After the step taken by authorities in many Balkan states to put lots of self-proclaimed imams behind bars for spreading violence online and inciting terrorism, imams from the official, state-approved Islamic communities have decided to join social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to get their message across.
The men of religion are trying to fight what it sees as an abuse of religious thinking.
“We are not terrorists and we love to share baklava [Turkish dessert] with our neighbors,” says one of the messages posted on Facebook by a Belgrade mufti called Mustafa Jusufspahic.
According to the source, Jusufspahic is among the few religious leaders in Serbia who use social media to communicate with his followers.
Posting a photo holding hands with a Catholic and an Orthodox Christian priest, Jusufspahic said in the caption of the photo “God gave us to each other so we would know each other, not make war.”
Another example of an active Imam, as reported by the source is the imam of Tanners Mosque in Tirana, Elvis Naci, whose facebook page has become highly popular among Albanians.
Naci’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, which he uses to communicate his moderate views on Islam and call for peace and understanding among believers in the Balkans, have half million followers at present.
Naci and other moderate religious leaders have been advising their followers to stay away from informal mosques which are not recognized by the Islamic Community, where radical clerics preach extremist interpretations of Islam.
In Macedonia too, the official Islamic community has become much more active on social networks in the past several years. This comes as an attempt to confront or dissuade people with radical views that divert from moderate Islamic teachings.
The spokesperson of the official Islamic community in Macedonia, Goni Vojnika, told sources that numbers of Macedonian imams taking to social networks for this purpose are on the rise.
“We are trying to explain to our believers that ISIS does not represent Islam. Whenever we can, we are condemning terrorism and in particular explaining that violence in the name of religion is not the right way,” Vojnika said, further adding that it is not surprising to see imams taking part in online chats and forums in order to deter people from succumbing to extremist views.
The sources pointed out that four imams are currently in jail in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, serving between seven to 18 years in prison for recruiting people to join the so-called Islamic State and other extreme extremist groups as well as inciting terrorism through their preaching.
In neighboring Kosovo, the authorities arrested 14 imams in the summer of 2014.
So far one of them, Zeqirja Qazimi, an imam in Gjilan, has been convicted and jailed for, among other things, mentoring ISIS fighters including the notorious Lavdrim Muhaxheri, a key commander from Kosovo who died in June.
Shpend Kursani, a researcher at the Kosovar Center for Security Studies, a think-tank, told sources that the way they preach reflects their studies in countries like Saudi Arabia, which propagates and spreads Wahhabi ideology.
Two jailed imams in Albania started their studies in Syria and Jordan and later lived in Saudi Arabia and studied at the Islamic University in Medina.