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Bosnia’s Dangerous Tango: Islam and Nationalism
Bosnia’s Dangerous Tango: Islam and Nationalism
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 70 / Europe & Central Asia

Bosnia’s Dangerous Tango: Islam and Nationalism

Occasional violence notwithstanding, Islamism poses little danger in Bosnia, whose real risk stems from clashing national ideologies, especially as Islamic religious leaders increasingly reply with Bosniak nationalism to renewed Croat and Serb challenges to the state’s territorial integrity.

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I. Overview

The Bosniak community is deeply frustrated with the dysfunctional government, flawed constitution and economic stagnation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), as well as renewed Croat and Serb challenges to the state’s territorial integrity. The Islamic community has taken a leading role in channelling popular anger, filling a vacuum left by Bosniak political parties, whose leadership seems adrift. Political Islam is a novelty in Bosnia, and its rise is seen as threatening to secular parties and non-Muslims. On the margins of society, a plethora of non-traditional Salafi and other Islamist groups have appeared, raising fears of terrorism. They are small, divided and largely non-violent, however, and the state and the Islamic community should work to integrate them further into society. Real instability and violence are more likely to come from clashing nationalisms. The Islamic community’s best contribution would be to help craft a vision for Bosnia that Croats and Serbs can share.

The Islamic community (Islamska zajednica, IZ) in BiH is a religious organisation as well as an important political actor that has shaped Bosniaks’ national identity, though it has recently become more divided and disorganised. Its still influential and charismatic former leader, Mustafa ef. Cerić, ensured that Islam became a strong element in the post-war Bosniak nationalism of which he was a main author and promoter. He likewise linked the Bosniak cause to BiH, which, though also multi-ethnic, he argued, should be a nation-state for the Bosniaks, since Croats and Serbs already had countries of their own.

The threat of fundamentalist Islam has been evoked repeatedly in Bosnia since several thousand mujahidin arrived in the early 1990s, though it is foreign to the great majority of the Muslim population. Especially after 11 September 2001, when it embarked on its global war on terrorism, the U.S. in particular has pressed Bosnian authorities to arrest or deport individuals with possible links to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Most recently, in December 2012, a self-declared Islamic insurgent was sentenced to eighteen years imprisonment for shooting at the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo the previous year. A month earlier, a Bosnian-born naturalised U.S. citizen was sentenced to life in prison for planning attacks in New York in 2009.

These cases nurture the perception that radical Islamic groups form a serious and unified threat to stability. In fact the few existing groups are small and divided. Some are integrated in the IZ; others reject its authority and withdraw to secluded communities. Virtually no home-grown radicals have been involved in violence; the vast majority of attacks have been the work of émigrés or persons with documented criminal or psychological records. There is a risk of similar, small-scale attacks in the future, but no sign of an organisation capable of or interested in mass violence or terror. To guard against future incidents, however:

  • the Islamic community and Bosnian state officials should cooperate to engage non-violent Salafis, especially those returning from the diaspora, in dialogue so as to encourage integration.

It is the IZ’s use of Bosniak nationalism, partly in response to provocations by Croat and Serb nationalists, that is more likely to exacerbate tensions. This is the case today in Mostar, where the IZ advocates a hard line, seeking to unify Bosniaks in their political struggle with the main Croat parties on how to elect local authorities and form the municipality. Though its city administration’s mandate and budget have expired, Mostar failed to hold elections in 2012; with no lawfully constituted city authority, services risk being suspended in the coming months. Without a difficult compromise, all residents will suffer. To overcome this crisis:

  • Mostar religious leaders should be attentive to their constituency, which favours negotiation, and drop their hardline approach, support a compromise position acceptable to all three communities, refrain from divisive rhetoric and call upon the city’s political leaders to reach agreement without delay.

The election of a new grand mufti, Husein Kavazović, at the end of 2012, offers an opportunity to restructure and depoliticise the IZ and focus it on institutional reform. But the political Islam that Cerić promoted, based on the affirmation of a strong Bosniak identity, will be hard to let go as long as many Bosniaks feel that their state’s integrity is being challenged. Cerić remains active; he launched a World Bosniak Congress on 29 December 2012 that includes a strong presence from the Sandžak, a mixed, Muslim-majority region on the Serbia-Montenegro frontier. More than any of the small Salafi groups operating in Bosnia, further politicisation of the Bosniak cause may contribute to instability if it develops in opposition to the country’s other communities. To avoid dangerous escalation in nationalist conflict, the IZ and Bosnia’s other religious communities should:

  • withdraw from the partisan political arena by refraining from endorsement of parties or candidates; and
  • commit to interfaith dialogue to seek common ground and shape a vision of the Bosnian state as the shared property of all three major communities.

Sarajevo/Brussels, 26 February 2013

Report 232 / Europe & Central Asia

Bosnia’s Future

While the physical scars of the 1992-1995 Bosnia war have healed, political agony and ethnic tension persist. Real peace requires a new constitution and bottom-up political change.

Executive Summary

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH, or Bosnia) poses little risk of deadly conflict, but after billions of dollars in foreign aid and intrusive international administration and despite a supportive European neighbourhood, it is slowly spiralling toward disintegration. Its three communities’ conflicting goals and interests are a permanent source of crisis, exacerbated by a constitution that meets no group’s needs. The political elite enjoys mastery over all government levels and much of the economy, with no practical way for voters to dislodge it. The European Union (EU) imposes tasks BiH cannot fulfil. A countrywide popular uprising torched government buildings and demanded urgent reforms in February 2014, but possible solutions are not politically feasible; those that might be politically feasible seem unlikely to work. Bosnia’s leaders, with international support, must begin an urgent search for a new constitutional foundation.

The international project to rebuild Bosnia has had success: war’s physical scars are largely gone, and the country is peaceful. The political agonies, however, show the intervention’s limits. Years of well-intentioned reforms, imposed or urged, have left a governing structure leaders circumvent, ignore or despise. May’s floods left scores dead and thousands homeless, exposing the price of poor governance. With growing frequency, Bosnians ask the questions that preceded the 1992-1995 war: shall it be one country, two, or even three; if one country, shall it have one, two or three constituent entities, and how shall it be governed?

The heart of the problem is in Annex 4 to the Dayton Peace Agreement, known as the constitution (and in several changes imposed by courts and international officials). It defines BiH as a state of two entities, in effect but not explicitly federal, but also the state of three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs), and yet, simultaneously, of all citizens. A suffocating layer of ethnic quotas has been added, providing sinecures for officials increasingly remote from the communities they represent. The tensions created by constitutional schizophrenia are pushing BiH to the breaking point. A new design is needed: a normal federation, territorially defined, without a special role for constituent peoples, but responsive to the interests of its three communities and the rights of all citizens.

The state administration’s need to reform is made acute by a 2009 decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that in effect requires BiH to change the ethnicity-based way it chooses its chief executive and part of its legislature. Existing proposals try to squeeze the constituent peoples into an ostensibly ethnicity-blind structure on top of which a complicated network of indirect elections would allow party leaders to choose the executive with as little democratic input as possible. The EU and the outside world support this tinkering with Dayton to satisfy the decision, though such proposals have manifestly failed. Bosnians need to rebuild their political structure from the bottom up.

There is no consensus on where to start, but Bosnia may have to break from its political system based on constituent peoples and their rights. Crisis Group has not reached this conclusion lightly. It reflects long experience and observation that no one has been able to frame a broadly attractive vision on the existing flawed basis. With stresses and frustrations accumulating in all communities, Bosnia must conceive new foundations to survive. Agreement may take years and much experimentation and debate, but the search should begin.

BiH is home to three political communities: those primarily loyal to the Bosnian state, usually but not always Bosniaks; those loyal to Republika Srpska (RS), usually Serbs; and those desirous of Croat self-government, usually Croats. Giving the Croats what they want, their own entity to make a three-entity Bosnia, is absolutely rejected by Bosniaks. Building virtual representative units for the three communities, possibly with new emphasis on municipalities as basic building blocks, is intellectually plausible but requires a leap of faith few seem ready to take. A purely civic state is inconceivable to Serbs and Croats.

Neither leaders nor civil society have deeply explored alternatives to three constituent peoples in two entities; any consensus would take time. Nevertheless, the goal should be clear. The head of state should reflect Bosnia’s diversity, something a collective does better than an individual. The same body could be the executive government. Some decisions should require consensus, others a majority. All three communities should be represented, not necessarily in equal numbers. There should be no ethnic quotas; representation should reflect self-defined regions and all their voters. Poorly performing, unnecessary state agencies and ministries should be slimmed or abolished, with powers reverting to the entities; but the state would need new ministries and agencies required for EU membership. The ten cantons in the larger of BiH’s two entities, the Federation (FBiH), are an underperforming, superfluous layer. They could be abolished, their powers divided between the municipalities and the entity government.

Political culture is part of the problem; an informal “Sextet” of party leaders in effect controls government and much of the economy. A multi-ethnic coalition persists, election to election, with only minor adjustments. Membership is earned by winning opaque intra-party competitions in which voters have little say. Change in this system can only come from within: Bosnians should join parties and participate in genuine leadership contests. Sextet power is further buttressed by control of hiring, investment and commercial decisions at state-owned firms, a situation that chokes private investment and growth.

Bosnia is unimaginable without the work of international officials who did much to shape political institutions and implement peace, but the international community has become more obstacle than help. BiH is trapped in a cycle of poorly thought-out, internationally-imposed tasks designed to show leaders’ readiness to take responsibility but that put that moment forever out of reach. The only way to encourage leaders to take responsibility is to treat the country normally, without extraneous tests or High Representatives. The EU could signal a new start by stating it will receive a membership application – the first of many steps on the long accession road. It should then be an engaged, not over-didactic partner in Bosnia’s search for a way to disentangle the constitutional knot.