New Age Islam
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Islam and the West ( 12 Jan 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Islamic Revival Tests Bosnia’s Secular Cast


Published: December 26, 2008


SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — Thirteen years after a war in which 100,000 people were killed, a majority of them Muslims, Bosnia is undergoing an Islamic revival.



A woman waited for a seminar to finish at a mosque in Sarajevo dating from 1591.

More than half a dozen new madrasas, or religious high schools, have been built in recent years, while dozens of mosques have sprouted, including the King Fahd, a sprawling $28 million complex with a sports and cultural center.


Before the war, fully covered women and men with long beards were almost unheard of. Today, they are common.


Many here welcome the Muslim revival as a healthy assertion of identity in a multiethnic country where Muslims make up close to half the population.


But others warn of a growing culture clash between conservative Islam and Bosnia’s avowed secularism in an already fragile state.


Two months ago, men in hoods attacked participants at a gay festival in Sarajevo, dragging some people from vehicles and beating others while they chanted, “Kill the gays!” and “Allahu Akbar!” Eight people were injured.


Muslim religious leaders complained that the event, which coincided with the holy month of Ramadan, was a provocation. The organizers said they had sought to promote minority rights and meant no offense.


In this cosmopolitan capital, where bars have long outnumbered mosques, Muslim religious education was recently introduced in state kindergartens, prompting some secular Muslim parents to complain that the separation between mosque and state was being breached.


Bosnia’s Muslims have practiced a moderate Islam that stretches back to the Ottoman conquest in the 15th century. Sociologists and political leaders say the religious awakening is partly an outgrowth of the war and the American-brokered Dayton agreement that ended it, dividing the country into a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serb Republic.


“The Serbs committed genocide against us, raped our women, made us refugees in our own country,” said Mustafa Efendi Ceric, the grand mufti and main spiritual leader of Bosnia’s Muslim community.


“And now we have a tribal constitution that says we have to share political power and land with our killers,” he said. “We Bosnian Muslims still feel besieged in the city of Sarajevo.”


That resentment is evident. As several thousand worshipers streamed into the imposing King Fahd mosque on a recent Friday, a young man sat outside selling a popular conservative Muslim magazine with President-elect Barack Obama on the cover.


"Hussein, Will Your America Kill Muslims?" the headline asked, using Mr. Obama’s middle name, a source of pride for many Muslims here.


Religious and national identity have long been fused in multifaith Bosnia.


It was tradition in villages to refer to neighbors by their religion — Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, rather than as Bosniak, Serb or Croat.


In the nation-building that followed Dayton, that practice has become stronger.


In Sarajevo, a predominantly Muslim city, dozens of streets named after Communist revolutionaries were renamed after Muslim heroes, and political parties stressing Muslim identity gained large constituencies.


Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, meanwhile, cleave to their own religious and cultural identities. Church attendance is on the rise; in the Serb Republic, even ministries and police departments have their own Orthodox patron saints.


Muharem Bazdulj, deputy editor of the daily Oslobodenje, the voice of liberal, secular Bosnia, said he feared the growth of Wahhabism, the conservative Sunni movement originating in Saudi Arabia that aims to strip away foreign and corrupting influences.


Analysts say Saudi-financed organizations have invested about $700 million in Bosnia since the war, often in mosques.


Wahhabism arrived via hundreds of warriors from the Arab world during the war and with Arab humanitarian and charity workers since, though sociologists here stress that most Bosnian Muslims still believe that Islam has no place in public life.


Dino Abazovic, a sociologist of religion at the University of Sarajevo, who recently conducted a detailed survey of 600 Bosnian Muslims, said 60 percent favored keeping religion a private matter; only a small minority prayed five times a day.


Still, violent episodes have occurred. Earlier this year, after an explosion at a shopping mall in the town of Vitez killed one person and wounded seven, Zlatko Miletic, head of uniformed police of the Muslim-Croat Federation Interior Ministry, warned that a group in Bosnia linked to Salafism, an ultraconservative Sunni Islamic movement, was bent on terrorism.


Nonetheless, Grand Mufti Ceric said Wahhabism had no future in Bosnia, even if more people were embracing religion.


“Children are fasting on Ramadan, going to the mosque more than their parents,” he said. “We had de-Islamification for 40 years during Tito’s time, so it is natural that people are now embracing the freedom to express their religion.”


Some critics of the mufti argue that he has allowed religion to encroach on civic life.


Vedrana Pinjo-Neuschul, who comes from a mixed Serb and Muslim household, has led the fight against Islamic classes in state-financed kindergartens across Sarajevo. Parents may remove their children from the religious classes, but Ms. Pinjo-Neuschul, whose husband is part Jewish, Catholic and Serb, said the policy would stigmatize non-Muslim children.


She recently withdrew her two young children from a public kindergarten and gathered 5,000 signatures against the policy, which has also been criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Vienna-based group monitoring democracy. “I do not want to explain to my 4-year-old son, Sven, who is in love with his Muslim classmate Esma, why they suddenly have to sit in different rooms,” she said at a Jewish community center in Sarajevo. “Nobody has the right to separate them.”


But she says she has been harassed by Islamic radicals on the street and has received hate mail in Arabic. “There are some people who want to turn Bosnia into a Muslim state,” she said.


Mustafa Effendi Spahic, a prominent liberal Muslim intellectual and professor at the Gazri Husrev-beg Madrasa in Sarajevo, went further, calling the introduction of religious education in kindergarten “a crime against children.”


“The Prophet says to teach children to kneel as Muslims, only after the age of 7,” said Professor Spahic, who was imprisoned under Communism for Islamic activism. “No one has any right to do that before then because it is an affront to freedom, the imagination and fun of the child’s world.”


Milorad Dodik, prime minister of Bosnia’s Serb Republic, has referred to Sarajevo as the new Tehran, and talks of a “political Islam and a fight against people who don’t share the same vision.”


But Muslim leaders and most Western analysts here counter such assertions, saying they do not correspond to Bosnia’s secular reality and are part of an attempt by Serb nationalists to justify the brutal wartime subjugation of Muslims by both Serbs and Croats.


Backgrounder: Jihad okay, but no Wahhabi preaching now!

Bosnia Plans to Expel Arabs Who Fought in Its War



Published: August 2, 2007

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — When Fadhil Hamdani first came to Bosnia from Iraq in 1979 he had no idea he would stay so long. But after prolonged studies, marriage to a Bosnian woman, the birth of five children and citizenship, the years turned into decades.


Raffaq Jalili, a Moroccan wounded in the Bosnian war of 1992-95, became a citizen, but Bosnia’s government has revoked his citizenship.

Now he says he feels more Bosnian than Iraqi.


But the Bosnian government does not agree. It views him as a threat to national security and is putting Mr. Hamdani and other foreign fighters who have lived in Bosnia for many years on notice of deportation.


Arabs, the largest group among hundreds of foreign fighters, fought alongside the Bosnian Muslim Army during the war here, from 1992 to 1995, against Serbs and Croats. In return, they were given Bosnian citizenship.


Most left after the war, which tore apart Muslim, Serbian and Croatian communities and cost around 100,000 lives. But a number stayed on and settled down.


Bosnian officials say their policies are merely reversing decisions that were illegally made at the war’s end. But Bosnian politicians and international officials say that the reversals are primarily motivated by a broader concern: that Bosnia should not be seen as a haven for Islamic militants.


Western officials and local politicians, mostly the Muslims’ former opponents, have accused the former fighters of promoting radical Islam and damaging Bosnia’s reputation in the process.


“Some of their structures have been very active in promoting radical activities in the form of Wahhabism,” said Dragan Mektic, Bosnia’s deputy security minister, in a recent interview, referring to a strict form of Islam. “The public feel endangered.”


Western governments have been encouraging the move.


Miroslav Lajcak, a Slovak diplomat who is the high representative of the international community in Bosnia and the senior international official here, has increased pressure on the government to move ahead with the deportations. So far, only two former combatants have actually been expelled, both last year.


“The presence of foreign fighters isn’t particularly useful for building a modern democratic state,” said a Western diplomat closely involved with the review, who spoke on the customary diplomatic condition of anonymity.


While many former fighters who stayed have managed to fit into Bosnian society, others stand out. Imad al-Hussein, a former medical student from Syria with a thick beard, became the public face of the Muslim fighters, or mujahedeen, after the war. He is one of six former fighters the government wants to expel first. The government has not publicly outlined its case against him.


His views do lie outside the norms of most Muslims here. For instance, he says that suicide bombings are justifiable but only within Israel. He said in a long interview that he and his former comrades had always acted within the law in Bosnia. But in response to the threat of being removed from his family’s home by force, he said: “I keep asking myself, will I be able to contain my instincts. If you defend yourself on your doorstep you become a martyr. And that is a great temptation.”


Other veterans are tensely biding their time, and they contend that there is nothing to connect them to any form of illegal activity. “If there was any evidence against us, then why have they let 12 years pass without prosecuting us,” said Raffaq Jalili, a Moroccan wounded in the war.


Bosnia is still recuperating from the war, and international officials who play a large role here are working to resolve stark differences among the Muslim, Serbian and Croatian populations. The high representative — currently Mr. Lajcak — still has the power to make laws and fire local politicians.


Both Saudi Arabia and the United States say that Islamic extremists have used Bosnian passports to travel between the Middle East and Europe; some Bosnian government officials say that has been impossible to confirm.


Western intelligence services and their Bosnian counterparts also claim they have uncovered two major plots in the past six years by Islamic extremists in Bosnia to attack Western targets.


In October 2001, six Algerians were arrested by the Bosnian police and later were sent to prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In 2005, a Swedish man of Bosnian heritage and a Turk who had lived in Denmark were accused of possessing explosives and vests for making a suicide bomb. They were convicted and sentenced to prison in January.


It is not known how many foreign fighters remain in Bosnia — estimates vary wildly from more than a dozen to several hundred. The government says that a commission reviewed a list of more than 1,000 names and has revoked citizenship for about 420 people so far. Mr. Hamdani was the first to be notified by the commission, a year ago.


From 1996 to 2001, many of the former fighters occupied Bocinja, which had been a Serbian village in central Bosnia. The fighters lived there under Islamic Shariah law until they were evicted by the government, and they dispersed throughout central Bosnia.


Mr. Hamdani came to Bosnia when he was 18 and studied engineering in Zenica. By the time the conflict in Bosnia broke out in 1992, he was married and had two children.


It was only natural to fight for his adopted country, he said, as Bosnian Serb forces, backed by neighboring Serbia, attacked Muslims across the country. In February 1995, nine months before the end of the war, he was granted citizenship.


As with all the other cases under review, he had no right to appear before the commission, which met behind closed doors and sent him its decision in the mail.


“I think that it does not matter when you arrived in this country,” he said in an interview. “What matters is which unit you served with during the war.” Serbs and Croats say that Muslim members of the government gave out citizenship too freely.


Mr. Jalili, a former Moroccan customs officer, bears burn marks across his face and a deformed ear from a rocket-propelled grenade. In a hillside cemetery near Zenica, he showed the unmarked concrete pillars that mark the graves of Arab fighters from his unit.


Now he and his wife and two children live in Zenica on a disabled veteran’s pension. In March, he, too, was notified by mail that his citizenship had been revoked.


“When I first came here, everyone welcomed me,” he said. “Now we are being kicked out like dogs.”


The government says its grounds for removing citizenship are that at the end of the war, the government was not properly functioning, and therefore, passports issued then were not legitimate.


“Citizenship can be revoked upon the discovery of any procedural irregularity, even if you now fulfill the conditions for naturalization anyway,” said Darryl Li, a legal researcher from Yale who is studying the veterans’ cases. “Someone living in Bosnia for 15 or 20 years with a wife and children here now finds himself in the same legal situation as a new immigrant, except half his life has been bureaucratically erased.”