Monday, October 01, 2007

"Balkan Idols" by Vjekoslav Perica [10]


For most of the Communist era, the leadership of the Islamic Community consisted of veterans of the WWII Partisans and were loyal to the regime and supportive of the official creed of Brotherhood and Unity.

During the sixties and seventies, challenges to traditional identification came from two sources--the government itself, which established a new Muslim national identity; and from a reinvigorated if still illegal Young Muslim, led by prominent Muslim dissident Alija Izetbegovic.

A Nationality with a Religious Name

When the Central Committee of the League of Commnunists of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared that Muslims be given national status by the Federal government, the response was immediate--many Muslims quickly adopted the new designation. But there were complications. Some traditionalists worried that the religious identification, which was not traditional, was premature and that Muslims needed more time to develop a separate cultural identity and history. The Young Muslims, on the other hand, insisted that the identification should be more, not less, explicitly religious. Izetbegovic was the leader of this push to "Islamicize" Slavic Muslims in Yugoslavia. This was the period when Izetbegovic produced the later infamous "Islamic Declaration," which provided much (decontextualized) ammunition for Serb nationalist intent on proving the existence of jihadists in Sarajevo.

For its part, the Islamic Community--which had been known as the Islamic Religious Community, dropped the word "Religious" from the organizations title in an effort to emphasize the culturally secular aspects of the new national identity. Perica writes:

"Under the new name, the Islamic Community aspired to become a de facto Muslim national institution that would compensate for the lack of what were national academies of sciences and arts and cultural umbrella organizations (maticas) in Serbia and Croatia."

Rebuilding and Expansion

The communist years were good to the Islamic Community. Funds were allocated for rebuilding neglected or damaged religious buildings. Hundreds of new mosques and other religious institutions were constructed in the 1970s.

This was possible because the Islamic Community remained supportive of the regime and, unlike the two main national churches, did not pose a threat to the multiethnic nature of Yugoslavia. While the regime continued to keep an eye on proselytizing activities and demonstrated concern when religious figures sought out explicit identification with other Muslim countries (such as revolutionary Iran), it also allowed clerics a great deal of freedom.

Unlike the main Christian denominations, the Islamic Community was pan-Yugoslav rather than being identified with a single republic. It was also decentralized, and the reis-ul-ulema lacked absolute authority. The mainly Albanian Sufi sect broke away from the Islamic Community, but this independent organization was also loyal to the regime.

While the regime was, on the whole, comfortable with these developments, they were viewed with suspicion and alarm by the Serbian press. The construction of Europe's third-largest mosque in Zagreb was criticized for being oversized in relation to its need and symptomatic of belligerent nationalism; these reports being published even as the Serb Orthodox Church was building an equally grand new church in Belgrade, and civic authorities there were blocking the construction of a mosque for Belgrade's Muslims.

Religious Nationalism in Bosnia-Herzegovina

The Islamic Revolution in Iran and the death of Tito triggered a revival of efforts by Izetbegovic and his allies. The resulting crackdown by Bosnian authorities ultimately backfired, harming the governments relations with other countries while fueling the rise of Muslim nationalism. Izetbegovic and others were released with reduced sentences, but the state found that the Islamic Community had lost credibility by standing with the government. At the same time, Izetbegovic had gained popularity, including among the clergy.

The Islamic Community attempted many reforms, and even allowed for its first democratically elected reis-ul-ulema, Jakub Selimoski. At the same time, Serb politicians were raising the heat under the issue, using the threat of Islamic fundamentalism to incite fears of growing Muslim nationalism. The Serb press portrayed Selimoski--a moderate who worked hard to counter the influence of Izetbegovic--as a fundamentalist working to establish an Islamic dictatorship similar to Iran.

The Islamic Community also increasingly turned to public displays of religiosity to rival those of the Croat and Serb churches; these explicitly religious events, in reaction to the climate of aggressive nationalism being promoted by Serbs, Croats and Albanians, increasingly took on a nationalist aspect.

Efforts by the Islamic Community to moderate tensions were complicated because not only was it facing a challenge from Izetbegovic, there were growing anti-Muslim sentiments coming from Serbia. Izetbegovic secretly founded the Muslim Patriotic League, an underground militia; around the same time, he also founded the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which was an explicitly Muslim party. Izetbegovic cleverly positioned himself a mediator between the secular Muslims and his own party's fundamentalist wing.

The SDA's policies had a strongly religious tone from the beginning. Its appeal was largely rural, so the party was reliant on clerics to organize mobilization at the local level. Ultimately, the SDA would depose the moderate Selimoski and bring the Islamic Community under its wing. The Islamic Community was becoming another "national church."


Anonymous said...

I understood that the Muslim community also benefited as a result of its role as a vehicle for Tito's courting of Muslim nations' support for his leadership of the non-aligned movement.

Kirk Johnson said...

I believe that is correct. It was beneficial to Tito for indigenous Muslims to do well--it gave Yugoslavia a real edge when dealing with other Muslim countries. It was in his interest for Yugoslav Muslims to willingly support the regime.