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Last Updated: Friday, 12 September, 2003, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
Bosnia's Islamic heritage

By Gabriel Partos
BBC South-East Europe analyst

Bosnia-Hercegovina, which emerged as an independent state in 1992, is one of only a handful of countries in Europe where Muslims form the largest group in the population.

But religion in Bosnia - or the cultural tradition it represents among the many secular-minded people - is a crucial badge of self-identity.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and Bosnian Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic
A cultural agreement with Iran was signed by ethnic Serb Ivanic (r)
Without that form of self-definition, there would be no easy way of differentiating Muslims - who form 44% of Bosnia's population - from the predominantly Catholic Croats and the traditionally overwhelmingly Orthodox Serbs.

It was, ironically, under President Tito's atheist regime during the days of communist Yugoslavia that the Muslims - originally considered just a religious group - were first defined as a separate nation with the same rights as other nations within the old Yugoslav federation that broke up in 1991.

Since the war of 1992-95 Muslims have preferred to be known as Bosniaks - a definition that does not carry an overtly religious meaning.

Sarajevo street scene
Religion is a crucial badge of self-identity for Bosnian Muslims
Indeed, for the many secular Bosniaks, awareness of their Muslim identity has much more to do with cultural roots than with religious beliefs.

Even among religious Bosniaks, the arrival during the war of hundreds of often fanatical foreign Islamic fighters, known as the mujahideen, was a mixed blessing.

Fighting against overwhelming odds, the Bosniaks had little choice but to accept the mujahideen offer of help - and arms supplies from Iran and other Muslim countries.

Following the Dayton peace accords of 1995, the mujahideen, along with other foreign fighters, were required to leave Bosnia. But some stayed on, particularly those who married local women and were granted Bosnian citizenship.

It is some of these former mujahideen, along with employees of foreign Islamic organisations, who have been giving cause for concern to the international community in its proclaimed fight against terrorism since the 11 September 2001 attacks on United States targets.

Vocal minority

Bosnia's own native Muslim population, with its strongly-entrenched European traditions, is seen as overwhelmingly pro-Western.

Most people wear Western-style clothes and the young insist on the latest fashions - alcohol consumption is part of everyday life
That remains the case, even though the war - in which Muslims were the main victims - radicalised the Bosniak community to some extent.

The mass movement of populations has transformed some previously cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic cities into predominantly Muslim places now inhabited by many refugees from the countryside who often wear more traditional clothes.

Within the Muslim community there has also been some tension between the majority, who follow the relaxed and tolerant local traditions of observance established during four centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule, and a small but vocal minority who have been educated in Arab countries or at foreign-run institutes within Bosnia who insist on a more fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

In spite of these differences, Western values continue to dominate - in social life as in politics. For most people, alcohol consumption is part of everyday life.

Rump state

Inter-ethnic co-operation, whether reluctant or not, is more important to Muslims than to Serbs or Croats.

That is because Bosnia's Serbs and Croats could easily link up to neighbouring Serbia and Croatia.

The Bosniaks would then end up in a rump Muslim state - too small to be viable.

Although Bosnia is not now in danger of being dismembered by Serbia and Croatia, awareness that the country cannot survive without multi-ethnic collaboration remains one of the guiding principles for Bosnia's Muslim politicians.

It was that same awareness that prompted ex-president Alija Izetbegovic, once a radical Muslim intellectual, to act as a diligent promoter of multi-ethnic collaboration during and after the war.

Mr Izetbegovic's political movement, the Party for Democratic Action, and his successors have continued to follow in his footsteps.

If you'd like to ask a question or make a comment about this article, write to us using the form at the bottom of the page. Gabriel Partos will answer a selection of your questions.


Your comments

The Bosnians were slaughtered during the 92-95 war and faced a UN embargo. Srebrenica is just a small example of the systematic ethnic cleansing they suffered. I cannot blame them for getting help from the Mujahideen. What is lovely is that the Bosnians are now rediscovering their roots and re-establishing an identity, even if it is an Islamic one.
Ong Chi Hwa, Singapore

Amazing - the Serbs attempt to exterminate the Muslims of Bosnia, destroying hundreds of mosques setting up concentration camps and you focus on alleged Muslim "extremists".
Abdullah Ahmed, UK

I do not understand why alcohol consuption should be something that one should be proud of, and something that should be regarded as pro-western. In many western countries alcohol policy is very strict, that is regarded as a good thing, but when we are talking about countries where Muslims live, we have a totally different take on the issue.
Suad, Bosnia

Why don't you also call those "tolerant" Christians radical, fanatical, fundamentalists?
Miralem, United States of America
Thank you for such a one-sided article. You're very quick to call the Muslims radical fanatics, but don' say anything about the Croats and the Serbs. Why don't you also call those "tolerant" Christians - our "tolerant" neighbors - radical, fanatical, fundamentalists? If the Muslims of Bosnia were to accept Islam's teachings fully and practice them, there would be no need to rely on our "tolerant" neighbors who tried to exterminate us all just a few years ago.
Miralem, United States of America

Being a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina who was born, who grew up there, who felt to some extent the multi character of the very Bosnian spirit, I would like to pose the following question to you: Why is it that you (as an expert I assume) are eager to emphasise these rifts and different currents of thought among the Muslims themselves? The alcohol is not the consumption in part of everyday life! Where is your sense of objectivity here, since generalisations are at best misleading, a little more serious research concerning this issue will help in clarifying the issue concerned.
Mujo, Malaysia

This is just another example of Muslims only being accepting of other religions because of necessity. That is, without the Serbs or Croats, the Bosnian Muslim state would cease to exist. Do you think the Bosnians would be as accepting of the other minorities if they could exist by themselves? Answer: No.
Peter, Australia

To Peter in Australia: I suppose Australia is the shining example of tolerance to its former inhabitants! The article seems to forget that during the war, Muslims were being exterminated regardless of whether they were 'moderate' or 'radical'.
Aftab Ali, UK

Do the Serbs and Croats in Bosnia live better in their ethnically cleansed entities?
Ian Gombos, France
To Peter: The Serbian and Croatian nationalists didn't show much tolerance for their Muslim compatriots. Remember Srebrenica, Remember Ahmici. And for what? Do the Serbs and Croats in Bosnia live better in their ethnically cleansed entities? No. In Srebrenica which was a fairly prosperous town before the war, today there is no running water, no jobs, no industries and the mines have been shunt down.
Ian Gombos, France

Peter from Australia, do you know any Bosnian Muslims? Do you know anything about Bosnia? Do you even know what a Muslim state is? Before you make generalizations and any conclusions I urge you to investigate the subject. Bosnia has never been a Muslim state, nor will it ever be. Not because of the other religions or ethnic groups but because Muslims in that country do not want an Islamic state.
Jasmin, Canada

To Peter, Australia: I suppose that is why not so many Aborigines have survived in Australia or indeed not so many Maoris in New Zealand or native Americans in North America; the list could go on forever. I don't remember anything in my history lessons about any Muslims colonising these continents. Ps: I'm a devout atheist.
Ardian, UK

Bosnia suffered because the Bosnian Muslims did not have the same rights as others
Sehzad, Australia
The Muslims did not have the same rights as other nations under Tito's regime. Bosnia suffered because the Bosnian Muslims did not have the same rights as others in the evil Yugoslavian federation. It also suffered because of western governments' blockade when Britain, France and others put an arms embargo on us so that the Yugoslavian army could exterminate us.
Sehzad, Australia

Bosnia is the part of Europe and it cannot be ruled by a Muslim fundamentalist regime because it is surrounded by Europeans and is going to be forced to go forward.
Mohamed Nuredin, Norway

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