Muslims in Bosnia Herzegovina
Help is at hand

In Bosnia Herzegovina Islam has been part of Europe for centuries. But in the debate surrounding Islam, little consideration is given to the experience of Bosnian Muslims. Nedad Memic considers this approach short-sighted

"Dear Lord, help and support our noble Emperor Franz Joseph I. and strengthen his army. Dear Lord, provide for his contentment and for the protection and prosperity of his kingdom." This is an excerpt from a prayer by the Bosnian Grand Mufti Dzemaluddin Causevic.

The prayer was to mark the birthday of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor and King Franz Josef more than 100 years ago. Austria-Hungary had already wrested organisation of the religious life of the Bosnian Muslims from the Ottoman Sultan back in 1882. Since then, responsibility for the appointment of the Grand Mufti and the council of scholars lay directly with the Emperor. This led to the emergence of a globally unique organisation and hierarchy of the Islamic faith.

Today, the Islamic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Islamska zajednica u Bosni i Hercegovini) and its institutions function according to secularist principles and are autonomous.

"The autonomy of the Islamic community brings many advantages for an independent handling of religious questions, but also a great deal of responsibility," says Amir Duranovic. The Bosnian contemporary historian and expert in questions facing the Islamic community emphasises that unlike Bosnia Herzegovina, most Muslim nations clarify religious questions through public institutions.

The international community frequently describes Bosnian Islam and the Bosniaks as "moderate". There are many reasons for this: the Bosnian Muslims have lived for centuries in a Christian environment. They share much of their language and culture with their Serbian-Orthodox and Croatian-Catholic neighbours. In socialist Yugoslavia in particular, religion played a subsidiary role in public life – for Muslims too. The Bosniaks nevertheless continued to feel an affinity with their Islamic heritage.

Mosque in Sarajevo′s Alipasino Polje district (photo: Ruben Neugebauer)
In the shadow of the past: some 130,000 people are thought to have been killed in the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict. At least 10,000 were killed in the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted almost four years. The victims included a particularly high number of Muslims. In July 1995, Serbian units under the command of General Ratko Mladic overran what was at the time the UN Safe Area of Srebrenica and murdered around 8,000 Muslim men and boys

Islam with a European character

But in the course of the 20th century, a secularisation process began that continued to regard Islam as the most important pillar of cultural and national identity, but minimised its role in political and social life. By 1985, only 15 percent of Muslims in Yugoslavia described themselves as devout.

The outbreak of the Bosnian war in 1992, however, was to change everything for Bosnian Muslims. For three years until 1995, they became the main target of a systematic programme of ethnic cleansing, displacement, mass murder and the only genocide to take place on European soil since the Second World War.

The research and documentation centre in Sarajevo holds the most reliable data on the victims of the Bosnian war. According to this information, more than 80 percent of the civilian victims were Bosnian Muslims!

For the Muslims in Bosnia Herzegovina the war brought the role of faith to the forefront in the subsequent creation of their nation. Just like orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats, today more than 90 percent of Muslim Bosniaks in Bosnia Herzegovina profess an affiliation with their religion. Despite this, Islam in Bosnia Herzegovina has still essentially retained its European character.

Aberrations of radicalism

To a visitor from the Arab world, Muslims from Bosnia and Herzegovina can appear quite strange: very few Muslim women wear headscarves, for example. Men and women are not strictly segregated, not even in mosques. Women and men greet each other with a handshake as a matter of course.

Damir Pestalic, imam of the Islamic community in Srebrenica, Bosnia Herzegovina (photo: DW/M. Sekulic)
"The Muslims of Bosnia Herzegovina have preserved their cultural autonomy over centuries. In doing so, they have developed the requisite instinct for co-existence with other religions: it is high time that the EU recognised this – and welcomed Bosniaks and their experience as essential contributors to the dialogue on European Islam," says Nedad Memic

At the same time, there have been an increasing number of media reports on the presence of IS in Bosnia Herzegovina. It is indeed the case that since the 1990s and the participation of what are known as the mujahideen in the Bosnian war, influence from the Arab region and Turkey has been on the rise.

Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States have financed the construction of numerous mosques and educational establishments. Students and tourists from Turkey and the Arab region are streaming into Bosnia Herzegovina. Shopping malls built by Arab major investors have become the new landmarks of Bosnian cities.

Bosnia Herzegovina is among those European nations with the largest number of IS fighters per capita of the population. Most of these self-proclaimed holy warriors come from isolated Salafist villages that are now under strict observation.

In the last 20 years, traditional Bosnian Islam has experienced competition from parallel Salafist structures. The Islamic community has only just begun to grapple with the implications of this challenge – too late, say many.

Preserved cultural autonomy

One thing is clear: the overwhelming majority of Bosnian Muslims rejects Salafist ideology. Despite growing religiosity and the trauma of war, they continue to hold fast to a European lifestyle. This is also evident from the high levels of their integration, in Germany or Austria for example – after Sweden and the US these are still the classic destinations for Bosniak migrants.

Whether Arab influence in Bosnia Herzegovina continues to grow in the long-term depends on the Europeans: as long as European investors turn their back on Bosnia Herzegovina, the nation will have to search for investors from the Arab region, Turkey and even Russia.

It is obvious that in one of the poorest nations in Europe, money also goes hand in hand with political or religious influence. The Muslims of Bosnia Herzegovina have preserved their cultural autonomy over centuries. In doing so, they have developed the requisite instinct for co-existence with other religions: it is high time that the EU recognised this – and welcomed Bosniaks and their experience as essential contributors to the dialogue on European Islam.

Nedad Memic

© Deutsche Welle 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Nedad Memic comes from Sarajevo and works in Vienna as a journalist.

More on this topic