BOSTON — As a young soldier in Bosnia, Azem Dervisevic led a platoon that helped keep the capital city of Sarajevo from falling to Serb forces during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.
Now, as a civilian in the Boston area, Dervisevic is still fighting for his homeland, but with culture instead of bullets.
In June, he helped found the New England Friends of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a group that helped organize a recent art exhibit, “Bosnian Born,” featuring the work of more than 20 Muslim, Serb and Croat artists born in Bosnia.
The group also inaugurated its first semester of Bosnian language classes, with a dozen students between 6 and 9 years old. Dervisevic hopes it will promote Bosnian culture, encourage reconciliation between Bosnia’s different ethnic groups, and preserve the history of the war that introduced the term “ethnic cleansing.”
Despite their relatively short time in America and the ghosts of war, Bosnian Muslims are largely well integrated and often thriving in American society. Many have become physicians, university professors, business owners and financiers. Their children, like the children of most immigrant groups, are poised to do even better.
Bosnia is entering a new phase in its history: the post-war era is over; communities and mosques have been rebuilt. But where are Bosnian Muslims heading in these turbulent times? Charlotte Wiedemann spoke to Ahmet Alibašić, lecturer at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo
In what direction are Muslims intellectuals of your generation looking?
Ahmet Alibašić: We’re not looking in any particular direction. Because we were cut off from the Muslim world for several decades, during the Yugoslavian Empire and the Communist period, we have learned to be self-reliant. We have developed our own education system and produced a certain Islamic approach to learning. We were forced to rely on ourselves; we are used to independence. And we are very pluralist.
The lecturers of this faculty come from a huge variety of universities: Chicago, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Belgrade, Zagreb, Turkey, Kosovo, India. You won’t find such diversity at any other university in the Muslim world. We have modernists here, traditionalists and reformists.
And where are modernists such as yourself looking?
Alibašić: Bosnian modernists are looking more to Muslim scholars who teach at western universities or who used to teach, for example Fazlur Rahman, Abdolkarim Sorush or Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid.
Sarajevo seems to be a market place for all possible strands of Islam. You have just compiled a bibliography of all the works that have been translated into Bosnian. Who is paying for all this?
July 5 2011
The Hague district court has ruled that the Netherlands can be held responsible for the death of three Bosnian Muslim men in the Srebenica massacre. The deaths occurred when in 1995 Bosnian Serb forces overran the UN ‘safe area’ under the watch of Dutch forces, killing 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. This case referred to three Bosnian Muslims who had taken shelter in the compound but were forced out by Dutch peacekeepers. While previous courts had ruled that the Dutch state was not responsible for the deaths because the soldiers were operating under a UN mandate, this recent ruling rather held the Dutch responsible, ordering the government to pay compensation to relatives of the deceased men. The verdict came as a surprise and could have implications for similar cases against the Dutch state.
On request of the great number of media to comment the result of Swiss minaret ban, Dr. Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, made the following statement:
“It is interesting that Switzerland has chosen the greatest Muslim holiday (Eid al Adha, The Festival of Sacrifice) to demonstrate to Muslims its might, or better said, its impotence in respecting human rights as fundamental postulates of the system of European values. I am not burdened by conspiracy theory, but the interesting thing is that we the native peoples of Europe, Bosnians and Albanians, simultaneously at the time of Eid al Adha, our Festival of Sacrifice, receive the news of being exempt from visa-free travel system in European Union, and that the Swiss on their referendum voted in favour of the ban for minarets,” – said the Bosnian
Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric commenting the recent Swiss referendum. “Having in mind that Bosnian Muslims have the experience of genocide, which is so fresh and so deep in their memory, the issue of minarets in Switzerland is important, but for them it is more important to have secured the right to live in Europe and the right to freedom from fear for the future of their children. Unfortunately, both messages – the first from the Brussels that we are less worthy than our neighbors Serbians, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Croats, and the second that comes these days from Switzerland, that our religious and cultural symbols are undesirable – are
not encouraging and do not speak about Europe in which all humans and all
peoples have equal rights and equal respect. Obviously Europe is, apart from
being in huge economic, also in deep moral crisis. If it is aware of, then Europe instead of sinking deeper into the crisis should see in European Muslims the partners for both economic as well as moral recovery. We hope that Europe will soon realize it and return to its own values of human rights, which by the voted ban on minarets in Switzerland and by denying visa-free travel to only Bosnians and Albanians, its only native Muslim peoples, heavily undermined!’ – stated Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia.”
In the eastern Bosnian town of Bjeljina, 1,200 Serb residents signed the petition which calls for the reduction of the volume of the ezan (call to prayer) as it apparently creates a disruptive “noise” for the local Serb population. Harun Karcic, a graduate researcher at the Roberto Ruffili Faculty of Political Science thinks that this new move following a citizens’ petition demonstrates that Switzerland’s referendum has more far reaching implications than was first obvious.
“This move, which will most probably go unnoticed in most parts of the world, shows that the Swiss referendum and growing Islamophobia in Europe will have more serious consequences for Europe’s autochthonous Muslims than for the largely North African, Turkish and South Asian Muslim immigrants of Western Europe”, states Karcic among other things.
With their European culture and Islamic faith, Bosnian Muslims want to act as a bridge between East and West but instead feel rejected. There are times when Aida Begic gets on a plane and the looks she receives from other passengers remind her of people’s fears and misunderstandings about Islam. A well-known Bosnian movie director, she flies to film festivals all over the world dressed in fashionable yet distinctively Islamic clothing — a headscarf and outfits reaching down to her ankles and wrists.
Her first feature movie, Snow, premiered in Cannes in 2008. The global fear of flying with Muslims has become part of Begic’s everyday life. Despite this, she denies that there is any clash between her faith and her appreciation of western culture. “I was shaped by European literature, arts and music, and Bach is as much a part of my identity as [Muslim mystic and poet Jalaluddin] Rumi,” she says.
In fact, some experts believe the Muslim communities in the Balkans, whose Islamic faith developed in a European context, could serve as a bridge between the Islamic east and the Christian west.
But the allegiance of Bosnia’s Muslims to both worlds has been sorely tested recently. They feel Europe betrayed them in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war and has excluded them ever since. On the other side, offers of assistance during the war from some Muslim co-believers came at a price, that of the spread of Wahhabism in Bosnia.
The Bosnian Muslims are disappointed in the EU. They feel that they were the victims in the war against the Serbs. But the Serbs might soon be able to travel to the EU without needing a visa, whereas for the Bosnians this privilege is still a long way off. But the EU will only grant visa-free entry only to countries that fulfil a long list of conditions, from fighting organized crime to introducing machine-readable passports with computer chips. And in this respect, the EU considers the Serbians to be ahead of the Bosnians. Brussels isn’t interested in making compromises.
An exhibition in Rome opened this week, commemorating Muslims who saved Jews during World War II. The aim of the exhibition is to “fight all the violent and radical tendencies that have unfortunately emerged in the name of religion and Islam in particular,” said Khalid Chaouki, director of Minareto.it.. The Italian Muslim Youth Association is organizing the exhibit. Among those credited with helping Jews escape arrest and transfer to concentration caps include two Bosnian Muslims, three Albanians, two Turks, and one Iranian.
Full-text article available here. (Some news sites may require registration)
Fear-mongering about Islam is a global industry. Barack Obama has a unique power to break the cycle, not least by emboldening moderate Muslims to denounce terror. I’ll admit it: I’m thin-skinned about the kinds of slurs and innuendo about Muslims that have accompanied Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Years of being subjected to them while I covered the Bosnian war did that. We heard the whole gamut back then: how the European Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo were really Turks engaged in a demographic genocide (through high birth rates) against Christians, and how they were engaged in a plot to establish a Muslim crescent looping up from Turkey through the Balkans, and how they roasted enemy prisoners alive on spits. All the while, of course, said Bosnian Muslims were being herded by Christian Serbs into concentration camps that were centers of torture and systematic killing of a cruelty Europe believed it had forever banished. Roger Cohen reports.
A moderate European Muslim leader – in Seattle this weekend to attend the annual conference of the Congress of North American Bosniaks – drew upon a deep affection for the United States before cautioning Americans, “Don’t cease to believe that you are good.” The gentle warning from Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric – the supreme Islamic cleric for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia – followed the second day of meetings of the Bosniak congress attended by about 1,000 people from around the continent. About 7,000 Bosniaks came to the Seattle area after genocidal violence that ripped the former Yugoslavian province in the 1990s. Several dignitaries, including Haris Silajdzic, Bosniak member of the three-person Bosnia-Herzegovina presidency, attended the meetings, which are being held on the West Coast for the first time. In a private interview Sunday, Ceric said he believes it is his responsibility as a leading Islamic cleric and “friend and partner” of the United States to get out the word to Muslim people around the world that America is not an enemy of Islam. “America did not come to Bosnia because of oil,” Ceric said of the U.S. intervention in 1995. “America came because of the great American ideals of human rights and peace and security in the world. Your coming to Bosnia proves that America did not lose the ideals of freedom and human rights.” That said, Ceric made clear that he believes American foreign policy has lost its moral compass, citing actions taken at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. “We Bosnian Muslims need America in Bosnia and America needs us Bosnian Muslims to get the message across that American policy towards Bosnia has been positive and affirmative,” he said.