The Rise of Religious Radicalisation among Diaspora Albanians

Neglected by their ‘homelands’, some diaspora Albanians are being targeted for religious radicalisation as they seek to connect and reinforce a sense of identity in adoptive states where they do not necessarily feel at home.
By Ebi Spahiu

Since the onset of the conflict in Syria, thousands of people from different countries around the world have joined the conflict in response to worldwide calls to help opposition groups topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

One of them was ISIS, a new group that emerged out of Al-Qaeda’s former wing, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and which grew to rival other Islamist organisations in the Middle East by declaring a new ‘state’ in territories the group occupied in Syria and Iraq, under the banner of the Islamic State.

More than 1,000 citizens from the Western Balkans also joined this call, providing active combatants and their families in order to build a caliphate under Sharia law and the control of the Islamic State.

Although the Western Balkans was not the only region from which followers joined ISIS, the issue gained significant attention due to the presence of indigenous Muslim populations across the region who, over the past few decades, have come under the influence of Salafi and Wahabbi ideologies originating primarily in Gulf countries with offers of lucrative support for local groups and religious foundations.

Within a few years, ISIS suffered serious defeats and territorial losses, throwing into doubt the level of threat it continues to pose on the world stage.

The Balkan region and other parts of Europe continue to debate approaches and methods to prevent future recruitment, potential terrorist attacks and the possibility of rehabilitation and reintegration offered to families and former fighters returning from conflict areas.

Literature and research produced on the matter has delved into some of these questions, but there are still divides over prerogatives that make terrorist groups successful in attracting followers who are willing and committed to carry out violent acts in the name of religious or political ideologies.

In the Western Balkans, research suggests that socio-economic conditions and levels of education contribute to a community’s or individual’s susceptibility to radicalisation, but this prerogative continues to be widely disputed as individual profiles of members of militant groups offer details of a broader demographic.

This research project observes manifestations of religious radicalisation among ethnic Albanian communities in the diaspora and potential links to recent manifestations of the phenomenon in the Western Balkans.

Religion challenging nationalism as unifier

The project idea derived from increasing indications that religious influences and narratives employed to attract followers to militant organisations operating in the Middle East were similarly impacting Diaspora communities in Europe.

The author chose to look at the ethnic Albanian community in the diaspora because of its unique standing and historical features, but also because – as this research finds – religious radicalisation is a recent phenomenon for the ethnic Albanian diaspora living in Europe that requires more attention from field experts.

Hence, the research aims to find manifestations of the phenomenon in local communities, places of congregation, levels of influence and the type of reactions local communities have shown towards these challenges.

Research and interviews in the field, including with community leaders in Italy, Switzerland and Germany, show that religious congregations provide opportunities for ethnic Albanian diaspora members to meet and offer significant social capital in the face of increasing cultural marginalisation and heightened right-wing rhetoric targeting nationals from the Western Balkans.

Some of these congregations are vulnerable to radicalisation. From initial observations, this paper finds that questions of identity are exploited to increase influence and gain support.

Many religious congregations have created vast networks for maintaining cultural and identity ties and, in the absence of other means, this is crucial for many Albanians who seek to continue safeguarding their identity.

Nationalism remains a more important element for the unification of ethnic Albanian diaspora communities, but religious ideology is increasingly seen as overlapping and creating controversial political narratives and space for engagement.

The ethnic Albanian diaspora community has limited past experience with religious radicalisation and experts suggest that funds coming from Gulf countries are similarly targeting Albanian mosques to import more conservative strains of Islamist preaching not only in the region but the beyond borders of the Western Balkans.

Nonetheless, religious communities offer an opportunity to bring together ethnic Albanians who find themselves away from home and struggling to integrate in their host societies, especially in the face of a hostile environment following the rise of right-wing groups in Europe.

Despite challenges the diaspora faces and the potential they can offer to home countries, diaspora communities are critical of governments in their home countries for not offering opportunities to participate in social and political developments at home.

This article is based on the research paper ‘Religious Radicalisation in the Albanian Diaspora’. To read the full report, click here.

Ebi Spahiu is a researcher and social scientist with extensive experience in the not-for-profit sector, with her work having taken her to East Asia, Central Asia, and the Western Balkans.

She is currently serving as an adjunct professor at the Faculty for Security Studies and Civil Society at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany.

This article has been produced as part of the Resonant Voices Initiative in the EU, funded by the European Union’s Internal Security Fund – Police.

The content of this story represents the views of the author and is the sole responsibility of BIRN. The European Commission does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.