E. Račius: Radical Islamists thundering into Lithuania

Egdūnas Račius
DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

About twenty years ago the rock group Antis terrified their audiences with zombies that were rolling-on in. Now it’s the turn of Islamist radicals that are rolling-on in, or maybe that have already rolled in; and it’s not just any ones, it’s the radical ones that are terrifying everyone. That’s according to the 2016 Activity Report of the State Security Department (SSD) which (on page 14) reveals that the Department in 2016 “was monitoring around 70 citizens of the Republic of Lithuania and foreigners living in the country who, due to their radical Islamic (author’s italics) views are a potential threat to national security”.

Bingo. At last Lithuania has become a “normal” Western country. The ravages of radical Islam hitherto seen in practically all of Europe were something we, here in Lithuania, couldn’t “boast” of in any way. It wasn’t only Estonia that out did Lithuania (again) and from where at least one four-member family went off to join ISIS but also Latvia from where no less than four people went to join ISIS.

And at almost the same time that the SSD Activity Report came out, it was stated (on page 35) in a combined “Assessment of the Threat to National Security” of the SSD and the Second Investigation Department of the Ministry of National Defence that in “2016 there is no terrorist organisation of radical Islamic ideology operating in Lithuania, no threat of a terrorist act being carried out against Lithuania and no data on citizens leaving Lithuania to take part in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq”. The SSD Activity Report as a “consolation prize” reveals “one individual who supports ISIS and who wanted to take part in “jihad” in Syria” was identified. It’s right here however that people are calmed – the individual has already been arrested; not in actual fact for terrorism or any similar actions but due to “possession of drugs” (sic!). So, this is the interesting bit – the individual who wants to be a part of “jihad” in Syria was apprehended because of possession of drugs (for the use or trafficking thereof). As later reported in the media it turns out that this this individual, a citizen of the Russian Federation, had the right of abode in Lithuania.

That failed jihadist suspected of drug trafficking is nevertheless just the cherry on the SSD’s cake of suspected Islamic radicals and extremists because the doings of at least four more individuals, possibly seeking to engage with Islamic extremism” (my italics – writer), are being closely monitored.

Finally, there is in the report a paragraph that deals with the fact that in “2016 the SSD had also identified 2 individuals who due to their unpredictable behaviour (sic!) and statements were considered a risk, inclined to self-radicalisation and who could become single terrorists (“lone wolves”). It is however difficult to say from this if these individuals are part of the group of 70.
Be that as it may, although the latest SSD Activity Report’s section entitled “The Fight against Terrorism and Extremism” takes up less than one page, it is a huge shift in this institution’s divulging of information. In similar sections of previous Activity Reports, there was no mention of anything of the kind. In the 2015 Activity Report (on page 24), it was vaguely suggested that the SSD “was observing radically inclined individuals and was investigating their links with criminal groups in Lithuania and abroad”; in the 2016 Report there was no mention of radical Islamists or Islamic extremists at all.

Then suddenly like a bolt from the blue there’s news of seventy individuals with radical Islamic views who can even “create a threat to national security”. One has to then of course ask the rhetorical question as to what happened in the year between the two SSD Activity Reports which are like day and night in terms of the topic they cover. One must agree that it’s worse than terrible if within one year in Lithuania around 70 individuals appear who are a threat to national security because of their radical Islamic views, firstly because there are hardly any Muslims in Lithuania.
Six years ago census data showed that there were 2 727 people in Lithuania who called themselves Sunni Muslims, of which just over one half (52.8 %, 1 441) were ethnic Tatars. The second largest group were ethnic Lithuanians (13.7%, 374) and 73 persons (2, 7%) called themselves ethnic Russians. The situation today may well have changed first of all because of the migration process but also because of the negative birth and death ratio. According to 2001 and 2011 census data it was clear that the Tatar community was reducing rapidly and with it the general number of Muslims in the country. Censors also showed that the general number of Muslims in Lithuania between 2001 and 2011 decreased by one tenth. Although in the first half of this decade several hundred Lithuanian citizens converted to Islam, a large number of them don’t or no longer live in Lithuania. And since Lithuania nevertheless still remains an attractive country for immigrants from Asia and Africa, the number of Muslim immigrants in our country can be counted on one hand using just a few fingers.

Yet that’s not what’s important. The most important thing is that census data says nothing about people who call themselves Muslims because of their views, beliefs or religious practices. It is however something that can be gauged and it’s easiest to do that on Fridays when Muslims gather for prayer. The tiny Kaunas mosque and central prayer hall in Vilnius are packed because there’s not much space available and so cannot directly accommodate more than several hundred worshippers. Since the mosques in historic Tatar areas are either closed or attended by few prayer groups, the general number of worshippers in public places of prayer in Lithuania is hardly likely to exceed 300. Granted, some believers may not be able to be able to attend general prayers during the day while others may gather to pray privately.

Another very expedient way to gauge Muslim religiosity is by the clothing associated with it. No all but nevertheless a large proportion of religious Muslims dress extremely conservatively and most importantly cover their heads. And that doesn’t apply to women only. Conservative and revivalist Muslims can be seen in practically any European city. Unfortunately in Lithuania they are not to be seen. In Latvia for example there is in actual fact a small Muslim group that don’t wear the usual hijab in public but cover their faces with a nikab. The fact that in Lithuania a single woman wearing a nikab was a journalist conducting a “social” experiment and was not wearing a hijab which even some very religious Muslims don’t wear, means another nature surfaces as again does the rhetorical question – where are they all if one doesn’t see them?

You also won’t see in Lithuania typical Muslim revivalists (the SSD has outright probably called them radical Islamists or Islamic extremists) with the men dressed in trousers that just show, caps, at times Arab-style clothes and almost always with a long beard. Men like that are universally called Wahabists and/or Salafists. Unfortunately you don’t see them in Lithuania. Maybe they don’t come out into the open and hide. Maybe they just aren’t there.

So now we come to the basic question: how does one identify the “radical Islamist/Islamic fundamentalist that the SSD is after? Maybe we’ve all seen them standing in the queue at the supermarket, riding on buses or maybe we just overlook them and don’t recognize them? Maybe they, unlike “radical Islamists” and “Islamic fundamentalists” in the rest of the world, hide their identity by dressing and behaving in such a way so as not to attract any attention?

Yes, it seems that this could really be the case because it’s never happened in Europe where a person who looks like every else commits a murderous attack and where afterwards all who knew him are openly surprised and swear to God that nothing like this could have been predicted, i.e. there were no manifestations of radicalisation.

One can then assume that it’s not their appearance in the open or their behaviour (for example excessive devotion, heated arguments with people of other faiths or non-believers) that’s attracting the attention of the SSD but rather something invisible. It can be presupposed that it’s in the digital space – visiting a certain website, writing certain types of messages etc. Maybe it’s a bit bold to assume but I shall hazard a guess that it’s these digital “radical Islamists” that the SSD has in most cases nabbed, i.e. people who are interested in and perhaps express themselves in that space which because of its origin and content fall under the category of monitored or prohibited information and communication.

Furthermore, the fact that Lithuanian citizens who have opened up to Islam interact mostly in the digital space means they’re not difficult to monitor – all you need to do is go into Facebook groups and into open or closed internet forums. It’s natural that a large number of Lithuanian Muslims (or rather, Muslims) across the world would find it more convenient to interact using modern technology and since the spiritual leadership of Lithuanian Muslims doesn’t meet the spiritual expectations of converts, they find information on their newly found religion on the internet in general and so it’s very probable that they end up in restricted zones.

You may ask – what information in the digital space is changing Lithuanian Muslims? All sorts, but mostly revivalist nondenominational ideas Islamic in origin. Can the SSD say that this ideas are specifically the ideas of “radical Islamism” or “Islamic Extremism”? And here’s a question regarding imagination, oh sorry, criteria. Here I am in no way daring to criticize the SSD’s work methods or criteria according to which they define “radical Islam” or “Islamic extremism” in the Department because I don’t know what they are (I can only say that the SSD have never consulted with me on such matters) but I can only hope that criteria like these are strictly defined by the SSD and that the different forms of Islam are clearly separated. That is indirectly presupposed in the Report by the sentence stating that the “individuals under observation are monitored according to specific criteria and classified into risk groups and actions they perform based on their views noting what kind of threat it is that they pose”. I personally like that.

Nevertheless, one wants to insert one’s three-cent worth and share one’s understanding of the different forms of Islamic religiosity. There’s no point here in speaking about the types of classical Islam such as law, mysticism and popular Islam because Muslims here in all honesty are not a threat to national security. The same can be said for Muslims of the modern form of Islam as their way of life and views are more like “ours”, non-Muslims. So, it’s the revivalists that remain.
The scope of the revivalist Islamic movements (and their ideologies) is wide but they can be put into three conditional categories. The first one – the (neo) fundamentalists – are very conservative but apolitical. Due to their way of life viewed as being rather strange, it may be that they are not accepted in post-modernist consumer societies because they are like a living reproach. They don’t really constitute a threat to national security except for extremely imaginative people. One needs to understand that some Lithuanians who have converted to Islam are in actual fact identified with the (neo)-fundamental form of Islam – Salafism. In actual fact, a large number of them no (longer) live in Lithuania.

The second revivalist category of Islam is the Islamists who unlike the (neo) fundamentalists are by their nature are politically engaged and active. In most Muslim countries Islamists have their own political parties and legitimately take part in the political life of their country.

Here one can compare them to the Christian conservatives in Europe. Islamists like these perhaps can be called “moderate” as opposed to “radical” as mentioned in the SSD Report. In the Literature, “Radical Islamists” are the armed groups that actively fight against the state like, for example the armed Islamic group in Algeria, Islamic Jihad in Egypt and so on. Thank God that we don’t have armed groups like these in Lithuania or moderate Islamists.

Finally, the third revivalist group is the jihadists, the self-styled global eternal armed soldiers of resistance. They are undoubtedly a threat and not only to national but also to global security. And although the jihadists throughout the world probably account for hardly one percent of the world’s Muslims, they are the greatest headache for the entire world community because they are pathological suicidal killers. Of course, they are not born that way but become that way and it’s here that psychology plays a big role.

Strictly speaking therefore, jihadists and especially the jihadist ideas that individuals start to espouse are a focus of psychological and psychiatric work. Several countries have already realised this and have created jihadist rehabilitation programs in specially dedicated clinics. Are there any of these individuals in Lithuania? The SSD Report says that there was at least one but not a Lithuanian citizen. Could there be more? And who can guarantee that certain people both Muslims and non-Muslims won’t fall psychologically ill?

To end, the good old rhetorical question arises again – in which category or categories are those 70 individuals that are being monitored by the SSD and named in the Report as having “radical Islamic views” and who could be drawn into “Islamic extremism”?

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