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Bosnian Muslims: Threat or Opportunity?

By Sabina Niksic


18 October 2009 With their European culture and Islamic faith, Bosnian Muslims want to act as a bridge between East and West but instead feel rejected.

There are times when Aida Begic gets on a plane and the looks she receives from other passengers remind her of people’s fears and misunderstandings about Islam.

A well-known Bosnian movie director, she flies to film festivals all over the world dressed in fashionable yet distinctively Islamic clothing – a headscarf and outfits reaching down to her ankles and wrists.

“If you wear a headscarf, people immediately assume that you must be uneducated and primitive,” says the 33-year-old whose first feature movie, Snow, premiered in Cannes in 2008.


The global fear of flying with Muslims has become part of Begic’s everyday life. Despite this, she denies that there is any clash between her faith and her appreciation of western culture.

“I was shaped by European literature, arts and music, and Bach is as much a part of my identity as [Muslim mystic and poet Jalaluddin] Rumi,” she says.

In fact, some experts believe the Muslim communities in the Balkans, whose Islamic faith developed in a European context, could serve as a bridge between the Islamic east and the Christian west.

But the allegiance of Bosnia’s Muslims to both worlds has been sorely tested recently. They feel Europe betrayed them in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war and has excluded them ever since. On the other side, offers of assistance during the war from some Muslim co-believers came at a price.

A very European Islam

Islam reached Bosnia through the Ottoman conquest in 1463 and spread through the conversion of the local Slavic population. However, despite the more than 400 years of Ottoman rule, Islam has never completely dominated Bosnia’s religious life, with the country shared with Orthodox and Catholic Christians and a small Jewish community.

“At least four different religions have been practised in Bosnia for centuries,” explains Jusuf Ziga, a political science professor at Sarajevo University. “Armies changed, regimes changed, but this is a constant.”

When Austria-Hungary expelled the Ottomans from Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 19th century, the country fell under the sway of the Danubian monarchy. Cut off from the Islamic world, Bosnian Muslims began searching for their own identity within a predominantly Christian and European context.

This quest gained new vigour at the end of the 20th century, following dramatic changes to the political and ideological landscape.

Debate over the role of religion, which more or less ceased throughout the communist years, resumed with vigour.

Mustafa Dzeko, 72, recalls how his religiosity perturbed his colleagues during the communist era. At that time, many Muslims abandoned religious practices and considered being Muslim to be an ethnic, rather than religious, identity.

Others cultivated a sense of solidarity with neighbours of different faiths who shared their struggle to maintain religious identities in the face of ideological repression. “I was born in a patriarchal Muslim family, but my late father used to make me stand up at the sound of church bells to show respect,” Dzeko remembers.

Faith returns

Religion triumphantly re-entered the public arena in the 1990s, following the fall of communism. New nationalistic leaders tapped into people’s suppressed religious and national feelings, fuelling fears that other ethnic groups might gain power.

“When the country that people believed in ceased to exist, it had to be replaced with something else, and God had to be put back,” says Aida Corovic, a sociologist from the predominantly Muslim town of Novi Pazar, in Serbia’s Sandzak region.

In Bosnia, religious communities gladly accepted this opportunity to re-establish themselves as a force in society after decades of silence.

Overnight, being seen in a church or a mosque became an act of political opportunism as much as evidence of religious faith. “It was not uncommon for people to start attending prayers in the [main Sarajevo] Bey’s Mosque, expecting this to win them favours, such as being allowed to open a grocery store,” professor Adnan Silajdzic, of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Islamic Sciences, recalls.

The awakening of ethnic nationalism paved the way for the wars that destroyed Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Conflict spread from Croatia to Bosnia in 1992 after the latter declared independence despite opposition from ethnic Serbs, who made up about a third of the Bosnian Republic’s population.

Growing evidence that Serbia and Croatia were plotting to divide Bosnia prompted Muslims to assert their own claim to the country as their national state.


In 1993, Muslim political leaders chose a new ethnic name for their community - Bosniaks - and started to identify this renamed national group with Islam.

This triggered a still-ongoing struggle within the Bosnian Muslim community between spiritual and political Islam. Caught in the middle are many Bosniaks who cherish their Muslim cultural heritage, yet reject both religion and nationalist politics.

Like most atheist, politically-liberal Bosniaks, Jasmila Zbanic, another internationally-recognised movie director, accuses Bosniak nationalist leaders of using religion to fuel divisions and hold onto power.

“They work very hard on building a ‘victim’ identity for Bosniaks and on identifying being Bosniak with religiosity because they cannot offer the option of a pluralist society,” she says.


“At least 80 per cent of the ‘religious’ people I know have not even carefully read the Koran …[but] they need the comfort of religion and its idea that suffering is somehow good because it forms part of a divine plan.”


Bosniaks were by far the greatest victims in the conflict in terms of numbers. About 80 per cent of the approximately 100,000 killed in the war were Bosniaks.

While the UN sent in peacekeepers and humanitarian aid, the international community did little to stop massive, mainly Serb-led, campaigns of “ethnic cleansing”, which forced hundreds of thousands of Muslims from their homes.

A Western-backed embargo on the supply of arms to the region helped the already well-armed Serbs and hindered the poorly-armed and land-locked Muslims.

Hardliners offer help

The plight of Europe’s ‘indigenous’ Muslims drew the attention of Islamic extremists around the globe.

According to experts, 3,000 to 5,000 foreign volunteers, mainly Arabs, travelled to the Balkans between 1992 and 1995 to fight alongside Bosnia’s Muslims.

With them, they brought Wahhabism, a radical interpretation of Islam from Saudi Arabia, with which Bosnian Muslims were unfamiliar.

This hard-line brand of Islam, which not only bans women from leaving home alone, driving or mingling with unrelated men, but also urges Muslims to reject the company of ‘infidels’ initially attracted some Bosnian Muslims who fought alongside the Arabs.


“There is no chance that [the West] did not know what was happening here… but only they [Arab volunteers] came to help us, and now they are portrayed as terrorists,” 39-year-old Semin Rizvic complains.

A singer in pre-war Central Bosnia, Rizvic embraced conservative Islam while fighting alongside Arabs, and today most Bosnians would describe him as a Wahhabi because of his long beard and fully-veiled wife.

“Right now, only I am described as a terrorist by the West but they [traditional Bosnian Muslims] will be the next,” he predicts.

When the war ended, religious fundamentalists continued to penetrate Bosnia’s shattered society. Saudi Arabia funded a number of charities that tried to convince the traditionally more moderate Bosnian Muslims to abandon their version of the faith.

In a country ruined by war and with unemployment between 80 and 90 per cent, the economic incentives these charities were offering tempted many people to adopt the Saudis’ ‘true’ variety of Islam.

While Bosnia’s official Islamic Community, led by Mustafa Ceric, focused on mainstream politics, Wahhabi activists preached to all those who felt neglected by society – the young, the uneducated, the poor and the confused.

The new small but vocal Wahhabi communities attacked traditional Bosnian Muslim practices. Arguments erupted in mosques, where traditionalists sometimes resorted to fisticuffs to expel Wahhabi followers, who had accused them of being ‘fake’ believers.

“Bosnian Muslims were greatly offended,” recalls Ziga. “They were unwilling to accept these trouble-makers who believed they spoke for God and turned women into walking tents.”

The gravity of the conflict between followers of the two different interpretations of Islam was highlighted when Serbian police arrested 12 alleged Wahhabis in the Sandzak region in 2007.

In July 2009, a Belgrade court sentenced them to more than 60 years in jail for plotting terrorist attacks and assassinations. Planned targets had included Muamer Zukorlic, a local Muslim clerical leader who is closely linked to Bosnia’s Islamic Community.

“They expected to destabilise our Islamic community, and they almost succeeded,” Resad Plojovic, an aide to Zukorlic, says.

Wahhabism in retreat

In Bosnia, the Islamic Community faces growing criticism from liberal and secular Bosniaks who accuse them of having discreetly supported the rise of Wahhabism.

“It is possible that Ceric is inspired by the philosophy of the Wahhabi movement, whose harmful activities the Islamic Community has never openly repudiated,” journalist Damir Kaletovic recently said on the popular investigative TV show 60 minutes.


Ceric flatly dismisses such criticism and describes his critics as “followers of ossified communist ideas who are ashamed of their own identity.” He adds: “There are more Wahhabis in Vienna than in the whole of Bosnia.”

Some security experts and scholars agree, claiming the concerns expressed over the rise of religious radicalism in Bosnia have often been exaggerated.

They view the attacks on the Islamic leadership as a reaction to Ceric’s attempt to increase the role that religion plays in Bosnian society.

“What Muslims are fighting for is an ethnic and national, rather than religious, identity,” Dino Abazovic, a scholar of religious sociology in Sarajevo, maintains.

“The experience of living in a historically secular society has had much greater influence on the Bosnian Muslim community than any of the religious debates in the short post-communist period,” he adds.

In fact, the Wahhabi network in Bosnia started to dissolve as the country gradually returned to normality following the war. The extremists suffered another blow after authorities closed a number of Saudi-backed charities following the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001.

Today, some former Wahhabis have reverted to more traditional and local Islamic practices, while others are reaching out to the broader Bosnian Muslim community that they once rejected.

Semir Imamovic, editor of the weekly Saff, a former Wahhabi publication that has repositioned itself as a conservative Islamic magazine, exemplifies this change of heart.

“The Islamic community is the supreme religious institution of Bosnian Muslims, and we respect it,” he says. “All Muslims are my brothers, but we can disagree and criticise each other.” Today, Saff frequently criticises religious extremism and supports inter-faith dialogue.

This change in position has left some radical followers of Wahhabism feeling angry and abandoned, however. They still dream of a purely Islamic state.


“Bosnia can be an Islamic state,” says Senad Hukic, an economist in his thirties from the north-eastern town of Tuzla. “The Islamic community, with its twisted version of Islam, will never bring progress to this country.”

Hukic says a model for a truly Islamic society can be seen in one of the few remaining purely Wahhabi communities, the north-eastern village of Gornja Maoca.

Home to devout hardliners, this community lives in a state of virtual isolation, without access to such ordinary appliances as TVs or phones. Police keep a close watch.

Nusret Imamovic, a local village leader, refused to talk to this journalist. An intermediary explained that Imamovic believed “our message always gets twisted.”

Juan Carlos Antunez, a Spanish military specialist in religious extremism, with years of experience in Bosnia, says radical Islam does not pose much of a threat.

He estimates that out of the Bosniak population of around 2 million, no more than 3,000 follow the Saudi-sponsored version of Islam. Of this, a smaller number, only about 200 “could start to think in a dangerous way and necessitate special monitoring.”

Antunez warns that placing Bosnia’s Muslims under special scrutiny sends the wrong message, suggesting all Muslims are untrustworthy.

“The main obstacle to the spread of radical Islam in Bosnia is not NATO or the European Union or any other international organisation, but the Muslims of this country,” Antunez maintains.

“Bosnian Muslims are not a threat for Europe, they are an opportunity.”

Don’t exclude us

For all their disagreements, religious and secular Bosnian Muslims unite in feeling shunned by Europe amid the country’s worst post-war political crisis.

They say the West has failed to check the radical nationalism of Bosnian Serbs, along with their talk of secession, and continues to discriminate against Bosnian Muslims.

They especially resent the recent decision of the European Commission to grant visa-free travel to citizens of Serbia but not Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs often have dual citizenship, holding passports from Croatia or Serbia, they can expect to take full advantage of the new visa regime. As a result, the exclusion of Bosnia effectively bars only the Muslim community from Europe.

Brussels insists that it is up to the Bosnian government to make sure the country meets the necessary benchmarks that would allow Bosnia to join the visa-free regime, but few Bosnian Muslims take this message at face value.

“It’s putting us in a position of psychological discrimination and makes us feel unwanted,” Ceric says of Brussels’ decision.

Some experts believe this sense of exclusion could radicalise Bosnian Muslims, although this is more likely to take the form of secular nationalism rather than Islamic fundamentalism.

Sacir Filandra, chair of the Bosniak cultural community organisation, Preporod, says Europe is missing an opportunity to shape the identity of a new generation of Bosnian Muslims.

“If you isolate a community and treat it with suspicion, this will at some point start to affect the way that community perceives itself,” he said.

We need to talk

Medina Velic, a Bosnian Muslim who now lives in Austria, remembers experiencing anti-Muslim discrimination in Vienna when she started wearing a headscarf at 16.

“The first day of school that year, my head teacher of five years told everyone I was a new student and asked me to stand up and introduce myself,” the 22-year-old recalls. “For them, I was no longer the same person.”

Velic was 11 when her family moved to Vienna, where her father was sent to work as an Imam and her mother as a religious teacher for the large Bosnian Muslim community. Despite being on the receiving end of “stereotypical perceptions” on the part of some ordinary Europeans, Bosnian Muslims like her insist that their interaction with Western civilisation has generally been mutually beneficial.

“It is very important for Muslims to initiate dialogue to help others get to know them; we need to talk,” Velic says.

Other Bosnian Muslims now living in Austria agree: Islamic faith and European values are not contradictory. “We prove it is possible to be both Muslim and European,” 45-year-old Belkisa Bulut says.

“We go to rock concerts and theatre performances, but we also go to mosques,” she adds. “Our Islam is the best example of Islam in Europe.”

Read the article in Bosnian

This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.


Copyright 2009

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