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Image of Alia Izetbegovic on a poster
Image of Alia Izetbegovic on a poster

The Bosnian Muslim population has for a long time been one of the most secularised in the Balkans – this, despite the fact that under communism the later Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic was tried (in 1983) for being a "pan-Islamist" and sentenced to 13 years in prison for "attacks against socialism, and [plans] to build an Islamic State in Bosnia".

In 1990, Izetbegovic became one of the main founders of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA). In 1991 he became the President of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and signed the Dayton Agreement in 1995. Throughout the war, he stuck to his vision of creating a multinational and undivided Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nevertheless, he has been accused of having personally invited foreign Muslim fighters – mujahideen – to come to Bosnia during the war. It is not clear how many such soldiers were actually present: estimates range from a few hundred to a few thousand. Stephen Schwarz, Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, has written:

"Saudi-backed Wahhabism first made itself visible in Bosnia during the 1992-95 war, when up to 6,000 "Arab Afghan" volunteers arrived in the country and enlisted in combat. While bin Ladenite propagandists, as well as Western journalists, have expended a vast quantity of ink on the topic of the Bosnian "mujahideen," in reality they played almost no perceptible role in the war. The Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which undertook the defense of Bosnian independence against the Serbs and, secondarily, the Croats, was a regular army of hundreds of thousands organized in the multicultural image of the Tito Partisans. Although Muslim Brigades and mujahid units existed, the latter did not determine the course of any major battles."

More recently the Wahhabi phenomenon has caused concern among Bosniaks, who relate it to the presence of well-funded donor organisations from Saudi Arabia who reward pious behaviour and adherence to strict Islamic dress codes. Wahhabism is in competition with the Islamic Community of Bosnia. The Imam in Travnik recalls a case in Gornji Vakuf, Central Bosnia, where two Imams embraced Wahhabism:

"The main Mufti went there and asked all Imams to sign a document stating that they are practicing Islam in accordance with the rules of the Islamic Community of BiH. All signed, except these two, who subsequently resigned from their positions."

However, Islamists have not managed to establish a significant hold over the Muslim population in Bosnia. An All Muslim Congress in 1994 decided to rename the population’s national identity – from "Muslim" to "Bosniak". The majority of Bosnian Muslims have embraced this national term and abandoned the old. Stephen Schwarz wrote:

"The Bosnian ulema, or Muslim scholars, are led by the pro-American reis-ul-ulema or chief scholar, Mustafa Ceric, formerly the imam of the Bosnian Muslims in Chicago, Ill., and a graduate of the University of Chicago. Ceric has repeatedly affirmed that Bosnian Islam is profoundly oriented toward Western civilization and grateful to the United States for rescuing the country."


Chief Scholar, (reis-ul-ulema) Mustafa Ceric

In fact, the vast majority of Bosnian Muslims are suspicious of the promotion of orthodox Islamic practice by Saudi Arabian donors.

An imam – goes a common joke – enters a mosque to lead a prayer. He addresses the gathering with the following words:

"To those in the third row and further away I say 'Salaam brothers!´; to those in the second row I say 'Good morning!´; and to those in the first row, I say 'Hello comrades!'"

Imam in Sevarlije
Imam in Sevarlije

June 2008

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