No, Sarajevo is not turning into Riyadh

John Spencer for the New York Times

“Islamic Revival Tests Bosnia’s Secular Cast” : The New York Times article, accompanied by the  photograph above, is the latest about the increasing religiosity among Bosnia’s Muslims. Since the Times published the piece, right wing bloggers can’t contain their delight. According to the wingnuts, their earlier suspicions about Bosnian Muslims secretly being extremists have been vindicated by the unlikeliest of sources.

Well, not exactly. The article lists some legitimately worrying developments, such as religious instruction in public kindergartens in Canton Sarajevo, and the billions of dollars Saudi Arabia is pumping into the construction of gigantic mosques and Saudi-style religious schools. But it also puffs up the same old, tired non-issues, such as the increased number of women wearing the hijab and the fact that more people are fasting during Ramadan than they did under Tito.

Before the war, fully covered women and men with long beards were almost unheard of. Today, they are common.

Common? That’s a stretch.

When I lived in Sarajevo, I did see hijabis on a daily basis (does covering your hair count as “fully covered”?), but I would guess that they still accounted for, oh, maybe five percent of  the women I saw  on the streets, most of whom were at least nominally Muslim/Bosniak. Men with beards were a much rarer sight still, and I usually saw them hanging around on the same corner in the old town,  selling odds and ends and fending off the disapproving glances of passersby.

Only a few times did I see women (two women, to be exact) fully veiled, wearing the niqab. A Bosniak female friend of mine gleefully told me she goes up to these women (apparently, the same two) and shouts “Batman!” or “Ninjas!” whenever she gets the opportunity. So, Arab-style dress is not “common” and it;s not even widely accepted. Most Bosnians, including most Bosniaks, gawk at people dressed like this because it’s not a normal thing, and even display a public hostility that borders on mean-spirited. Regular hijabs (like the styles below in a photo I took last fall) are mostly accepted, though they’re still not the norm.

Oh no, menace from the East! Look at those HIJABS!

Many here welcome the Muslim revival as a healthy assertion of identity in a multiethnic country where Muslims make up close to half the population.

But others warn of a growing culture clash between conservative Islam and Bosnia’s avowed secularism in an already fragile state.

Two months ago, men in hoods attacked participants at a gay festival in Sarajevo, dragging some people from vehicles and beating others while they chanted, “Kill the gays!” and “Allahu Akbar!” Eight people were injured.

The violence around the  festival was deplorable and inexcusable. That said,  Bosnia is one country in generally conservative Eastern Europe, so let’s not pretend this happened in a vacuum. Gays and lesbians are attacked just as viciously  in Serbia, Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, and especially Russia –all countries with predominately Orthodox Christian populations. Bosnia has a homophobia problem, but it’s not a “Muslim problem” it’s a symptom of the broad social conservatism of the entire region, conservatism that transcends religious, ethnic, and national boundaries.

“The Serbs committed genocide against us, raped our women, made us refugees in our own country,” said Mustafa Efendi Ceric, the grand mufti and main spiritual leader of Bosnia’s Muslim community.

“And now we have a tribal constitution that says we have to share political power and land with our killers,” he said. “We Bosnian Muslims still feel besieged in the city of Sarajevo.”

I’ve heard Ceric speak a few times, and this seems oddly confrontational for him (he doesn’t like the Dayton system, but he he supports a multiethnic, tolerant state), so I’m guessing he was either really annoyed when he was interviewed for this, or he was quoted out of context.

The article continues.

Religious and national identity have long been fused in multifaith Bosnia.

It was tradition in villages to refer to neighbors by their religion — Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, rather than as Bosniak, Serb or Croat.

In the nation-building that followed Dayton, that practice has become stronger.

In villages and small towns, religious identity may have been salient for a long time, but, for the large urban populations, it wasn’t. People really didn’t care, and much of the educated class didn’t give it much thought. And if religious identification has become stronger in the post-Dayton years, well,  do you think that might that have something to do with how the postwar state was organized? How the illiberal elites and nationalists were entrenched in the political system and the liberals marginalized? (Don’t get me started.)

In Sarajevo, a predominantly Muslim city, dozens of streets named after Communist revolutionaries were renamed after Muslim heroes, and political parties stressing Muslim identity gained large constituencies.

As with the hijabi panic, I think this is overblown. I lived on Branilaca Sarajeva street, or, if I have my translation correct “Defenders of Sarajevo” street. Were these defenders mostly Muslim? Yeah, one can safely assume so, given the demographics of the area. One wretched right wing blog (to which I will not link) claimed there is a street named after Osama bin Laden in Sarajevo. No. There isn’t. And there won’t be. Moreover, rest assured that the city retains much of the flavour of its Communist past.

To be fair to the Times, the article does make the point that the most effective and vocal opposition to fundamentalists in Bosnia comes from within the Muslim community itself, and more or less concludes with that.

Mustafa Effendi Spahic, a prominent liberal Muslim intellectual and professor at the Gazri Husrev-beg Madrasa in Sarajevo, went further, calling the introduction of religious education in kindergarten “a crime against children.”

“The Prophet says to teach children to kneel as Muslims, only after the age of 7,” said Professor Spahic, who was imprisoned under Communism for Islamic activism. “No one has any right to do that before then because it is an affront to freedom, the imagination and fun of the child’s world.”

Naturally, the right wing bloggers lauding the Times for “exposing” “Islamic Bosnia” (cue the scary music) missed that whole part of the article.


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