The leader of Bosnia’s Muslim community this week vowed to continue fighting radicalization via education and sustained pressure on extremist offshoots within the small Balkan nation.

After a recent meeting with White House and State Department officials, Grand Mufti Husein Kavazovic told VOA in an exclusive interview that he felt reassured that the new administration supports Bosnian unity and sovereignty, and the Balkan nation’s efforts against radicalization abroad.

Last week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hosted 68 foreign ministers and other leaders from around the world to discuss a global coalition strategy to defeat Islamic State militants. Bosnia’s foreign minister also attended the meeting.

“We try to show the right path to our Muslims wherever we can, constantly pointing out dangers of extremism of any kind, and how un-Islamic it is,” Kazazovic told VOA. “We also organize gatherings and conferences for our students, with students from Catholic and orthodox schools and universities in Bosnia. And we preach in our mosques what Bosnia has been forever: different cultures and faiths in one place, which makes it very fortunate and rich.”

Radicalization in 1990s

In Bosnia, where Muslims represent the largest faith community, militant Islam was nearly nonexistent until the 1990s Balkans wars, when radicalized Arab Muslim mercenaries intervened to help battle Serb forces. Some foreign extremists who stayed in Bosnia embraced a radical brand of Islam that Kavazovic has adamantly opposed.

Kavazovic has warned Bosnians against succumbing to fanatical rhetoric aimed at recruiting fighters into Syria and Iraq. In 2015, one of his own imams was repeatedly, violently attacked by extremists for refusing to use Bosnia’s Muslim pulpit as a platform for espousing a radical agenda.

According to intelligence agencies, more than 200 radicalized Bosnians have traveled to Syria and Iraq since 2012, where they fought with jihadist groups, including Islamic State. Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Mektic told VOA in December that about a third of them have been killed. More than 40 fighters returned to Bosnia, where they were all investigated and processed. Bosnia introduced a law two years ago that imposes strong sanctions against those who fight abroad or recruit others to do so.

In 2016, Bosnia’s Ministry of Security found that munitions from Bosnia were used in the January 2015 attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and that some Yugoslav-made weapons were used in the November 13 Paris attacks that same year.

Extremists marginalized

Asked about so-called para-mosques, new places of worship in Bosnia formed by followers of the radical Wahhabi version of Islam, Kavazovic said his organization is continuing efforts to marginalize the groups.

“We wanted to send clear message,” he said of a recent move to exclude them from Bosnia’s official Muslim community.

“The Islamic community cannot have members who are tightly closed, not transparent, [and] who do not respond to the community, so we do not know what they preach [or] what their goal is,” he said. “Of course, human rights and rights to worship must be respected, but we must know if there is a violent side to their preaching, or something that will damage society. Eventually, some of these groups came back to the community, and those who did not, about 20 of them, are monitored by the authorities.”

Kavazovic’s meetings with U.S. officials were arranged by the Bosnian Embassy in Washington.

In St. Louis, which is home to the largest Bosnian diaspora in the United States, imams recently hosted an open house dubbed “Make America Whole Again,” in which Republicans and supporters of President Donald Trump were invited to visit a new mosque and learn more about Islamic culture, but few attended.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Bosnian Service.

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