Bosnia’s Dangerous Tango: Islam and Nationalism
Bosnia’s Dangerous Tango: Islam and Nationalism
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
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

Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Crisis Group expert Marko Prelec about the precarious situation in the Western Balkans, as Serb separatism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the frozen Kosovo-Serbia dispute continue to stoke regional instability.

The Western Balkans, a region defined in part by not being in the European Union, also contains several countries that were devastated by war in the 1990s. Now it faces new troubles, driven in part by the legacies of the old. Bosnia and Herzegovina is confronted with calls for secession in the autonomous Serb-dominated region, Republika Srpska, as well as the ongoing electoral grievances of its Croat minority. Meanwhile, efforts to resolve Kosovo’s dispute with Serbia over its independence have come to a standstill, leaving minority communities on both sides of the border vulnerable.

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Consulting Senior Analyst for the Balkans, about why ethnic tensions persist in the region and whether there is any risk of a return to conflict. They discuss the prospects for European integration, asking whether the promise of EU membership remains an effective incentive for resolving these longstanding disputes. They also consider what impact Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had for stability in the Western Balkans, a region where painful memories of war are still very salient today.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more of Crisis Group’s analysis, make sure to check out our Balkans regional page and keep an eye out for our upcoming report on the risk of instability in the Western Balkans.

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