Bosnia's Muslims divided over inroads of Wahhabism
By Daria Sito-Sucic
December 29, 2006
SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Last week, Sarajevo's Jesus Heart cathedral was packed for Christmas mass. This week its King Fahd mosque is filled ahead of the Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice. The Bosnian capital is still a mix of Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and Islam.
Since the Bosnia war ended in 1995 the Muslim faith dominates, but not all adherents are happy with the increasing numbers of people following the puritanical Sunni Muslim Wahhabi sect.
"Wahhabism has seriously divided children and parents, spiritual leaders and priests, professors and students, neighborhoods," says lecturer Adnan Silajdzic, who teaches comparative religions at Sarajevo University's Faculty of Islamic Studies. Jasmin Merdan, a Wahhabi dissident and co-author of a book on Wahhabi ideology and history, said the issue was not that they prayed or dressed differently, but that they were intolerant and aggressive toward other Muslims.
"These are mostly young, uneducated people," he said.
Merdan, who converted in the late 1990s but later left the sect disillusioned, said many Muslim militants who carry out attacks against Western targets were "a product of Wahhabi indoctrination."
Many of the young converts gather at Bosnia's largest mosque, the King Fahd, founded in 2000 by the royal family of Saudi Arabia, which is the birthplace of Islam and the country where Wahhabism originated. The senior imam of the mosque, a concrete behemoth the size of a shopping mall, denies believers are radical Muslims.
"In this mosque there are ... no extremists," said Nezim Halilovic, who avoided the term Wahhabi.
Most men with beards and short trousers who came for a noon prayer to the mosque did not identify themselves with Wahhabism.
"Extremism is not a feature that Bosnian Muslims would accept and nourish. You can't make general conclusions based on some individual examples," said one worshipper called Ahmed.
The apparent strains in Islam are opening a decade after Bosnia's Muslims, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs fought each other for control of the country and its heritage. An opinion poll found 70 percent of Bosnian Muslims opposed Wahhabism, while 13 percent broadly supported it. Only 3 percent declared themselves followers.
The Islam traditional to Bosnia is moderate, shaped by long co-existence with other faiths and incorporating customs that predate the conversion to Islam of some Christian Slavs in the 15th century, when the Ottomans conquered the Balkans. Many see this secular, European Islam now threatened by the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam, which originates in an 18th century reform movement aiming to restore Islam to its pure form by purging it of foreign and corrupting influences or innovations.
Wahhabism was brought to Bosnia by fighters who came to support the outgunned Muslims during the 1992-95 war and missionaries who arrived later. Most left Bosnia after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, when strict checks by authorities closed down many of their charities.
No one knows how many local converts there are. The issue is kept in the spotlight by frequent media reports of young women running away from home to join Wahhabi communities and by sensational coverage of religion-related crimes.
In 2002, a 26-year-old man described by local media as a Wahhabi supporter killed three members of a Croat family on Christmas Eve, saying he was following instructions from God. This year, a young Wahhabi killed his mother because she refused to join him for morning prayers.
The Wahhabi community disowned these incidents. But its self-proclaimed Bosnian-based leader Abu Hamza, who represents foreign former Islamic fighters who married Bosnian women and stayed in the country, is not apologizing for his religion.
Hamza said in October that Islamic practice in Bosnia was "communist" and urged Muslims to return to "genuine Islam."
That same month, a mosque in northern Bosnia closed for days due to a dispute between Wahhabis and local Muslims over the way prayer was conducted. In November, a similar row in the Serbian Muslim town of Novi Pazar ended in a mosque shooting. Bosnia's Islamic leaders publicly condemned Hamza's call.
"The Islamic Community regulations rule here," top Islamic cleric Mustafa effendi Ceric told a news conference. "Those who cannot accept this did not have to come here and don't need to stay."
Some analysts said the statement wasn't strong enough. They suspect Islamic leaders avoid the issue so as not to fan long-time accusations by Serb and Croat nationalists of a terrorist threat from radical Muslims in Bosnia. They also do not want to alienate generous donor Saudi Arabia.