Bosnia's staunchly secular media, largely made up of the mentality if not the elements of the former Communist establishment, and having (like their Eastern European counterparts) renamed themselves “social democrats” or simply “liberals,” are quick to blast the official Islamic Community for everything ranging from what they see as Islam's aggressive reassertion in the public sphere to the Islamic community's purported inability to control the puritanical Islamic movement better known as Salafism. Western observers mostly regurgitate news prepared by such media without indulging in any in-depth analysis or critical overview of the events that have shaped Bosnian Islam in the last two decades. The result is a conclusion that Islam is menacingly reasserting itself in Bosnia and threatening the country's secular cast and its multiethnic establishment. However, a number of factors that have shaped Bosnia's recent history provide more explanatory answers to understanding Islam in Bosnia today.
Three major events that marked the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century in Bosnia ought to be considered in order to understand the reasons that led to a greater visibility of Islam in some parts of Bosnia (while less in others) as well as to the appearance of the tiny but attention-grabbing Salafis.
The first factor was the 1991 collapse of communism after being in power for almost 50 years and the country's transition to independence, democracy and hence freedom of religion. As was the case in most communist countries, religion was officially suppressed in the public sphere but unofficially in the private sphere. Mosques and Islamic high schools in Bosnia were closed down or even demolished during the many years of communist rule, while piety and mosque attendance were generally discouraged. Anyone regularly attending a mosque would raise eyebrows among the numerous agents of Yugoslavia's much-feared UDBA (Internal Security Service), while his/her prospects for career advancement would have faced a bleak future. Hence, the collapse of communism gave way to the collapse of such a form of official atheism, and the transition to democracy paved the way for the possibility of people to freely express and practice Islam, including the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols, without fear of losing their jobs or being detained for questioning.
The genocide factor
The second factor was war and genocide. The war waged by the Army of the Serb Republic and the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) against the independent and sovereign Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the genocide of Bosniacs from 1992 to 1995 had a significant impact on the average Bosniac, who only in the uncertainties and besiegement of war contemplated issues pertaining to life and death and the existence of God. Although the war's impact on increased piety among Bosniacs was limited by time and space (increased piety ended mostly with the war) it nevertheless still had an impact on some, particularly on those who had lost loved ones to the war. Apart from the genocide of Bosniacs (also recognized by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, ICTY) the war also saw the systematic destruction of some 600 mosques by the Army of the Serb Republic and the JNA while also resulting in the forced deportations of hundreds of thousands of Bosniacs from eastern and northern Bosnia who were eventually squeezed into Bosniac-majority cities such as Sarajevo, Tuzla and Bihac. With the end of the war and the reconstruction of the country, the destroyed and damaged mosques were only naturally rebuilt, and new mosques were constructed in cities where deported Bosniacs had settled to cater to their religious needs. Due to the lack of finances in a war-devastated country many mosques were constructed and renovated by Middle Eastern petrodollars.
The third factor was globalization, or rather the effects of it. Globalization resulted in the media transmitting the plight of Bosnian Muslims, sometimes live, throughout the world and to Muslim countries in particular. In the absence of an adequate Western response or military intervention to end the war, some individuals from the Middle East took the initiative to help. This resulted in Arab humanitarian workers, missionaries and mujahedeen (or “freedom fighters” as the United States referred to them during the Soviet-Afghan war) making their way to Bosnia. Some brought along with them their own puritanical interpretations of Islam (often referred to as Salafism), which small numbers of Bosniacs adopted during and after the war. Bosnia's integration into the so-called “global village” and the widespread use of the Internet after the war enabled Islamic ideas (along with other ideas) to be transmitted easily to the Bosnian public. Today anyone in Bosnia wishing to get answers pertaining to Islam or any legal opinions (fatwas) just has to click on a fatwa of his choice from an Islamic scholar of his choice.
The question of fundamentalism
The final question when discussing Islam in Bosnia is fundamentalism. Bosnia's neighboring countries seem to have made good use of the global post-Sept. 11 Islamophobic atmosphere to try and retrospectively justify their own irredentist claims during the 1992-1995 war by putting forward the notion that they were battling a war against Islamic fundamentalism. Bearing in mind that the war started in 1992 just as most Bosniacs were waking up from their 45-year slumber in a seemingly communist utopia, the Islamic fundamentalism excuse is simply unconvincing. Even post-war accusations of fundamentalism being aimed at the specks of bearded men are implausible as there is no scientific proof of a correlation between increased piety and a greater observance of Islamic injunctions and fundamentalism.
As it could be expected, greater freedom of religious expression was and still is being viewed in Bosnia most suspiciously by elements of the former communist establishment who today, just like in other parts of Eastern Europe, claim to be the devoted defenders of secularism while retaining much of their almost militant neo-Marxist interpretations of secularism whereby the aim of separating church and state would not be to protect religion from the state as was originally intended but rather to subdue religion to the state. It is from these elements where much of the criticism towards greater expressions of all religions, and in this case Islam, stems from.
The Islamic revival in the Middle East during the 1970s was the result of failed pan-Arab ideas, a humiliating defeat by Israel during the 1967 war and the first Palestinian intifada. However, the post-communist Islamic revival in the Balkans generally and in Bosnia specifically is merely the result of suppressed Muslims making use of their newly won freedom and democracy to freely express their faith, both in private and in public.
*Harun Karcic is researching the Islamic revival in Bosnia in the Roberto Ruffili faculty of political science at the University of Bologna and is a member of the Sarajevo-based ISEEF group. Views expressed here do not reflect the views of the institutions the author is affiliated with.