’s big­gest ter­ror­ist”.

But what Novi Pazar needs most is devel­op­ment, says Klad­ni­canin of Fo­rum10. “In last 10 years there has been no in­vest­ment in Sandzak, not a sin­gle fac­tory was opened,” he said. City Mayor Ni­hat Bi­se­vac says it was more re­al­is­tic to rely on fi­nan­cial sup­port from Sandzak’s di­as­pora, which re­mains deeply in­volved in Novi Pazar-as is clear from the large num­ber of for­eign car reg­is­tra­tion plates. Still, an­other hope for the fu­ture is a planned high­way between the Mon­tene­grin port of Bar and the Ser­bian cap­i­tal Bel­grade, which is likely to pass near Novi Pazar. — AFP

NOVI PAZAR: Esad Kun­dakovic (3rd right) prays at the cen­tral mosque in Novi Pazar in south­ern Ser­bia. Esad, fa­ther of late El­dar Kun­dakovic, who died in 2013 while fight­ing in Aleppo on the side of the Is­lamic State (IS) group, says that he couldn’t stop his son from go­ing to war but now spends most of his time ex­plain­ing to other Mus­lim youth how point­less was his son’s death. —AFP

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