Bosniaks, Islam and the Siege of Sarajevo
Bosnian Muslims Seeking Harmony
New Straight Times
17 December 1993.
Among the graves crowding the tiny courtyard of his mosque are five mounds of fresh earth that Imam Ismet Spahic tends particularly well and prays over each evening: they hold his wife, three daughters, and a granddaughter, killed by Serbian shelling while fetching water.
Firmly, the grey-bearded Muslim clergyman spoke of his abiding faith and his certainty that his family awaits him in paradise. But when asked if, perhaps, he thought the government of a largely Muslim Bosnia should be a secular one, he seemed astonished that anyone could ask such a question.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Religion is a private thing for each individual. No single religion is the state religion. There should be a civil government with the same attitude toward all, respecting all religions and confessions. You have to have complete freedom.”
Islam has a distinct cast in the mountains, valleys, and cities of Bosnia, shaped by a history and culture far removed from the fundamentalism the Western world has come to fear from Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia.
But the society is under siege, caught in a three-sided war with the national identities of its enemies defined by religion: the Christian Orthodoxy of the Serbs, the Roman Catholicism of the Croats. Inevitably, perhaps, there have been some indications of the beginnings of an Islamic nationalism.
The most uncompromising political position here is the “Sanjak LIne,” named for Muslims who have migrated here from isolation in a hilly pocket of Serbia known as the Sanjak.
In the army there is a unit, the 7th Brigade, whose fighters often wear green headbands with Islamic slogans written in Arabic. Their headquarters, in Zenica, has taken on an Islamic cast. But the Muslim-led Government says it is determined to keep Bosnia a multinational society, including Serbs and Croats who wish to live here, as well as mixed families and the dwindling Jewish community.
“This mediaeval siege, slaughter, genocide is happening to a country that deserves to be protected,” says Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, a Muslim. “If nothing else, like a museum. Or like a model of what I hope we all eventually become.”
While the Government is dominated by Muslims, a Western diplomat deeply familiar with the area said:
“The dilemma is they are not really Islamic. They are Europeans, cosmopolitans. These are people who would find an Islamic state very strange. There has been some cultivation of Islamic roots in response to the radical [Serbian] nationalism around them. For instance, sometimes you will hear people give an Arabic greeting, and you never heard that before. but it’s still marginal.”
This part of the Balkans is where East met West and promptly began fighting, the collision point of the Latin and Eastern branches of Christianity and Islam, of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.
Serbs, particularly, call Muslims here Turks, sneeringly referring to the Ottoman heritage that planted Islam here. But most Muslims here are Slavs whose ancestors converted to the religion of their conquerors. Many Muslim families trace their roots to the Bogomils, one of the schismatic branches of Christianity in the Middle Ages. The Bogomils eschewed the elaborate ceremonies, robes, offices, and edifices of the Rome and Byzantium; they also embraced a kind of Manichaean belief in rival powers of good and evil.
For centuries, the Bogomils were under attack as heretics, particularly by the Roman Church as well as by the Orthodox. When the Ottoman armies rolled into Bosnia in the 15th Century, they found the Bogomils far less hostile than the Catholics and the Orthodox.
In the normal course of empire, the Ottomans allowed their subjects to keep their own religion but taxed them. In Bosnia, however, both the local nobility and much of the peasantry converted en masse to Islam, thus retaining their social structure and privileges and avoiding taxes. Islam also gave them greater protection from the pressures of the rival Christian churches.
The Ottoman built fortresses as they extended their rule, and towns and cities grew up around them, to be inhabited by the Bosnian Muslims, who also received privileges as merchants, thus developing an urban class.
The Austro-Hungarian empire gained control over Bosnia in 1878 as Ottoman power waned, bringing with it a new layer of European civilisation, reflected in the battered Baroque architecture nestled among the old city’s minarets and the unfortunate concrete of the Communists.
The Bosnian Muslims were left in an odd position for a minority, rather more sophisticated, particularly more than the Bosnian Serbs, whose roots are in the mountain peasantry.
“Who are we?” asked Enes Karic, a Yale-educated professor who teaches the Quran at the University of Sarajevo. “Who are Bosnian Muslims actually? When you look at us, you know we are a European population because of the way we look, our mentality, the way we dress, what we eat, our culture. I learned I was European when I was studying in Cairo.”
Like many intellectuals here, Karic prefers to be called Bosniak, not Muslim.
“We are Bosniaks in a national sense,” agreed Alija Isakovic, of the Muslim Cultural Society, who is labouring over a dictionary that seeks to document a distinct Bosnian language – and thus nationality – on the basis of local variations in the Serbo-Croatian spoken throughout the six republics that once made up Yugoslavia.
“Whenever we used that term Muslim,” he said, “we had to explain ourselves in some Western European country where they connected us with Iran or Libya. And in Arabic countries, when we said there were Muslims here who were atheists, they would say, ‘It’s impossible!’”