Sarajevo: In order to reach the village of Gornja Maoca, one has to drive for a few kilometres on a dirt track past the village of Maoca, where a police car stands on patrol at the end of the paved road. Most people tried to dissuade me from going there: "no-one will want to speak to you. They don’t like journalists."
"They" are the inhabitants of Gornja Maoca, who in local parlance are referred to as vehabija, or Wahhabis, as they follow a strict version of Islam commonly known as Salafism. Salafis in Bosnia and Herzegovina consider the term vehabija to be derogatory.
In recent years, Gornja Maoca and other small such communities in Bosnia have been at the centre of a string of controversies in the national and international media, claiming that they serve as recruiting grounds for terrorists.
The latest bout came in July 2015, when the British Daily Mirror alleged that Ošve village ‘has been used for Daesh training camps and could be a base for devastating terror attacks on the West.’
Bosnian men play chess on a cloudy afternoon in Sarajevo. Behind them a Serbian Orthodox Church from 1863 stands.
The media has not produced much evidence to support the claim that Gornja Maoca is a Daesh stronghold, yet the terrorist group’s June 2014 declaration of a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria has inevitably brought the spotlight back on Bosnia, a country still deeply divided as a result of a devastating war in the 1990s.
When I first met Hajro, he was polite but firm: ‘We had plenty of bad experiences with journalists before, so now the first assumption is that they are spies."
His son Mustafa was behind the wheel of their beaten down car; sitting on the passenger’s seat, Hajro smiled nervously: "It is nothing personal, please try to understand."
In the end, he and Edis – another Gornja Maoca resident – agreed to speak with me, as we sheltered from the summer heat under a tree next to a water streak.
‘It’s the law of the strongest. The media have the right to say whatever they want about us and we cannot do anything about that. They call us terrorists to tarnish the image of Islam,’ says Edis in frustration and quotes from the Quran: “Produce your proof if you are truthful.’ But where is their proof? As soon as the tension goes down in the country, they try to increase it again.’
Bosnian youth sitting in front of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Sarajevo. A majority of the country’s Islamist population eschews violence.
‘We think Daesh has deviated from mainstream Islam,’ he says in a mixture of Arabic, Bosnian and English. He adds, however, that ‘we still observe the teachings of Nusret Imamovic,’ a controversial preacher who resided in Gornja Maoca and is now reportedly fighting in Syria with Al Qaida affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra.
‘Look, I don’t know where Nusret is. He was my neighbour and I haven’t seen him in more than a year. We are village people who live by the teachings of Islam, love nature and a peaceful life. There are hundreds of isolated villages like Maoca in Bosnia, there is nothing special about us, really.’
‘You know why they are so afraid of us?’ asked Hajro. ‘It’s because we are natives of Bosnia, rather than immigrants.’ As we spoke, a few drivers on their way in and out of the village stopped by out of curiosity. Like Edis and Hajro, they sported long beards and trimmed moustaches; abaya-clad women sit in the back of the cars.
Before we parted ways, Edis explained that ‘we are followers of the aslaf, our ancestors. We are Ahl Al Sunna Wal Jama’a, or Sunni Muslims, and we mostly follow the Hanbali school of fiqh or jurisprudence, though our approach is evidence based: if another school of fiqh has stronger proof in one specific instance, then we follow it.’
A minaret from one of the hundreds of mosques strewn about Sarajevo stands tall on a cloudy afternoon.
Salafism is, however, a relatively new phenomenon to Bosnia. After the end of socialism, thousands of foreign Muslim ‘mujahideen’ came to the country to fight alongside Bosnian Muslims, with the help of Western intelligence agencies. Funding and training were provided by Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It was only then that a stricter version of Islam came to Bosnia.
Two decades on, the greatest majority of Salafis in the country are native Bosnians, but Salafism has found it hard to shake off the label of being an ‘imported’ element as compared to traditional Bosnian Islam.
When I ask Razim ef. Colic – the Head of the Foreign Affairs and Diaspora Directorate at the Islamic Community (Islamska zajednica, or IZ) of Bosnia and Herzegovina – to define the latter for me, he replied: ‘In the IZ constitution, it is stated that we are Ahl Al Sunna Wal Jama’a, of Maturidi doctrine and followers of the Hanafi school of fiqh.’ (Edis told me that they consider the Maturidis to be innovators who have strayed from the right path.)
The world 'Allah', Arabic for God, is scrawled on the remnants of the 1984 Winter Olympics Bobsledding track in the largely Serb hills surrounding Sarajevo.
‘Bosnian law defines the traditional faiths of the country and their legitimate representatives. For Muslims, this is the IZ. In other words, if a Wahhabi comes and tells you that he’ll teach you Islam, or that he’ll open a mosque, that is forbidden by law, as only the IZ can do that. But of course, Wahhabis are welcome to pray in our mosques.’
While the open door policy of mosques throughout Bosnia is undeniable, altercations involving Salafis in IZ mosques have soured relations between believers. Naturally, Bosniaks – as Bosnian Muslims are now commonly known – hold widely diverging positions concerning Salafism, ranging from mild acceptance to strong opposition. Most, however, appear to resent what they view as proselytism on the part of its adherents. In the words of a friend from Tuzla, ‘Wahhabis are observant Muslims and I don’t have any problem with them. But they shouldn’t tell us what to do and teach us Islam. We’ve had Islam here for 550 years.’
A member of Abu Hamza’s family – a former mujahid who has spent years in legal limbo at the detention immigration centre in East Sarajevo – told me in 2013 that ‘Salafis don’t have problems with traditional Bosnian Muslims; it’s the latter who have problems with Salafis. The reason is that the majority of Muslims in Bosnia are only Muslims by name, they pray on Friday and fast for Ramadan, but they skip the other prayers and drink alcohol to celebrate Eid. So they get upset if someone tells them that this is not the right way to follow Islam.’
IZ representatives are keenly aware of the rift within the community. Enes ef. Ljevakovic is a soft-spoken man in his fifties who was elected as the Mufti of Sarajevo in 2014. Sitting in his spacious office in Ferhadija Street, at the entrance of Sarajevo’s 15th century bazaar, he explains that Salafists tend to live in isolation, which creates doubts and fear.
Ljevakovic, however, says that the issue of radicalism in Bosnia is often blown out of proportion and used for political purposes to portray Bosnia as a threat to Europe and a breeding ground for terrorism.
‘They make a very limited phenomenon appear much bigger than it actually is,’ he said.
What’s in a myth?
The Mirror’s article is a case in point, but it is not alone in confusing the terms of the debate by conflating all Salafis in Bosnia into a potential security threat. Radical Islamist ideology is almost universally and uncritically cited in the mainstream as the driver of terrorism, despite the evidence pointing to a much more complex phenomenon. The step from there to a blanket indictment of Islam and Muslims is a dangerously easy one.
In the charged context of post-war Bosnia, one may forgive the Muslim community for feeling under scrutiny by association. Across the spectrum, I found fatigue and anger at the media’s Daesh threat hype machine. ‘Everyone seems to have an interest in depicting Bosnia’s Muslims as terrorists,’ a friend from Kozarac put bluntly.
Many say that sensationalist reporting shuts the door for dialogue and plays right into the hands of political forces in the country who wish to play the nationalist card to score cheap political points and deflect the public’s attention from pressing socioeconomic issues.
Unsurprisingly, the Mirror’s piece was widely circulated in the national media, as well as translated verbatim in the official TV station of the Republika Srpska (RS) – one of the two entities that constitute Bosnia since the 1995 Dayton peace agreement – whose President, Miroslav Dodik, is notorious for jumping at any opportunity to renew calls for greater independence for RS.
A recent report entitled ‘The Lure of the Syrian War: The Foreign Fighters’ Bosnian Contingent’ indicates that, between spring 2012 and the end of 2014, a total of 217 Bosnian citizens (156 men, 36 women and 25 children) moved to the war theatres of Syria and Iraq. They represent 0.01% of the total Muslim population of Bosnia, which is upward of 1.5 million.
As Democratisation Policy Council senior associate Kurt Bassuener noticed, ‘the biggest issue in the Balkans, and particularly Bosnia, is not the proliferation of Islamists bent on attacks on the region, but the poor monitoring of the very few who may be planning attacks.’ This is consistent with the findings of a 2013 International Crisis Group (ICG) briefing: ‘acts of violence in recent years by Bosniaks are not a symptom of Islam’s rise in the Balkans but a reflection of stress and fragmentation of traditional Islamic society and the ongoing morass that is Bosnian politics,’ adding that ‘the vast majority of the country’s small Islamist population eschews violence.’
The main threat facing Bosnia today isn’t rampant radicalisation, but governance, or rather the lack thereof. The sclerotic system introduced with Dayton in 1995 – with two entities, ten cantons and one special district, as well as 22 police agencies often unwilling to cooperate due to unclear jurisdictions and political wrangling – has produced a state unable to provide citizens with socio-economic security.
‘I consider the biggest threat for peace and stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina to be the economic crisis, a world-wide economic crisis that has deeply affected our country,’ Bosnia’s Minister of Defence, Marina Pendes, told Gulf News.
Speaking at her office in Bistrik, one of Sarajevo’s oldest quarters, she explained that post-war Bosnia has an inadequate legislative system that prevents it from operating as a fully functional state. As unemployment soars above 60% among the youth and averages 43% among the active population, the vast majority of Bosnians from all walks of life happen to agree.
In the context of chronic state inefficiency, if not effective paralysis, local politicians have been adept at using nationalist scaremongering to divert attention from more pressing issues and, crucially, prevent alliances across community lines. ‘For the ethnic oligarchies in power, nationalism is the best way to preserve the status quo. That way, they are satisfied, while the people are just afraid: give us anything, but not another war,’ Professor Jasmin Jahic, Vice Dean at the Faculty of Criminalistics, Criminology and Security Studies at Sarajevo University, told Gulf News.
‘Nationalism is definitely a bigger threat than radicalism in Bosnia,’ he says. Bosnia has taken measures to combat radicalism by introducing new laws that punish anyone who leave and fight in a foreign war, Jahic explains.
‘However, to this day, publicly glorifying the [Serbian] Chetnik or the [Croatian] Ustasha movement isn’t punishable, nor is denying the genocide in Srebrenica.’
In other words, violent radical Islamists are at the margin of Bosnian society, a point that comes across forcefully in The Lure of the Syrian War report: ‘apart from rare exceptions, the majority of these individuals have only an elementary school education, do not possess marketable skills or work experience, and live in dilapidated houses far from main roads with at least two generations of relatives.’ On the other hand, twenty years after Dayton, nationalists remain firmly in the mainstream and in power, boding ill for Bosnia’s future amid political deadlock and economic bankruptcy.
- Franco Galdini is a roving freelance journalist