Foreign Policy Blogs

Islam in Belgrade, Serbia in the EU?

Serbia's history is evident everywhere – and shaping its transition to a future in the EU.

Serbia’s history is evident everywhere – and shaping its transition to a future in the EU.

(This is the second in a series of “Serbia: Snapshots” – considerations of different aspects of Serbian society as it approaches the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Accords, which ended the wars in Bosnia.)

Along Belgrade’s pedestrian boulevard, one finds a small display of artifacts from the city of Singidunum – founded by Celts, conquered by Romans, and now buried below.  Belgrade’s Kalamegdan Fortress was rebuilt by the Byzantines in the 6th century CE. Over the next 1,400 years it was ruled by Serbs, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Austrians, Ottomans and Yugoslavs; now it hosts a museum and a park. In Novi Sad, the Austrians took Petrovaradin Fortress from the Ottomans, rebuilt it, and used it to defend Central Europe from its former owners.  Now, it hosts a major annual European music festival. The Turks, meanwhile, built the fortress in Niš on the site of former Roman and Byzantine defenses, where it now protects an ancient church, gift shop, and art gallery.

But a long tour of Central European history is all secondary to a single event, the 1389 Battle of Kosovo.  Rebecca West introduced us to the Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in 1941. Robert Kaplan took us, and President Bill Clinton, to revisit the Balkan Ghosts in the early 1990s. Slobodan Milošević issued rallying cries of Serbian nationalism from Kosovo in 1987 and 1989. While the rest of Central and Eastern Europe was moving toward economic and political reform, Milošević led the Serbs backward to the wars of prior centuries. The 1990s war in Bosnia, the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, and ultimately Kosovo’s independence all stung more sharply because of the links to that Ottoman defeat of the Serbs that continues to shape foreign policy and political psychology six centuries on.

Serbs have not forgotten that the United States and most of the EU were on the “wrong” side of each of the more recent developments; some of the government buildings remain damaged from 1999.  But there are signs that Serbia, the U.S., and the EU are all moving forward. Serbia is committed to membership in the EU, and has made considerable progress.

In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the United States is “committed to working closely with the European Union to support Serbia’s membership in the EU.”In February 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry echoed this, noting that the United States remains “committed to supporting Serbia’s full integration into European institutions.”

EU leaders have sent a similar message. In March 2015, Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stated, “My message will be clear – Serbia is firmly on its path towards the EU.” This was consistent with the 2012 message of the previous EU high representative, Catherine Ashton:  “[I am confirming our] commitment towards Serbia and its future in the European Union. I say again: Serbia’s future is in the European Union.”

These many meetings, of course, were meant to address Serbia’s continued progress, especially with respect to fully normalized relations with Kosovo.


If the story from Belgrade is any indication, normalization will be difficult but possible.

The U.S. Department of State’s latest Report on International Religious Freedom describes a Serbia that recognizes the importance of religious freedom, and goes most of the way – but not all – to protecting it. Serbian law recognizes seven traditional religious groups, including the Serbian Orthodox Church (to whom the Report says the Government gives special treatment), Roman Catholics, some other Christian groups, the Jewish community, and the Muslim community.

The report noted vandalism against cemeteries, an attack on an imam, and the smashing of windows of a new halal shop in Belgrade. And it noted that all nine defendants were acquitted of setting fire to the historic Bajrakli Mosque in Belgrade. (Three were convicted of rioting and attacking police.)

At this halal shop, founded with the help of USAID, I found someone to talk about the mosque across the street, and about Islam in Belgrade. The mosque was built in 1574, and renamed Bajrakli by its members for the flag that flew over it. It was once nearly converted to a church, and in 2004 was attacked in reaction to the burning of churches in Kosovo.  It is the only mosque remaining in Belgrade, of more than 200 that once existed. Now, our host told us, it hosts between 1,000 and 1,500 worshipers each week for Friday prayers, and has classes to teach children and adults the Koran.  There are another dozen places in the city that are used for prayers, to serve the 30,000 to 60,000 Muslims in Belgrade. Serbia recently created a military chaplain corps; of the ten new chaplains, one was an imam.

I asked if there were any problems for Muslims in Belgrade. No, he reported, not usually; only when there are specific incidents. The last time, he said, was in October 2014, when a drone flew the Albanian flag over the Euro 2016 soccer match between Serbia and Albania in Belgrade. Echoes of 1389….

(With thanks to Sanja Djuric and Vukasin Neimarevic. Photo credits J.Quirk.)



Jim Quirk

Jim Quirk teaches American and comparatiive politics at American University in Washington, D.C. He has taught at Loyola University Maryland, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Economics in Varna, Bulgaria. His favorite projects have included work with in Mexico, Russia, the Balkans, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, OSCE, IEEE, and the Open World Leadership Center. He tweets from @webQuirks