Terror in Sarajevo? Islam in Bosnia & the Rejection of Extremism

It is not customary to begin a discussion about terrorism with a joke but, given the context, I think it appropriate. How else, after all, is one to deal with the idiocy of this recent attack on the US Embassy in Sarajevo?

Mujo and Suljo are the two stock characters of Bosnian humour:  a sort of Abbott and Costello duo whose (mis)adventures typically find them snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and revelling in the deepest bowels of the blackest humours. Their personal biographies are varying, at times peasants, at times urbanites, and while their names are meant to be stereotypical Bosniak/Muslim names, all-together, they are the Bosnian everyman.

So, one day Suljo asks Mujo if he’s worried about all these terrorist attacks that have been gripping the front pages around the world since 9/11. “Not at all,” replies Mujo. “And why is that?” inquires his friend, intrigued. “Well, whenever I’m about to board a plane, I wait to be the last one on, and then I stand at the front and shout ‘As-Salamu Alaykum!’ and if anyone responds I leave immediately.”

This is the Bosnian Muslim, and how s/he imagines her/himself, and indeed how history has constructed Islam in Bosnia: it is a largely private, cosmopolitan, thoroughly secular experience of religion. The unveiled, trendy, young 20-something year old, done up to the 9s, sipping her cappuccino and going through a pack of slims is the day-to-day routine of the average Bosnian Muslim.

Siege
Having tasted terrorism first hand, Bosnia’s Muslims have little appetite for it. (Click for Larger View).

“Islamic fundamentalism”, that terror of the Western imagination, is essentially a non-existent phenomenon in Bosnian history, despite the 500 some odd years of Ottoman imperial rule. Nor is this particularly surprising: Islam in Bosnia arrives through the Ottomans, who are themselves arriving at the religion second hand. By the time the 20th century dawns, Islam in Bosnia has been shaped and conditioned by Ottomans, by Austro-Hungarians and, most importantly, by centuries of largely tolerant inter-communalism with Bosnian Catholics, Orthodox and Jews.

Nearly 50 years of Titoist socialism have the added effect of secularizing Bosnian society as a whole. By 1980, the year of Tito’s death, religion in Bosnia is largely a “cultural” experience. The country has been heavily urbanized and industrialized, many Bosnians own a second home, they are free to travel abroad, mixed marriages between the various ethnic groups are common, and gender equality has been official state policy for nearly half a century.

Despite having been marked for extermination twice over the course of the 20th century alone, and despite the emergence of a definite conservative and introverted reaction after the events of the 90s, the Bosnian remains living proof that Islam is entirely compatible with modern, Western values. The chief political party of even the most conservative of Bosnian Muslims, for instance, remains the Party of Democratic Action (SDA): a center-right, pro-European organization in the mould the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and other center-right parties in Europe. Indeed, the SDA is an observer of the European People’s Party (EPP) the main center-right block in the European Parliament affiliated with the likes of Merkel and Sarkozy. I’m hardly a conservative, but extremism this is not.

The events in Sarajevo will nonetheless, surely, provoke a by now tired and tedious reaction—“terrorists! They’re all terrorists!” Serb nationalists in Bosnia will likely be leading this charge. The same cabal which spent nearly a decade concocting the myth of an impending cull of Serbs across the former Yugoslavia by an assortment of Bosniaks, Croats and Albanians, who bemoaned that they could never (again, they said) live under the yoke Islamic oppression and would fight to preserve their freedom and their religion. This was the pre-emptive logic of genocide in Bosnia.

Insomuch as “ancient ethnic hatreds” did not exist, an orchestrated propaganda campaign and actual violence targeted at “opposing” ethnic communities would create it. When said “opposing communities” would then, indeed, turn inward to preserve their cultures, to preserve their traditions and to preserve their very lives, the same engineers of hate would, in a satisfied sweeping gesture, proclaim “Ah, you see? Didn’t we tell you what they were like?”

This has been the tactic of Serb nationalists in Bosnia. The fact that segments of the Islamic community in the country have resented Serb nationalists for targeting them for extermination, for destroying their places of worship and ancient monuments symbolizing the country’s polycultural history has been taken as evidence of the inherent intolerance of Bosnian Muslims. Meanwhile, individuals who orchestrated actual genocides are celebrated as heroes by these same forces.

And yet, the appearance of a fraction of a minority of fringe elements of Islamic extremists in Bosnia has next to nothing to do with the actual Muslims from Bosnia. The handful of Islamic fundamentalists actually present are all Wahabis—imports from Saudi Arabia. Their very presence in the country, however, is a result of the decision by the United Nations during the 90s to impose an arms embargo on Yugoslavia—within which it included the newly independent Bosnia-Herzegovina.  In practice, the embargo had zero effect on Serb nationalists who had full access to the military machine of the now completely Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army, the fourth largest military machine in Europe at the time. On the flip side, the government in Sarajevo composed of non-nationalist Serbs and Croats, Jews and, of course, Bosniaks was left with little more than pistols and, in some cases, World War II era military gear to defend the civilian populations now targeted for extermination.

It was in this moment that the Americans turned to the Saudis and the Iranians to arm the government in Sarajevo, and by extension, to send accompanying “volunteers” as means of circumventing the embargo. It was a moronic decision: the Bosnians never lacked for man-power. What they lacked was the tools to defend themselves with. But thanks to the obstructionist policies of the British, in particular, and other European states, Serb nationalists were allowed to freely orchestrate the biggest collection of crimes against humanity in Europe since the end of World War II, while the West collectively dragged its feet.

When certain sympathizers of the Serb nationalist project today wax poetic on the clear and demonstrable evidence of the fundamentalist credentials of the Sarajevo government they summarily neglect three of the most important pieces of information:

  1. According to the most credible studies, the total number of foreign Islamic fighters in Bosnia was somewhere in the neighbourhood of approximately 400-1000 individuals. A laughable fraction of the 200,000 some odd individuals who comprised the Bosnian military and militias as a whole.
  2. Using these same numbers, we can conclusively say that more Serb and Croats died defending the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina from the nationalist forces sponsored by Belgrade and Zagreb, than were mujahideen present. And this not even including the number of non-Bosniak veterans who served in the Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and survived the war.
  3. These same individuals never make mention of the Greek or Russian neo-fascist volunteers who came to Bosnia to willingly and happily participate in the extermination of non-Serbs. So grateful were the likes of Karadzic and Mladic, that as the killing in Srebrenica reached a crescendo, they raised a Greek flag over the town.

In the case of this most recent attack in Sarajevo, at least one more important fact is worth pointing out: the individual in question is not Bosnian—he is a Muslim from the Sandžak region in Serbia. His actions in Sarajevo yesterday have in no shape, way or form garnered any support from any quarter of the Islamic community in Bosnia—and likely even his Wahabi associates are dismayed at what an amateurish mess he made of his whole little enterprise. Tellingly, it was only minutes after the standoff had ended that Bosnians on Twitter and Facebook began making light of the whole episode in ways only they could. One particularly cheeky Tweet declared that the suspect had clearly never played any modern video game shooter—he didn’t even know how to get behind cover!

Nonetheless, there is a very serious dimension to these events: Bosnia’s secular and polycultural institutions were placed under incredible stress during the 1992-1995 war, and despite their rhetoric, Western powers which have restructured the country since the war have done little to address these issues. The Dayton Peace Accord which brought peace to the country and now serves as the Constitution has institutionalized a segregated-apartheid regime in Bosnia which has systematically prevented reconciliation and empowered local nationalist oligarchs. Such an environment is, no pun intended, a God send for extremism of every sort.

Bosnians have already done their part to make a stand against this sort of idiocy. The 2010 film Na Putu (On the Path) provided an excellent analysis of the confrontation between Bosnia’s secular and cosmopolitan traditions and this new alien extremism. In a powerful scene, an elderly Bosniak genocide survivor is confronted by a newly radicalized Wahabi who bemoans her lackadaisical approach to the marking of Eid which features alcohol and music. “You do not tell me how to worship in my own home!” the matriarch snaps.

If the international community is to continue to have a presence in the country, which they seem to insist on, then they ought to actually live up to and enforce the ideals which supposedly compose European modernity: secularity, tolerance, democracy and multiculturalism. Most of these developed organically in Bosnia, over centuries. Attempts have been made to tear the country, its peoples and its history asunder, by minorities committed to hate and violence. But in truth extremist monoliths of religious or nationalist varieties have no history in Bosnia, and they cannot be allowed to have a future either.

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Jasmin Mujanović

Jasmin is a PhD candidate in Political Science from York University in Toronto. Originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, he regularly blogs about the Balkans, international affairs and social movements in Canada and abroad. His commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Al Jazeera, openDemocracy, Balkanist Magazine, Balkan Insight and TransConflict among other platforms. You can contact him through Twitter or through his personal website.

2 thoughts on “Terror in Sarajevo? Islam in Bosnia & the Rejection of Extremism”

  1. I think we need to consider the larger picture. The attacks on Moslems in the Balkans are the most recent effort to push Islam out of Europe.

    Ever since Islam crossed the sea at Gibraltar and the Bosphorus and invaded Europe, the Westerners have struggled to evict the invaders. It took a full 800 years to evict the Moslems from Spain, but the eviction in the east is still a work in progress. The war in the 1990s was the most recent attempt to push Islam back into Asia. This process will continue until the Moslem conquest of Europe is reversed.

  2. I’m not really sure this is the case. It’s certainly a narrative which has been popular in certain right-wing extremist segments in the West (e.g. Breivik, Mark Steyn) but it’s not actually a reflection of what happened in Yugoslavia or Bosnia, specifically. Here the issue was, essentially, an orchestrated coup of the state by Milosevic & his allies, which over the course of the late 80s and early 90s inverted the ideological and cultural pillars of the Yugoslav state as a means of entrenching their own hold on power in a period that had previously been marked by a process of relative liberalization. It was a reactionary move, which largely used ethno-chauvinism, to masquerade and legitimize what was otherwise simply a power grab by a small number of individuals. Naturally, there were a few true believers on the fringes (e.g. Seselj) but this was not the dominant character of the project.

    If the entrenched anti-Muslim narrative is to be believed, we’ll have a hell of a time explaining the non-existence of any inter communal violence during the socialist period, or during even the Austro-Hungarian period or even, in large part, during the long Ottoman period. Really, “ethnic tensions” emerge in the region during the course of the only first Yugoslav state (1918-1941) and were only acted upon in a significant way during the fascist occupation. In both cases, this was the result of transparent engineering of an “ethno-nationalist” narrative and not some organic expression of communal antipathy.

    As such, I find the “Crusader” narrative less than convincing.

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