A census has just taken place in Bosnia which asks citizens to declare their ‘ethnicity’, a notion that has been conflated with religion, because of the US brokered Dayton agreements of 1995 that put an end to the armed conflict, but not to the animosity or the belligerent spirit that sears its capital city, Sarajevo. The only ones who were allowed identify themselves as truly Bosnians were the Muslims, through the term ‘Boshniak’ which implies religious observance of an increasingly rigorous, reactionary and sexist kind as its TV ad shows http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkQ8ilj62lo

Nothing could be further from the Bosnian spirit and parodies of this ad abound.

I have known and loved Sarajevo for twenty years, when I first came in the middle of the war to work with women in the district of Dobrinja to help continue education and rebuild a wonderful school which opened 3 years after the disastrous Dayton agreements. The formidable female citizens of the capital were and remain the true victors of the ruthless siege they endured for four years. Muslim in their majority but also Orthodox, Catholic or Jewish by family affiliation, in the truly Bosnian sense, they considered themselves primarily citizens of the modern world and insisted their children be part of t. This was the characteristic of the famously multicultural, multi-ethnic city, so opposed to the ruthless nationalism of its predatory neighbours, Serbia primarily and Croatia. Now this has been changed for the worse.

I’ve just returned to Sarajevo where some of my closest and dearest friends live. The pessimism is palpable everywhere. Not a single institution seems to be working efficiently, be it hospitals, schools, universities. Museums have been shut for a year. Only supermarkets and religious establishments, principally Muslim, are sprouting everywhere and the local pastime is to wander down the aisles peering at unaffordable packaged goods made all over ex-Yugoslavia, but rarely in Bosnia itself. 85 mosques now service a previously Communist population for whom religion was always a private matter. For good measure a new Catholic church has been built in Dobrinja and the Orthodox are encouraged to pump up Serbian nationalism by going over to the “other” side, the ethnically pure ‘republika Srpska’ which is the Serbian/Orthodox entity within the area once known as Bosnia (the other entity being the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina). Complicated, so much is sure. Impossible to run.

Whereas the Orthodox and the Catholic have regional supporters, not so for the Muslims or those who even vaguely consider themselves as such. The main backers are primarily Saudi Arabia, as the enormous King Fahd Mosque shows and the kind of Islam being served up there is in the purest Wahhabi tradition, totally alien to its traditional population. Turkey is also present, but this is Erdogan’s, not Ataturk’s, and has something to do with countering the influence of Iran.

The Gulf States patrons have certainly rebuilt mosques destroyed by Serbs all over Bosnia, but in the bleached Saudi style. Gone are the characteristic Ottoman-inspired cupolas and intimate yards with their rose gardens, the painted walls, the 17th century splendour of ancient stone never evoked or restored. Nearly gone is the family tradition of Muslim practice, open-ended and tolerant. Romantic sevdalinkas (so beautifully sung by Azra and Marija) are replaced by a ‘turbo’ version, the dour black hijab of the modern Islamist kind is present as is the ubiquitous all-covering scarf. Invented folklore abounds, true tradition annihilated. Of course, there are strategies to turn these tendencies inside out as in all Islamist societies: tight jeans and heavy mascara belie the newly-enforced prudishness but do not question its fundamentals. A brutal nationalist exclusionary identity has been enforced on the people of Sarajevo who consider themselves even remotely Muslim. It mirrors the Orthodox ferocity in Serbia and Russia, the political catholicism of Croatia and Poland, both truly fundamentalist ,  but unlike them is threatened by being engulfed by all sides. Not just their neighbours but an unwanted, unwelcome politicized, fundamentalist and religious construct that parades as Bosnian Islam.

Apart from touring commercial centres, young people are increasingly spending their evenings in front of Internet, filling out endless forms in the hope of emigrating to Canada, Australia, at any rate as far as possible from their benighted city….


BTW, in case you’re wondering what Sevdalinka is, here is an example of a tune I particularly love, sloppy, sentimental but authentic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4yiy_Knyc4

2 Responses to “Why it’s so hard being a Muslim in Bosnia”

  1. on 06 Nov 2013 at 9:42 Amila

    Dear professor,
    thank you for great interview you gave us. I have read your blog, and it is interesting. But, I am just wondering, is your view somehow eurocentrically shaped? Especially in the part where you say “Of course, there are strategies to turn these tendencies inside out as in all Islamist societies: tight jeans and heavy mascara belie the newly-enforced prudishness but do not question its fundamentals.” How do you know that we do not question fundamentals? The strongest school of feminist leftist is school lead by females who are wearing scarf. And, beyond that, almost every young female, highly educated I know is wearing scarf because she wanted to. And that has double effect. On one side they are questioning European idea that just secular females are intelectually and politically active. On the other side, they are reshaping islamic patriarhic tradition from within. They could be understand as the voice within, as some kind of imanent critique and therefore do not deserve to be read like they are subjected to islamic ideologies. Therefore, following Gayatri Chakraworti Spivaks tradition, I believe that females in countries like Bosnia should not be seen in a Western manner, because in that kind of discourse, West simply replaces patriarhical ideologies in presenting itself as the rule (mainly like Derridean doxa). So, females anywhere, in any type of tradition should not be read out of context and should not be understand like objects that western liberals will set free for their own good. At least because Wahabis have the same arguments when they imprison females: we will show you the way because it is good for you.
    Best regards,

  2. on 06 Nov 2013 at 6:55 admin

    Dear Amila
    Thank-you for your reaction. I understand your criticism and to paraphrase Lila Abu-Lighod, I don’t believe Muslim women need saving, especially by the West. I have said similar things about Serbian girls that I saw in Kragujevac, playing the religion game on one side and wearing the tightest skirts/highest heels i have ever seen. My comments are not to criticize the highly interesting and still marginal trend of Feminist Islamism which I am aware of and that is quite distinct from what I saw in the streets of Sarajevo: here was a typical compromise of stereotypical Western sexist fashions and the trappings of Islamic orthodoxy- there are many such fashonistas in Paris as well and they are not the ones who question anything at all. if Bosnian women are not to be considered with Western criteria, then which ones do apply? The Balkans are a wonderful mixture of several civilizations of which the Turkish influence is only one after all. The Balkans are part of Europe in my modest opinion, which does not necessarily entail that only what you consider Western /Eurocentric ideology (whatever that means) need apply…. Would n’t you say that today’s Islamic Feminism may be linked to Western concepts of democracy and self-determination?