Bosnia’s Dangerous Tango: Islam and Nationalism
Sarajevo/Istanbul/Brussels | 26 Feb 2013
Occasional violence notwithstanding, Islamism poses little danger in Bosnia, whose real risk stems from clashing national ideologies, especially as Islamic religious leaders increasingly reply with Bosniak nationalism to renewed Croat and Serb challenges to the state’s territorial integrity.
Bosnia’s Dangerous Tango: Islam and Nationalism, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines a growing fusion between Bosniak nationalism (which can be Islamic or secular) and Bosnian state identity. Political Islam is a novelty in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and its rise is seen as threatening to secular parties and non-Muslims. A dozen or so attacks attributed to Bosniaks in the past decade have raised fears of terrorism. However, the plethora of non-traditional Salafi and other Islamist groups that have appeared on the margins of society remain small and isolated.
“Virtually every act of violence inspired by Islamism has come from places where Islamic institutions – džemat (congregation), mosque, madrasa and family – are weak or absent, and many perpetrators have a troubled past”, says Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Balkans Project Director. “There is a lot of anger and frustration among Bosniaks, and leading figures in the Islamic establishment have sought to harness it to advance their political aims”.
The Islamic community (Islamska zajednica, IZ) in BiH has grown from a religious organisation into an important political actor that has helped shape Bosniak identity. Its influential and charismatic former leader, Mustafa ef. Cerić, painted a BiH which, though multi-ethnic, should be a Bosniak nation-state, since, he argued, Croats and Serbs already had countries of their own. That vision is appealing to many Bosniaks, including some who are thoroughly secular, but it repels most Croats and Serbs. If this becomes the dominant Bosniak view, it is hard to see how it could be reconciled with the viewpoints of Bosnia’s other communities; persistent conflict and instability would then be likely. Instead, the IZ should foster a view of the state as a shared enterprise in which all groups feel equally at home and focus on renewing its own institutions.
Bosnia’s Salafis are divided over loyalty to the state and the IZ. Most of those who accept these institutions are fiercely patriotic, and some fought as mujahidin in the war of the 1990s. Those who reject them as un-Islamic tend to withdraw to isolated settlements to practice their faith and are more interested in the global umma (Islamic community) than the fate of Bosnia. Neither group has shown a tendency to violence; most attacks have been the work of émigrés or persons with documented criminal or psychological records. The IZ and Bosnian state officials should cooperate to engage non-violent Salafis, especially those returning from the diaspora, in dialogue to encourage their integration.
“The Islamic community has been promoting a patriotic embrace of the state. Stability depends on whether it succeeds in framing a vision of Bosnia that can be shared by Croats and Serbs”, says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. “Having stepped into the political arena, the Islamic community has a responsibility to re-commit to interfaith dialogue and advance compromise solutions that can avoid the country’s further fragmentation”.