Revisiting Bosnia Part 2
Issue 77 February 2011
I was woken up by the call to prayers booming out of the minarets in Sarajevo echoing in all directions and bouncing off the surrounding mountains, thereby creating a natural surround-sound effect. Islam in Europe is not foreign at all: Bosnia is proof: there’s nearly a thousand years of Islamic history here.
I spoke at the conference on Fundamentalism in Europe. I said it was on the rise - from Christians, Jews and Muslims. And nationalists and secularists too, which often get forgotten. Secular fundamentalism in countries such as France – where it is worsening, and Turkey – where it is improving, has been at the heart of much discontent for people.
During discussions over dinner, it became clear that a few of the earlier speakers might have misled the participants. One of the Muslim speakers apparently claimed Islam is only a private matter; there was no need for public manifestation, and people who observed the rituals were prone to fundamentalist influences. That upset many of the practicing Muslims. I asked the organisers why they had invited so called experts from those rejected by the Muslim community. They were apologetic, but pointed out that they were doing their best; that it was up to the Muslim community to create their own genuine experts and spread them widely. I guess he had a point.
Some of the participants were invited to the Islamic University of Sarajevo for a private meeting with one of the senior lecturers. All the Muslims went to a modern building high up in the hills in the old part of the city. The structure did not reflect any grandeur on the outside, yet inside there were traditional courtyards, balconies, gardens, orange and olive trees, shrubs of various kinds, making the space very green and pleasant.
A middle-aged man wearing a smart suit and tie, clean-shaven with a very modern hairstyle came to greet us. He introduced himself as our host. He spoke some of the local Balkan languages, but was also fluent English, Arabic and Urdu. He had trained as an Imam and was now head of the Arabic Department at the University.
He told us the story the forgotten legacy of the original European Muslims, their contribution to the making of Europe. He acknowledged Bosnian culture and identity had flourished under Ottoman rule that had lasted for three centuries. All other influences, including the Romans and Austro-Hungarian empires had left the region more divided as each of them brought with them alien cultures and tried to impose them on the locals.
The breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the subsequent nationalistic fervour that had swept the region were all the result of years of foreign interference in the region. Bosnia had been unfairly carved up between Serbs who had a sovereign country called Serbia just next door, and Croats who had a sovereign country next door called Croatia. Each of these ethic groups had demanded a slice of Bosnia, leaving the country landlocked and unstable. The civil war had left Bosnians so deeply divided that underneath the calm there was a volcano waiting to erupt. He felt the current governing arrangement was unproductive and volatile. The UN and EU were treating Bosnia as another colonial project and causing more problems between various communities.
Next morning one of the young participants came up to me and accused the Muslims of not staying with the remaining participants during the previous evening’s social events. “This is not the best example of Islam, is it?” he said. I was leading Friday prayer that day and it was open to all participants, Muslims and non-Muslims. I stood up, and as part of an Islamic vision for Europe that formed the bulk of my sermon, I reminded the audience that integration on social occasions would probably form the biggest challenge for the multi-cultural society that we aspired to. As an example, I reminded them of the experience here. In the evenings when most participants were winding down with a glass of wine or pint of beer, the Muslims would slowly excuse themselves and head to their own room or a space where alcohol was not being consumed. This clash of cultures in our social space is something we have to work to overcome.
I left Sarajevo hoping to return one day soon to explore the natural surroundings, its beauty and history. I am convinced that fundamentalism can be overcome everywhere, but for that to happen society must provide an environment of fair and equal opportunity for everyone to flourish.