Saturday, December 27, 2008

New York Times on Bosnia and Islam

An interesting story -- though a couple years late, perhaps -- on how the investment in what one might call "Islamic evangelization" by Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations is progressing in the New York Times today.

The story touches on all the (all-too) familiar contrasts and fault lines between pre-war and post-war Bosnia: the urbanity and lightly-worn Islam of pre-war Bosniak Muslims versus the increasingly open displays of overt Islamic fashion ("fully covered women and men with long beards"). Serbs versus Bosniaks. I pa da.

Some of the quotes in this 2008 article are vintage 2000 and earlier, such as this one from Mustafa Efendi Ceric, who is the chief spiritual leader of Bosnia's Muslims: "The Serbs committed genocide against us, raped our women, made us refugees in our own country. And now we have a tribal constitution that says we have to share political power and land with our killers. We Bosnian Muslims still feel beseiged in the city of Sarajevo."

Sigh. It is more than 12 years after Dayton, yet the rhetoric plunges the reader right back to the mid-Clinton presidency.

Amidst the rehearsal of a few Balkan favorites (attacks on a gay pride event, for instance), the article does report a few new twists, including a multiethnic battle against Islamic kindergarten in state-run schools in Sarajevo.

The article doesn't really get into two key issues, however.

The first is the extent to which the investment in promoting Islam by outside players -- which is also more than a decade old now --has not taken root, despite the $700 million dollars poured into the country. When I lived in Sarajevo nine years ago, my neighborhood -- Alipasino Polje -- was a key target in that effort. It's where the immense King Fahd mosque (mentioned in the article, and funded by Saudi Arabia) was erected, for instance, just three dozen paces from the front door of my apartment complex.

Back then, the residents viewed it with a quintessentially Sarajevan mixture of pride, mockery and opportunism. (Who doesn't love sporting complexes in the neighborhood?) On my last visit two years ago, the feeling was much the same, though clearly attendance at the mosque was up a bit.

The other issue is just how any Islamic revivalism has taken root -- to whatever extent it has -- in Bosnia.

The demographics of ethnic cleansing -- on multiple levels -- have definitely driven the phenomenon. The first level is the effect of the siege and the war between 1992-1996 on Sarajevo itself: the brain drain and the shredding of the delicately-woven multiculturalism of the city drained Sarajevo of much (not all) of its fabled urbanity. But like any urban center, the city filled back up again with a massive influx of refugees from other (less urban) parts of Bosnia that had been ethnically cleansed by Serbs and Croats. Those refugees came from places where equally-delicate (though much less cosmopolitan) social fabrics were also torn asunder.

That forced population transfer and the residual ill feelings from the war doubtless has provided some fertile ground for some Bosniaks to assert a more overt identification with Islam. But it's simultaneously ironic and pathetic and morally bankrupt for Republika Srpska prime minister Milorad Dodik to label Sarajevo as a "new Tehran" -- as he is as quoted as saying in this article. Because if it's true (and a weighty preponderance of evidence is to the contrary), Dodik and his fellow Serb citizens of Bosnia made it that way with their destructive war.

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