GRACANICA, Bosnia (Reuters) - Dozens of breakaway Muslim community groups in Bosnia face shutdown by police for rejecting the authority of the moderate national Islamic organization and radicalizing young men who have left to join Islamist insurgents in Syria, officials said.
Most of Bosnia’s Muslims, known also as Bosniaks, are moderates well integrated in its widely secular society, which also comprises Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.
But during and after Bosnia’s 1990s ethnic war, some came under the sway of foreign Islamist “mujahideen” who slipped in to fight in support of Bosnian Muslims against nationalist Serbs and Croats, fostering more radical forms of Islam.
Echoing the experience of other European countries with Muslim communities, more than 150 Bosnians have gone to fight alongside Islamist militants such as Islamic State in Syria and Iraq over the past few years, police say. More than 50 have returned to Bosnia and about 30 were killed in combat.
Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Mektic said this week that police would soon shut down Muslim community groups that refuse affiliation with the state-recognized Islamic Community organization based in the capital Sarajevo.
“It is correct and true that criminals who have made fascist and violent threats against us from the Middle East have been members of these illegal community groups,” an editorial on the Islamic Community’s website said on Friday.
It was referring to death threats sent via the Internet this week to Bosnia’s top Islamic cleric, Grand Mufti Husein Kavazovic, by a Bosnian believed to be fighting in Syria.
The man who made the threats came from a village adjacent to a breakaway Muslim community, one of 64 in Bosnia, in the northeastern village of Gracanica, according to Bosnian media.
Fikret Duric, the Gracanica community leader, acknowledged that it had adopted a fundamentalist form of Islam but denied any connection with radicalized men going to join Islamic State or other Islamist insurgents in Syria and Iraq.
“They accuse us of organizing departures to foreign wars, which I absolutely deny,” said Duric, 39, sporting a long beard and traditional Islamic robe. “We don’t support the so-called (Islamic State) caliphate and will not help it in any way.”
The official Islamic Community organization has agreed to negotiations with dissident local groups that face having their centers of worship and study sealed by police in coming days.
But it defended the crackdown as vital to restoring order and unity among its faithful - who make up almost half of Bosnia’s population - and allow it to vouch for all its members.
“We live in a world where radical Muslims take actions with undesirable consequences, and the Islamic Community has decided to take stock of what we have in Bosnia, start a dialogue with them and call on them to come under our roof,” senior Islamic Community official Razim Colic told Reuters.
But Duric said tensions had been raised by repeated police harassment of his community. He said some members had been forcibly removed by police from their mosque after they stayed on for Koranic studies following prayers.
Dissident Muslims want mosques to be open 24 hours, one of their disputes with the mainstream Islamic Community.
“Going back under the Islamic Community roof would mean returning to where we started, but I fear that this time the problem may be bigger because our believers have got used to the freedom they have here,” Duric said.
Additonal reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Editing by Mark Heinrich