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Kosovo Seeks To Root Out Radical Islam In Prison System

  • Amra Zejneli
  • Pete Baumgartner

Fighters from the Balkans, including from Kosovo, appear in a propaganda video produced by the Islamic State extremist group in July 2015.

Fighters from the Balkans, including from Kosovo, appear in a propaganda video produced by the Islamic State extremist group in July 2015.

PRISTINA -- Kosovo is trying to counter a perceived radicalization threat within its prison population amid reports of a surge in the embrace of more radical beliefs by practicing Muslims and others.

A tide of conservative Islam in society has been eyed suspiciously by the government in this predominantly Muslim, secular state with a tradition of religious moderation.

Now, dozens of Kosovars who returned from the Middle East -- and individuals who worked in Kosovo as recruiters for extremist groups -- have been imprisoned under a new law that punishes involvement in terrorist activities with prison sentences of between five and 15 years.

More returnees have either been arrested or are under investigation for recruiting extremist militants or fighting abroad.

"Not only those who are convicted of terrorism have been radicalized," Justice Minister Dhurata Hoxha said recently. "There are also prisoners who were convicted of other crimes who are serving their sentences and in whom we have observed a radicalization."

The Justice Ministry cited an increase in the number of inmates with radical Islamic beliefs, including many in prison for non-terror-related crimes.

The crackdown reflects a desire in Europe's newest state to defend fledgling secular institutions and safeguard a population of around 1.9 million people from antistate movements masquerading as religion.

But Pristina's antiradicalization efforts could also provide lessons for governments around the world as they try to counter religiously fueled extremism in the age of digital propaganda and with Islamic State (IS) militants and other fighters returning from battlefields in Iraq, Syria, and other theaters of conflict.

Working With Religious Officials

More than 300 Kosovar nationals have traveled to Syria or Iraq to fight alongside the IS militant group and other extremists, making Kosovo the continent's leading per capita contributor to membership in radical Islamic movements.

Officials in Kosovo say they have traced some of the uptick in radicalization to prison visits by conservative imams and radical Islamist literature circulating among inmates.

A group led by Kosovo's chief mufti, Sabri Bajgora, evaluates suspect books and publications.

A group led by Kosovo's chief mufti, Sabri Bajgora, evaluates suspect books and publications.

That led to Justice Ministry officials and the independent Kosovo Islamic Community (KKI) -- an institution led by muftis, who interpret Islamic law, that oversees Islamic affairs in Kosovo -- to begin cooperating in an effort to prevent the spread of radical Islam among convicts.

Fatmir Iljazi, the country's deputy chief imam, tells RFE/RL that the KKI agreed with the government to inspect the literature available in nine prisons. A group led by Kosovo's chief mufti, Sabri Bajgora, then evaluates suspect books and publications.

"We found books that were translated from Arabic but had no authors or were written by authors unknown by the [listed] publishing house," Iljazi says, adding that many such books were withdrawn from prison libraries. "Lots of books were inadequate for the penitentiary system, so we provided books that describe traditional Islam -- the kind that has been present in Kosovo for 600 years."

Iljazi says the KKI also agreed to hand-pick -- in consultation with the Justice Ministry and prison officials -- imams that will visit prisons, presumably as part of the attempt to keep radical Muslim clerics away from convicts.

Jailing Imams

There have been prosecutions of Kosovar imams for their hard-line views.

An imam from Kosovo's third-largest city, Ferizaj, was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison for publicly spreading hatred and inciting ethnic and religious hostility. The cleric, Zeqirja Qazimi, can be seen in a YouTube video from 2013 saying that "the blood of the infidels is our best drink."

Several other imams have been indicted recently for alleged radical statements or extremist leanings, including Imam Shefqet Krasniqi from Pristina's Sultan Mehmet Fatih, the Kosovar capital's main mosque, who was charged on February 27.

Kosovo officials last year shut down a network of five Shi'ite organizations run by Iranian cleric Hasan Azari Bejandi, who was later charged with money laundering and financing terrorism.

Shefqet Krasniqi, imam of the Grand Mosque in Pristina, was charged in February.

Shefqet Krasniqi, imam of the Grand Mosque in Pristina, was charged in February.

Social Roots

Iljazi says unemployment, poverty, the uncontrolled publication of radical Islamic literature, and easy access to online media have led people "to deviate" from Islam as it was traditionally practiced in Kosovo.

The jobless rate in Kosovo has hovered above 30 percent since 2011 and can easily top 50 percent in some rural areas, a hotbed for foreign Islamic organizations operating as charities but whose main aim is to indoctrinate young Kosovar men.

Kosovar officials closed 14 such charities in 2014, all of them funded by Middle East states -- including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf states -- and several suspected of ties to extremist groups.

Critics say the KKI has been too lax in regulating unofficial mosques and unregistered religious schools.

Officials acknowledge that the presence of such sites is another issue that needs to be addressed to fight radical Islam in Kosovo.

Kosovar Interior Minister Skender Hyseni said on February 28 that the "type of Islam that we have practiced in Kosovo, our traditional Islam, is a good religion, a religion that calls for peace, for love between people, and understanding. We must not let -- excuse the language -- a group of idiots endanger our values."

Some observers question whether, the efforts by Kosovar officials to change the environment in penitentiaries notwithstanding, society-wide changes are what's truly needed.

"Prisons are always problematic...and become a kind of university for militants," says David Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-Building and Rights at Columbia University. "What is needed is to give people hope in the future, skills and economic opportunities in order to give them a sense there is something to do with their lives other than to turn to religious extremism."

Written by Pete Baumgartner based on reporting by Amra Zejneli of RFE/RL's Balkan Service
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    Pete Baumgartner

    Pete Baumgartner is a senior correspondent who covers sports and writes about events in Central Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He can be reached at baumgartnerp@rferl.org

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