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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 November 2005, 11:16 GMT
How Islam got political: Bosnia
By Mukul Devichand
BBC Radio Four's Analysis programme

Grave markers for victims of the Srebenica massacre in Bosnia
The growth of political Islam is one of the most important ideological events of the past century.
In these features, BBC Radio Four's Analysis programme charts the growth of this ideology - and its stunning effects around the world, including Britain.
Islam is a faith and code of conduct for over a billion people worldwide. But for some, Islam is also a political project. On these pages, you can read and hear the history of political Islam's development.

Koran and Country: How Islam got Political is broadcast on BBC Radio Four on Thursday 10 November at 8pm.

The civil war in Bosnia Herzegovina in the early 1990s brought with it harrowing news stories. Some of these atrocities were perpetrated by Serbs against Bosnian Muslims.

In Britain, this became a hugely important politicising event for Muslims.

Many British Muslims believed the international community was unwilling to protect the Bosnian Muslims, or even allow them to arm themselves in the face of what was becoming known as 'ethnic cleansing' by the well-armed Serbs.

'Next jihad'

In the light of Europe's perceived failure to act, Bosnia replaced Afghanistan as the destination for Muslims who believed they were fighting to defend their co-religionists.

Afghanistan had collapsed into civil war. Many of the fighters there saw Bosnia as a more clear-cut cause, according to Evan Kohlman, the author of a book about the Bosnian conflict.

"Many of the political Islamists who had stood behind the Soviet-Afghan War became disillusioned," he says.

"They began seeing Muslims fighting against other Muslims, Muslims killing innocent Muslims, and that's not what political Islam is about."

'They're looking for something to purify themselves. They're looking for a conflict where they can get involved in, where the sides are very clear, where it's Muslims against non-Muslims. Bosnia came up front and centre."

"It was a conflict where Muslims appeared to be again on the defensive and they began to sell the Serb military as the equivalent of the Soviets in Europe, as the most powerful or the second most powerful military in Europe, a Christian military intent upon wiping out Muslims."


For British Muslims, what made all this particularly disturbing was that the victims were white. Bosnian Muslims were not religious zealots from another continent, they were Europeans.

Bosnia fighters: Many Muslims saw the issues as clear cut
So, the reasoning went, if white Europeans didn't care what happened to white Muslims, then what chances would dark-skinned South Asian Muslims in Britain have if there was ever a major ethnic conflict here?

Rochdale Imam Irfan Chishti remembers the fear that spread among British Muslims, even among less politicized Muslims.

"They used to say that here in Britain, if people wanted to attack you, they wouldn't have to pull your pants down to recognise you as a Muslim," Sheikh Chishti recalls. "You're openly recognisable."

"So there was this kind of fear put into people's minds that now is the time for you to stand up to your identity. You saw a lot of young Muslims wanting to go out there."

None of the main Islamist political groups in Britain, like Hizb-ut-Tahrir or the Maududi-inspired groups, were publicly calling on British Muslims to go and fight in Bosnia.

But they did encourage Muslims to lobby the government to defend Bosnia's Muslims - and many of their members went over there as aid workers.

From the shadows

The violence of the mid-1990's in Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya and Algeria were all becoming battlegrounds complicated, or driven, by political ideologies inspired by religion, complete with a small backstreet industry of gruesome videos used for recruiting new fighters.

Hovering in the background was Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda organisation. He had spent the early 1990's in Sudan, as a guest of the Islamist government. But in 1996 he had to get out or risk being handed over to the Americans.

So, he returned to the country he felt most at home in, not his native Saudi Arabia, but to Afghanistan where an Islamist movement in the form of the Taliban was taking over.


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