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Bosnian Religious Leaders Fill Political Void

7:32 AM, Jan 18, 2013 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Sarajevo
Bosnia-Herzegovina has seen the last of hundreds of employees of the European Union, United Nations, and other international agencies, including dozens of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that once gathered there. They have left the country a politically-partitioned and economically-distressed state that, if not failed, seems ever deteriorating.  

Executive authority in Bosnia-Herzegovina rests with the internationally-controlled Office of the High Representative, currently occupied by Valentin Inzko, an Austrian. Inzko has the power to impose policies on and remove personnel from among the Bosnian authorities, without appeal or review of his decisions.

In addition, foreign administrators saddled the country with a complex system of institutional strata. It encompasses two zones: the “Republic of Serbs,” largely made up of the territories seized by Serbian forces in the 1992-95 Bosnian war, and the “Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina” mainly uniting Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Bosnian Croats.

The “Republic of Serbs” is a unitary entity. “Federation Bosnia” consists of 10 cantons, each with a constitutional and legal structure, but with little effective jurisdiction when compared with American states. This has led to an ambiguous, redundant, and labyrinthine system from which ordinary “Federation” Bosnians feel alienated as citizens.

Lack of opportunities for political engagement, dependence on international decision-makers, and general cynicism about pervasive corruption have therefore made many Bosnians indifferent to the political parties that appear on their ballots at election time. These consist of the “Muslim” but not Islamist Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the similar Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina (SBIH), the ex-Communist and multiethnic Social Democrats (SDP), the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), and the various parties in the “Republic of Serbs,” led by the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), another ex-Communist party, but with a sharp Serbian-nationalist edge.

Bosnia-Herzegovina has a remarkable heritage of mutual interfaith respect, even though its communal rivalries have led to violence. During the recent Christmas celebrations the Interreligious Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in which Catholics play the guiding role, took the initiative in calling for a positive and happy future for the country within the context of European stability. This was more than a holiday formality. Numerous Bosnians look to Catholic Croatia as a gateway to acceptance by Western Europe.

The composition of the Interreligious Council reveals the special burden undertaken by Catholics, who account for only about 15 percent of the total population, with the rest at 45 percent Muslim and 36 percent Orthodox Christian. Vinko Puljic, the country’s Catholic cardinal, is the president of the Council, and the Catholics keep the organization active before the public. Its three other participants are a minor Islamic cleric, Husejin Smajic, the Serbian Orthodox bishop of Herzegovina, Grigorije Duric, and the president of the Jewish community, Jakob Finci. Finci, a secular figure, is the only member of the council not to hold spiritual responsibilities.

The Jews of Sarajevo—who before World War II counted a fifth of the city’s population at the time of 60,000—continue to exercise moral and political influence. Finci is now an independent candidate for Sarajevo’s mayoralty. Bosnia-Herzegovina also has a notable history of saving Jews during the Holocaust. A local scholar, Eli Tauber, has produced an important volume, titled When Neighbors Were Real Human Beings, collecting the biographies of Bosnians—Muslim, Serb, and Croat—that concealed Jews from the Nazis. Tauber enumerates 47 memorialized by the Israelis at Yad Vashem as “Righteous Gentiles,” with the proviso, “This list is not final.”

Bosnia-Herzegovina is defined by such contrasts. Sarajevo is a Muslim-majority city, with some 80 percent of its 400,000 residents identified as such in 2002, but its downtown area features a lively annual Christmas market. Muslim devotees proclaim that the national character is anti-fascist and humanistic, because of the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust. Bosnian Muslim clerics have designated the Orthodox Christian celebration of Christmas, which fell on January 7, 2013, as the “sacred birthday of Prophet Jesus (Isa).”

Among Bosnian Muslims, post-1995 intellectual passivity, and the influence of Saudi-financed Wahhabism and other radical doctrines, may give way to a restoration of a vigorous, traditional Bosnian Muslim moderation. Their ambitious former chief cleric, Mustafa Ceric, wedded the Bosnian Islamic community to the Egyptian-born and Qatar-based hate preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, through a so-called “European Council for Fatwas and Research” (ECFR) affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Ceric consummated this intrigue in 1997, without publicizing it to the Bosnian Muslims, who would have been shocked at an alliance with Al-Qaradawi, while the Serbs would have celebrated it as proof that the Bosnian Muslims were, as the Serbs claimed falsely, jihadists.

But Bosnia’s Muslim leadership is elected, and term-limited. In September 2012, Ceric, after two seven-year periods as chief Islamic cleric, beginning in 1998 and preceded by five years as wartime head of the Sarajevo Islamic apparatus—totaling 19 years in charge—was replaced by Husejin Kavazovic, a cleric from the northeastern Bosnian city of Tuzla.

Known for preserving an atmosphere of ethnic harmony through the Bosnian war, Tuzla has given Kavazovic a reputation for good relations with the other faiths. He is recalled for having appealed to Bosnian Muslims not to retaliate against Serbs after the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were deliberately murdered.

So far, Kavazovic has said and done nothing that would indicate whether he will follow Ceric in aligning Bosnian Muslims with Al-Qaradawi and the Muslim Brotherhood, or will allow such associations to lapse. Some Bosnian Muslims, nevertheless, claim Kavazovic is a mere puppet of Ceric, and will maintain the latter’s postures.

In the meantime, Ceric has other projects with which to occupy himself. He has joined Muamer Zukorlic, head of a pro-Bosnian faction among the 240,000 Muslims in Serbia, to form a World Bosniak [i.e. Bosnian Muslim] Congress, which is modeled, ostensibly, on the World Jewish Congress, and seeks an NGO seat at the United Nations. Ceric has used Zukorlic in a gambit to unite Bosnian and Serbian Muslims, but with little success.

Muhamed Jusufspahic, the officially-recognized head of Serbia’s Muslims and competitor to Zukorlic, rejected the World Bosniak Congress proposal as an attempt to transform Bosnian Muslims from a religious denomination into a single, cross-border ethnic community. As a side effect of this controversy, Senad Agic, the long-serving and faultlessly-moderate head of Bosnian Muslims in America, residing in Chicago, opposed the Ceric-Zukorlic scheme, and was replaced by a Ceric loyalist, Ekrem Mujezinovic.

Differences between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia in Islamic affairs are significant. Unlike Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia includes at least 70,000 ethnic Albanians (still in Serbia and not within the borders of independent Kosovo), most of whom are Muslims, and who resent any domination by Slavs, including Muslim Slavs.

In addition, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia diverged on the recent U.N. vote for a Palestinian observer seat. Serbia was the sole Yugoslav successor state to vote for the Palestinians, while Bosnia-Herzegovina, along with Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Macedonia, abstained. This led to fascinating polemics in the local Muslim media. The Bosnian clerics acceded to their government’s posture, but published a blustering interview in their newspaper, Preporod (Rebirth), in which Khaled Allatrash, the Palestinian ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina, declared that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Hamas would soon unite, and denounced the alleged “Judaization” of Jerusalem. (Bosnia-Herzegovina also has diplomatic relations with Israel.)

Meanwhile, in Serbia, the pro-Zukorlic organ Glas Islama (Voice of Islam) congratulated the Belgrade regime for supporting the Palestinians and criticized the government of Montenegro for cultivating relations with Israel and international Jewish bodies. The torch of radicalism seems to have been deliberately taken up by Zukorlic’s Serbian Muslim splinter group. Glas Islama publishes the fanatical rhetoric of Zakir Naik, an Indian physician and Muslim television evangelist.

Naik has been banned from Britain and Canada and Indian Muslim clerics have called for a government investigation of his financing, prohibition of his broadcasts, and his expulsion from the Muslim community. Naik has become known for his insults against other religions as well as non-fundamentalist Muslims. In a typical diatribe disseminated to Serbian Muslims, Naik declared “I am a fundamentalist. … I am an extremist!” and called for “terrorizing the unbelievers.”

As 2012 came to an end, Bosnian media reported that the year had seen 26 vandalism attacks on religious structures, Islamic and Christian alike. If the new Muslim chief cleric Kavazovic, and Catholic cardinal Puljic, are to steer their congregations toward traditional Bosnian religious cooperation, there is no better time than the present.

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