Friday, March 30, 2007

Serbs in New Fear of Wahhabis

By Vesna Peric Zimonjic

The detention of seven young "Wahhabis" in the southern Serb region Sanjak has set off new fear of the spread of Islamists in the region.

The Wahhabis are a sect of Sunni Muslims mostly from Saudi Arabia. They follow a form of Sunni Islam propagated in an 18th century reform movement that aimed to restore Islam to its pure form by purging it of foreign influence. Wahhabism was brought to Bosnia by fighters who came to support Muslims in the 1992-95 war. Many stayed on.

The seven detained men, in their late 20s and early 30s, were said to have been found in a cave on Ninaja mountain, 30 km from the regional centre Novi Pazar, and 275 km south of capital Belgrade. Sanjak is a region shared by Serbia and Montenegro, and borders Bosnia-Herzegovina. It has a population of some 530,000, 67 percent of it Muslim. The rest are Orthodox Serb Christians and Montenegrins. The police said they found an undisclosed amount of arms, ammunition, hand grenades and plastic explosives with timers. They said at first the weapons were to be used "for terrorist training." They now say the arrested men are under investigation for "trying to disturb public order and peace."

But the very mention of "Wahhabis" prompted a large part of the Serbian press to speculate on the motives of the group, with headlines screaming that the nation is "Under Terrorist Threat" or that "Extremists are against Serbia". Most such items sensationalised the arrests, and repeated the anti-Muslim language used in the times of the wars of the disintegration of former Yugoslavia. "This (the arrests) and Wahhabis are the issues of Sanjak and should be solved at the local level," president of the Sanjak Democratic Party Rasim Ljajic told reporters in Belgrade. Ljajic, a Sanjak Muslim, is minister for minorities and human rights in the Serbian government.

"Wahhabis do exist in Serbia, but the problem has been blown out of real proportions," he added. "Wahhabism can be neutralised not through repressive measures, but through the good organisation of the Islamic community that will reject such an interpretation of the Islam."

Local Islamic clerics in Sanjak had a serious problem with Wahhabis last November. A group of Wahhabis insisted that prayers be held in accordance with their ways, but people protested. There was exchange of gunfire between the two groups, and the biggest mosque in Novi Pazar, the Arap Mosque, was closed for days. A year ago, a group of young men dressed in the traditional short Wahhabi trousers prevented a concert by the popular Balkanika Belgrade band in Novi Pazar. They broke up the sound system on the stage, shouting "Go home brothers and sisters. This is the work of Shaitan (the devil)".

Muslims in Bosnia and Sanjak belong to the moderate Sunni Hanafi teaching, shaped by long co-existence with other faiths and incorporating customs that precede the conversion to Islam of some Christian Slavs in the 15th century, when the Ottomans conquered the Balkans.

But once Wahhabism came to Bosnia, "it was logical that it spread to Sanjak as well," sociologist Mirko Djordjevic told IPS. "However, Wahhabis are not a terrorist organisation. They are a sect within Islam, of a puritan provenance. They will most probably create problems within the Islamic community, both here and in Bosnia, rather than cause deeper troubles."  In neighbouring Bosnia, Wahhabis have a community that is gathered around the King Fahd Mosque in capital Sarajevo, the huge complex built in 2000 by Saudi Arabia, one of the most generous donors to Bosniak Muslims. In Bosnia Muslims are 55 percent of the population of four million. Small Wahhabi communities exist in the north of the country as well.

Recently, some mosques in the north were closed for days due to skirmishes between local people and Wahhabis, the incidents being similar to those in Novi Pazar in November. Local Islamic leaders issued stern warnings to Wahhabis. "The Islamic community regulations rule here," leading Islamic cleric Mustafa Ceric told a news conference in Sarajevo. "Those who cannot accept this did not have to come here and don't need to stay."  An opinion poll carried out by the Sarajevo Prizma Polling Agency showed that 70 percent of Bosniak Muslims oppose Wahhabism, while 13 percent broadly support it. Only three percent declared themselves followers. The rest were indifferent to the issue.  Top Islamic cleric in Sanjak region Mufti Muamer Zukorlic has tried to calm the upheaval within Serbian media.

"A stable Islamic community is a strict guarantee against extremism," Zukorlic told Belgrade Radio B92. "The mentality of people in Sanjak is not prone to the ideas which are sometimes even strange to Islam."  Prof. Abdulah Numan who teaches Islamic theology in Belgrade told the same station that "there is not much ground for Wahhabism to take roots."  "They preach 2,000 years old teaching, causing more troubles among Muslims," he added. "However, they do prefer tense regions, where they can easily recruit dissatisfied and confused people. Stability is the best prevention against any extremism."


irving said...

Stability, brought on by education, jobs, and economic growth, are really the best prevention against extremism. Thank you for the article. Very informative.

Ya Haqq!

alex said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ethnicguy said...

Dearest Friends,


I just returned from Bosnia. Well, the region continues to have many problems and people there forget but never seem to forgive and no one there hurts anyone without eventually also hurting themselves. Serb fanatics help to lend credence to the Austrian-inspired Bosniak identity and, of course, there is a downward spiral. You visit Tuzla and Banja Luka and you see tragedy in action and why and how hatred creates hatred. Please see my blog at where I try to discuss the spirituality of these issues.

Hvala lepo,


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