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Salafism vs. Moderate Islam: A Rhetorical Fight for the Hearts and Minds of Bosnian Muslims


Author: Edina Bećirević

Date of Publication: 2016

Journal / Publisher: Atlantic Initiative, Sarajevo


Purpose of the study

Key questions

The overarching goal of this research was to deepen understandings of radicalization and radicalization processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to identify the drivers or motivating factors of radicalization. 

Design of the study


Data collection was conducted using focus groups, semi-structured individual interviews, consultations with relevant stakeholders, and content analysis of written and recorded Salafi materials.

In this study, the official narrative of the Islamic Community in BiH is rated as moderate, most Salafis are rated as radical in belief and behavior but non-violent, while the teaching in some para-jamaats represents extreme radical views that can and have inspired violence.

Marked as converts because the Salafi interpretation of Islam is so vastly different from traditional Bosnian Islam. Salafi respondents also went to great lengths to explain their otherness in relation to traditional Bosnian Muslims. Though they did not use the word “conversion” per se, they described their acceptance of Salafi teachings as the discovery of “true religion” and the changes they adopted in their lives can most certainly be seen as a conversion


Research and data collection for this study were carried out from November 2015 to May 2016, using a qualitative methodology employing interviews and focus groups.

Number of participants

165 individuals, around half of whom were adherents of Salafism.


Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Type of ‘participant’ 

About half (85) were members of the Bosnian Salafi/Wahhabi community (including men and women of different ages, generally between 20 and 50 years old); 5 were former members of the Salafi/Wahhabi community; 15 were Islamic Community leaders (imams and officials); 40 were Bosnian citizens of different nationalities and political and religious orientations; and 20 were security agency officials, psychologists, social workers, and other relevant experts and professionals.


Understanding mobilisation to fight abroad.

Key findings 

Salafis advise their followers to avoid anything that can provoke desire and lead to sinful deeds, including listening to music and reading anything except the Qur’an, hadiths, or other approved religious literature. Women are advised to wear the niqab and the worlds of women and men are strictly divided

Even though most Salafis do not present a security threat, it has been shown that foreign fighters for the conflict in Syria and Iraq are recruited from the Salafi community

A common feeling expressed by interviewees was one of social alienation,which spurred their need for belonging and social support. In other words, it was their desire to be part of something, as opposed to a rejection of mainstream religion, that led them to seek membership in a Salafi community

A significant portion of online Salafi content does not specifically advocate physical violence, but it challenges existing laws and promotes hatred, especially with respect to gender rights.

The question of Salafi influence on Islamic Community imams and scholars in some parts of Bosnia has not yet been fully addressed. Given the Islamic Community’s new policy of inclusion, it is expected that this problem will become more acute in the future

Key Recommendations 

Most international research on radicalization distinguishes between radicalization of belief and radicalization of behavior that leads to violence, with only the latter treated as a security threat. This study, however, sought to explore how radicalization of belief and radicalization of behavior that does not lead to violence can still present security challenges by offering narratives that create an atmosphere of insecurity or distrust.

Reviewer's Notes

The exposure of the Muslim population in BiH to two competing narratives; traditional Bosnian Islam vs. Salafism, presents a fascinating case for the study of radicalization.

Salafis have been radicalized in a broader sense through their adoption of an ideology that requires they make major changes in the way they practice Islam and live their everyday lives. This interpretation of Islam does not accept the secular notion of the state, and while most Salafis will not engage in violence to impose “pure Islamic law” they are striving in the long term for slow but steady shifts in society. 

Findings indicate that Salafi indoctrination impacts the personal and group identity formation of all adherents, and among a small percentage, inspires violence.

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