Bosnia's True Believers

Established Muslims Resist Neo-Salafists

In Bosnia. the presence of Islamist groups has sparked fears of infiltration. At the same time, the state is attempting to expel former holy warriors who have been naturalized. A background report by Martin Woker

View of Mostar and its mosque (photo: Deutsche Welle)
During the Bosnian War (1992-1995), many Mujaheddin came to the aid of their fellow Muslims. Those who stayed are now considered too radical by many Bosnian Muslims

​​Aiman Awad invites me into his parlor. A sofa, two armchairs, a stack of several sleeping mats, a reproduction of the Kaaba in Mecca on the wall and the al-Jazeera news on television. The host excuses himself for the packed suitcases stacked in the corner: he is unable to plan his life now that his family is threatened with deportation at any moment.

This is somewhat exaggerated – but there is no doubt about it, Aiman Awad's situation is dramatic.

As things stand, the Syrian-Bosnian dual citizen can soon expect to be expelled from Bosnia due to revocation of citizenship. His Bosnian wife and their four children can remain. They cannot be accused of the crime for which the father may be forced to leave his new homeland: obtainment of Bosnian citizenship on false pretenses.

A religious obligation to help

And yet it had all begun so promisingly. On January 20, 1995 Awad, then 20, got married in the Bosnian town of Zenica. The war was still raging. Two months later, having submitted all the necessary documents, he was awarded Bosnian citizenship. He insists that the entire bureaucratic process took place in accordance with the law then in force. It is completely untrue that he was given the passport due to his services during the war, says Awad in response to the accusations made against him as a former foreign fighter of Arab origin (Mujahed).

When the Bosnian war broke out in 1992, Awad felt what he calls a religious obligation to help his fellow Muslims. At the time he lived in Croatia, where he was studying medicine. First he volunteered as an aid worker helping Bosnian refugees, then served as an interpreter in the hastily-established Mujahedin unit. He wore a uniform, but never served on the front.

He estimates that in the first year of the war around 60 volunteers fought in the ranks of this special unit, subordinate to the chief of staff of the Bosnian army, Rasim Delic – who is now facing charges at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. During the war the formation, officially known as Unit No. 5689, included a maximum of 1800 fighters, about a third of them were foreign volunteers.

Some of them had previously fought against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. It is unclear how many foreign Mujahedin served in Bosnia over the course of the war. Estimates range from 600 to around 6000.

European tradition

In the fall of 1995 the Dayton Peace Accords stipulated the withdrawal of all foreign fighters within 30 days. Awad insists that around 90 percent of all Mujahedin left the country by this deadline; around 80 fighters remained, with approximately two dozen left today, all with Bosnian citizenship. The former Mujahed knows the statistics so precisely because he represents their interests as president of the association Ansaria.

According to other sources, several hundred former Mujahedin gained Bosnian citizenship after the end of the war. Several sources speak of as many as 1000 foreign Mujahedin who have remained in the country. Experts consider these figures wildly exaggerated.

There is good reason for the criticism of the former Mujahedin, widespread in Bosnia and articulated with increasing bluntness. Ultimately the issue is which Muslims are the true believers. The lifestyle and attitudes of Awad and his comrades makes it clear that they believe they – and only they – live lives pleasing to God. In Bosnia they are referred to generally as Vehabi, derived from Wahhabis. Last fall a heated public debate unfolded after one of the former Mujahedin, a dual Syrian-Bosnian citizen known as Abu Hamza, referred to the religion practiced by the Bosnjaks (Bosnian Muslims) as Communist Islam" in a televised discussion.

The Islamic Community of Bosnia responded with sharp criticism. In November the Rijaset passed a resolution condemning any attempt to create dissention among Bosnia's Muslims. Those who do not wish to understand Islam as practiced in this country have no business here, the Reis-ul-Ulema admonished the faithful.

However, strong words like these cannot obscure the social influence of the neo-Salafists, as reflected, for example, in the adherence to supposedly Islamic dress codes. The men wear beards and pants reaching to the ankles. Women veil their hair and bodies. But even apart from these demonstrative signs of piety, an overall increase in religiosity can be seen among the Bosnjaks, as seen in the fact that many more people fast at Ramadan than twenty years ago.

Nedzad Grabus, Islamic scholar from Sarajevo and Mufti of Slovenia, speaks of a re-Islamization. He describes this as a common process in post-Communist societies and one that can also be observed among Catholics and orthodox Christians. In characterizing the Islam practiced in Bosnia he avoids the cliché that Bosnjaks are not averse to a glass of slivovitz and points instead to the little-known fact that half of all adult female residents of Sarajevo own residential property. Gender equality in civil law is uncommon in countries with a majority Muslim population. Bosnia is an exception in this respect.

A very discreet commission

Though Bosnia's radical Islamists often make a lot of noise, they have little influence, in Grabus' estimation. Immediately after the end of the war, he explains, the Mujahedin influence caused a certain Arabization. The Islamic Community responded immediately. Today two academic degrees are required to practice as an Imam in Bosnia. Confirmation from an Islamic faculty is not enough on its own; a diploma from a Bosnian madrasa (religious secondary school) is also required. This is intended to limit the influence of foreign preachers.

This regulation reflects the increased self-confidence of the Bosnjak believers who do not want their way of life to be threatened by fellow Muslims from the Middle East. "We are normal Europeans and follow European values. We have to fight for that," says Grabus, well aware that many Arabs despise the Islam practiced in Bosnia.

The consequences of the Bosnjak clamp-down on cultural and intellectual imports from the Near and Middle East is evident. Not long ago the Egyptian ambassador in Sarajevo publicly lamented the Bosnian state's lack of interest in the Arab world. It is also clear that the population at large has little interest in the fates of Abu Hamza, Aiman Awad and their comrades.

The lawyer Kadrija Kolic is representing ten former Mujahedin whose Bosnian citizenship has been revoked. The lawyer is disturbed by the public's lack of interest in these cases. He harshly criticizes the government commission which is reviewing all the cases of naturalization from April 1992 to January 2006. The commission was established last spring by parliamentary decree and consists of six Bosnian members (two Bosnjaks, two Serbs and two Croats) and three international representatives (Spain, Bulgaria, USA). Numerous independent sources describe the commission as the product of American pressure in the worldwide war on terror.

Neither the chair nor the members of the commission are available for questioning by the media. Information on its work is correspondingly scarce. So far all that has been ascertained is that of around 1500 persons reviewed, citizenship was revoked in about 500 cases. No one knows how many of these persons are still in the country. There is no possibility of appealing the decisions.

A guilty conscience

However, a complaint can be lodged against the administrative procedure. So far none of the cases of revoked citizenship have led to deportation. Kolic says that several judges privately expressed their displeasure with the commission's procedures. That is probably why no deportations have yet taken place; the procedure stands in clear contradiction to constitutional principles.

That may be true, but given the commission's working procedures – non-transparent, to put it mildly – it is nearly impossible to prove. Another reason for the judges' disapproval is a general discomfort with this issue. Many Bosnjaks feel a certain gratitude toward the former Mujahedin, however provocatively they may sometimes behave. After all, in the early days of the war it was these foreign holy warriors who hastened to aid the Bosnian Muslims when the rest of the world had left them to their fate.

The thought that the few still living in the country could simply be chased away like mangy dogs is too much even for many die-hard secular Bosnjaks. But they evade the subject, reluctant to be reminded how willingly their state responds to external pressure. Could this be an expression of wounded national pride?

However, Aiman Awad appeals to completely different values: the universally valid human rights which he says have been blatantly violated in the case of his expulsion. He has already learned from his family in Damascus that the secret service is interested in him there. He claims that in Syria he would vanish in prison for years – if only for having served in a foreign military.

Besides, he would lose all that is dear to him – his house, his family, his whole livelihood. The former Mujahedin's despair is understandable. It must be especially bitter that his desperate situation forces him to appeal to those very human rights which the radical Islamists condemn as western rubbish.

Martin Woker

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

This article was previously published by the Swiss daily, Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

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