The Christchurch Attack and the Far Right’s Obsession With the Western Balkans

The Christchurch Attack and the Far Right’s Obsession With the Western Balkans

The Christchurch Attack and the Far Right’s Obsession With the Western Balkans

Commentary

4 min read

Those with the misfortune of viewing the Facebook live stream of the senseless murder of 50 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 15 March were undoubtedly appalled by the shocking images they saw. But they may also have been baffled by the Australian terrorist attacker’s choice of soundtrack: a Serb nationalist anthem with roots in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.

The song calls for the death of “Turks” (a term Serb nationalists also use to refer to Bosnian Muslims) and makes reference to convicted Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadžić. The Christchurch killer’s rambling 74-page ‘manifesto’ is also saturated with historical references to defenders of Christendom in the Balkans, a region to which the attacker allegedly made several visits, including Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia and Bulgaria.

Even the terrorist’s murder weapons were part of his propaganda offensive. Scrawled on his semi-automatic guns were the names of historical military figures associated with resisting Ottoman invasion in the region. These include Stefan Lazar, a 14th-century Serbian prince who led a pan-Christian army to confront the invading Ottoman Empire, and 19th-century Montenegrin Serb general Marko Miljenov, who also led campaigns against the Ottomans. The terrorist’s manifesto draws on Crusader rhetoric, demanding that Turkey withdraw to east of the Bosporus and calling for the Christianisation of Istanbul.

The Western Balkans do play an increasingly central role in the ideology and propaganda of the international far-right movement. Understanding this role and developing an effective regional response are essential.

The Western Balkans were not alone in the Christchurch attacker’s inspiration. Alongside Serbian Cyrillic, his weapons were inscribed with messages in Armenian and Georgian as well as references to Richard the Lionheart and the 2016 Quebec City mosque attacker. But the Western Balkans do play an increasingly central role in the ideology and propaganda of the international far-right movement. Understanding this role and developing an effective regional response are essential to curbing radicalisation far beyond the region.

Across the Western Balkans there is a dynamic online ecosystem that perpetuates extremist ideologies and has influence much farther afield. International extremists—both far right and Islamist—are increasingly framing the Western Balkans, with their unique religious and cultural diversity, as a front line in a clash of civilisations between the Christian and Islamic worlds.

International far-right groups have begun to project their global narrative of white Christian struggle onto the region. Generation Identity is a pan-European campaign that originated in France to defend Europe’s “ethno cultural identity”. The Serbian franchise has been active online and carried out a number of protests and events in Belgrade. One post from Generation Identity’s Serbian-language Instagram account has an image of medieval conflict emblazoned with the words “Serbs Defending Europe Since 1389”. In a controversial BBC interview on the day of the Christchurch attack, the group’s UK leader claimed Muslims’ way of life was “completely incompatible” with lifestyles in the West, asserting that such violence was an “inevitable” consequence of multicultural societies.

Meanwhile, Knights Templar International, a UK-based self-styled “Christian militant order” founded in 2013, further demonstrates the internationalisation of the Western Balkan far right. The organisation, whose leader has been described by anti-racism campaigners as Britain’s most influential far-right activist, purports to reach an online audience of tens of millions each week from a regional hub. Its videos in Serbian and Croatian warn of impending war between Christians and Muslims, and denounce mass immigration and the “Islamification” of Europe. As well as fighting an “online war”, Knights Templar International has been active offline, providing Kosovo-based groups with military-grade hardware and clothing to support the “front line in the fight to protect Christendom from Islamist invasion”.

A symbiotic relationship is emerging between the Western Balkans and the international far right. There is an urgent need to promote co-existence and pluralism as a hedge against radicalisation far beyond the region’s borders.

Western Balkans analyst Jasmin Mujanović claims that amid the resurgence of the European far right, “it’s unsurprising that the Balkans would re-emerge as a central staging ground for both local and international reasons”. For Mujanović, “since the 90s the broader Serb nationalist mythos about the Yugoslav Wars was very attractive to the Western far-right, constructing the conflict as a struggle between Christendom and Islam, a defense of Europe from ‘invading’ Muslim hordes”. It is no coincidence that ISIS draws on this notion of a civilisational ‘showdown’ in the Western Balkans in its propaganda, describing the region as the “frontier for the Muslims”.

A symbiotic relationship is emerging between the Western Balkans and the international far right. Historical and contemporary events in the region are used to justify extremism globally, while the international far-right movement is increasingly projecting its extremist ideology onto the region.

Extremist narratives in the Western Balkans are often characterised by the virulent Islamophobia that chimes with the targets of the Christchurch attack. In a 2014 study of seven far-right political parties in the Balkans, four had anti-Semitism and three an antagonistic view of Islam as core ideological features. Online, the far right presents both Jews and Muslims as part of an international threat to Christian Europe.

Upcoming research by our Institute maps these extremist narratives and their online influence in greater detail. But the prevalence of the Western Balkans in the Christchurch killer’s propaganda shows the importance of acknowledging the region’s international ideological significance. In response, there is an urgent need to promote co-existence and pluralism in the Western Balkans as a hedge against radicalisation far beyond the region’s borders.

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