Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina

"I Am a Muslim - Don't Panic!"

Ten years after the end of the war, young Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina have found the courage to try and make things happen. But the West is squandering a great opportunity to see Bosnian-style Islam as both a bridge between East and West and a model for Europe. Tobias Asmuth reports from Sarajevo

photo: AP
Proud of the liberal history of their city - youngsters plastering election posters in downtown Sarajevo.

​​In Club Sloga in the old quarter of Sarajevo, the band "unplugged plug" is plundering the charts of the West. Singer Salih, guitar player Adim, keyboard player Süley, and drummer Zag know they can rely on their fans: whether it be a U2 or an Oasis song, the sea of people in front of the stage sings along loudly to everything: line for line; totally devoted; lost in the music.

The air is thick with smoke and perspiration, and the beer at the bar is expensive (an astonishing 4 Bosnian Marks; that’s 2 euros). But when singer Salih intones the Robbie Williams song "Feel", the people in Sloga are with him all they way; they feel free.

And all at once, Sarajevo is part of Europe, not of the international protectorate of Bosnia and Herzegovina. "Come and hold my hand, I wanna contact the living". The Club rocks. Everything is going to be alright.

Outside the doors of the club is a country that exists, but without the same degree of confidence. Ten years after the end of the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina has a government of Muslims, Croats, and Serbs who were elected in free elections.

Moreover, "Sniper Alley", a street in Sarajevo where Serb and Muslim snipers shot people down like rabbits during the war, is now lined with the shining facades of VW, BMW, and Volvo dealers.

Symbols of conflict

Be that as it may, the politicians of the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republika Srpska have not been able to agree on uniform passports, car registrations, or a text for the national anthem.

The country is carved up by merciless borders; thousands of landmines are dotted over former front lines; the ruins of the national library or the concrete skeleton of the burned out parliament all bear witness to the horrors of war in Sarajevo.

The skyline of Dobrinja, on the other hand, a suburb of Sarajevo situated between the Olympic village of 1984 and a forest of dilapidated housing blocks, has been dominated by the King Fahd Mosque for several years now. It has become a symbol of the divisions that run through the city.

On the one hand it symbolises the aid provided by many Muslim countries during the war, countries that smuggled arms into the besieged city despite Western embargos.

On the other, the showy building is a red flag to many Muslim Bosnians because it symbolises the self-righteous claim to bring the true teachings of Allah to the people: Wahabism.

While the mosques in the old quarter with their white stone walls and slender minarets fit neatly into the overall image of the city and reflect Islam’s century-long tradition in the Balkans, the King Fahd Mosque looks more like a soulless factory for churning out true believers.

Iranian money for headscarves and beards

According to Azhar Kalamujic, a journalist for the renowned daily newspaper Oslobodjenje, most Muslims in Bosnia were angered by the missionaries from the Gulf. "People have huge confidence in their style of Islam," says Kalamujic as he sits in the newspaper offices, a concrete bunker dating from the Tito era.

Unlike the Soviet Union, he explains, religious oppression was virtually non-existent in Yugoslavia: churches and mosques were always open and traditions were never lost like they were in the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. Says Kalamujic: "The construction of the King Fahd Mosque was permitted by the politicians against the wishes of the Muslim community."

But it isn’t only the Saudis that are active in Sarajevo; the Iranians have spent a lot of money maintaining a cultural institute in the city. Both nations are involved in an absurd race for the hearts of the people of Sarajevo.

Because the Iranian centre has a swimming pool that is very popular with young people, the Saudis are now also planning to build a swimming pool.

The Iranians have been less successful with their other "gifts": they offer every woman that wears the bula (the Bosnian version of the burka) 75 euros a month. The same sum of money is offered to men who grow beards.

This is quite an attractive deal in difficult economic times such as these. Nevertheless, hardly anyone has taken the Iranians up on their offer. There are more headscarves on the streets of Berlin than on the streets of Sarajevo. And young men and women like to show a lot of bare skin in the city’s clubs.

Bosnian-style Islam as a bridge between East and West

Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been shaped by the multiracial history of the Balkans. "The people of Sarajevo are proud of the liberal history of their city," says Kalamujic, "here, Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox, and Jews have developed a tradition of great religious tolerance."

This tradition, he goes on to say, was not destroyed by the Bosnian war. And, he claims, it was absurd nationalism, not religion, that caused the conflict. "Just under 30 per cent of the fighters that defended Sarajevo for three years were Serbs," he says. He considers the Islam practiced in his native country to be a model for Europe.

Enes Karic, Islamic scholar and professor of philosophy at the University of Sarajevo, also sees Bosnian-style Islam as being the fulfilment of the desire for a European Islam. It is, he says, "self-confident in belief, open and tolerant towards society, and reserved as regards politics."

Karic, who is expected to be elected Bosnia and Herzegovina's highest-ranking Islamic dignitary in the coming weeks, thinks that it is a tragedy that the West is not grasping the opportunity to see Bosnian-style Islam as a bridge to the Islamic world.

"Instead, Western politicians are staring with fear at the country; terrified that it might degenerate into a bridgehead for the Islamists."

According to General David Leakey, the English commander of the European peace corps in Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR), there has not to date been a shred of evidence that any groups belonging to the Al Qaida network are active in Bosnia.

"The country's problems are still nationalism and the difficult economic situation." He goes on to say that young people are starting to make things happen, but that, for them, religion is not an alternative.

Nor does Lord Paddy Ashdown, the High Representative of the International Administration for Bosnia and Herzegovina, see Islam as a threat. As far as he is concerned, the past poses a greater threat: "The Dayton Accords ended the war, but they haven’t as yet created a new beginning," he says.

Because the Serbs are blocking the extradition of war criminals, there is still no workable Association Agreement with the European Union. The economy is in tatters. Over 60 per cent of people under the age of 22 would really like to leave the country for the West.

"I am a Muslim - don't panic!"

"Our young people are open; they are looking for jobs, not the revelations of the Prophet," says Kalamujic. Young people in Sarajevo like to make fun of the hysteria in the West.

A black t-shirt with the imprint "I am a Muslim - don't panic!" is particularly popular at present. Even the patrons of Club Slogo wear it. Meanwhile, singer Salih expresses an entire generation's dreams of a brighter future through Robbie Williams' lyrics: "Come and hold my hand, I want to contact the living, Not sure I understand, This role I've been given".

Tobias Asmuth

© 2005

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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