‘What shocked you most in Bosnia?’ people keep asking me since I got back. Probably a reply bewailing the gutted houses or the glutted cemeteries or the vandalised mosques is what they expect. As a matter of fact, what shocked me most was none of these things; it was an incident that I witnessed during a bus drive to Bihac.
Muslims got off the bus at a roadside black-market stall manned by Serbs to buy cartons of cigarettes, using for the purpose money that might later be used to buy guns with which to kill their own people. This was done quite brazenly, in full view of the other passengers, one of whom, a woman, had, only a few moments before, asked the driver to slow down so she could see her old home, now one of the ubiquitous gutted shells.
It will take more than four years of genocide, mass rape and ‘ethnic cleansing’ to purge Bosnia of the effects of 70 years of Serbianisation. Bosnia has only just set its foot on the ladder of Islamisation. Once, strolling through the beautiful Turkish quarter of Sarajevo, we saw ahead of us two girls walking side by side. One was in full but tasteful hijab, whilst the other sported a mini skirt and a crop of artificially dyed blonde hair.
This little tableau epitomises the Bosnian predicament, a country situated on one of the fault-lines of history, where East meets West, fought over for centuries by antagonistic, mutually-irreconcilable cultures, the end result of which is a schizophrenic society suffering from a massive identity crisis. Or so it was until the intrusion of the Enemy, in Serbian shape, brought people face to face with reality.
Reality, or its offspring realism, has recently made some inroads into the Bosnian psyche: mosque attendance and Islamic observance generally is around 50 percent, ceratinly up on what it was before.
Muslims seem more prone to delusion than most people, but, for once, in this conflict illusionism was on the other side: the British had expected the Muslims to be wiped out in a matter of weeks. A disarmed, defenceless population would not stand a chance, they calculated. The survival of the Bosnians borders on the miraculous; indeed, they would not have survived had it not been for a revolution that took place in Iran in 1979. Iran kept up arms shipments throughout, and it was clear from the protocol at official receptions, where the Iranian delegation was given pride of place, that the Bosnians know to whom they owe their survival.
Not until one sees the cemeteries can one comprehend the scale of the slaughter and the selfless sacrifice of the young men who left for the front. Not even the acres of graves in Behisht-e Zahra outside Tehran can prepare one for the poignancy of Bosnian cemeteries. Only when I saw them did I fully appreciate what Ejup Ganic, the vice president, had said to us a few days earlier about ‘the young men who went to the front knowing it was not likely they would return.’ These were the flowers of a generation, Bosnia’s hope for the future, for in a war it is always the best who get killed.
Ejup Ganic’s reference to the shuhada occurred during a speech on the occasion of a dinner to honour the foreign guests who attended Mustafa Ceric’s installation as Ra’is al-Ulama. The elegance of the setting, the well-trained waiters all spoke the influence of the old Austro-Hungarian empire; graciousness and charm shone throughout.
Ejup Ganic spoke without a single mistake in English grammar for some 10 or 15 minutes. After an interval, for the dinner was friendly and informal, he was followed by Dr Ceric, remembered by many in Britain as the man whose discourse at the Muslim Parliament had reduced people to tears. He spoke brilliantly, totally at ease, free of the constraints that the presence of non-Muslims had imposed elsewhere, touching the hearts and minds of everyone present.
This informal gathering at which the vice president, just back from Herzegovina, revealed in the course of conversation that the Croats would cave in the following morning was in vivid contrast to the formal ceremony of induction the previous day. This was held at the Sultan’s Mosque on the riverbank, the Ghazi Husrev Bey Mosque being still in repair. As a result, the mosque was overcrowded with government dignitaries occupying the whole of the qibla wall, facing the foreign delegations and other invitees.
The ceremony had great dignity. I could not make up my mind whether this were an inheritance from the Turks or because Bosnians, being European, do not lack a sense of the proprieties. Either way, it compelled admiration. The protocol may have been Ottoman or Austrian, but, whichever it was, the organisation was above reproach.
After two speeches, concise and worlds removed from the habitual oriental prolixity, during the delivery of which an extremely dignified official stood before the mihrab holding open an immense portfolio, Dr Ceric took the oath of office, reading from the portfolio in Bosnian and Arabic, ending Uqsim (I swear). Thereupon he mounted the minbar (pulpit), delivered a wa’z, again in both languages, and redescended to receive the congratulations of all those present, who queued up to shake hands with him.
These formal proceedings were preceded by tilawah, and the choir sang the Salam most beautifully. I observed that it was a pity the Muslim Parliament, whose delegation we were, had not chosen a Deobandi instead of a Barailvi Imam to accompany us as I would have given worlds to see his face at that moment. For the fact is, the Deobandis, whether by intent or out of ignorance, give the impression that the Salam is something only found in India or Pakistan, whereas I personally have heard it in Egypt and Turkey on hundreds of occasions.
On a higher note, we had to attend a celebratory concert in the Opera House the same afternoon. The music was ghastly, and not improved by the sight of Karl Bildt sitting in the box opposite. More interestingly, we noticed the cardinal who as head of the Roman Catholic Church in Bosnia was sitting in the front row. I resolved to buttonhole him at the first opportunity. That opportunity presented itself in the foyer. I went up to him and said, ‘I should like to ask Your Eminence a theological question: why do you not excommunicate these people in Mostar who have committed these terrible crimes?’ His reply fell somewhat short of the truth. He said there was no sentence of excommunication in Bosnia. He must have taken me for an idiot; excommunication can take place anywhere. This disingenious reply puts a question mark over the cardinal’s loyalty. President Izetbegovic, please note!
The mosque in which the induction ceremony was held came through the bombardment unscathed, although the National Library, almost directly opposite, is totally gutted. The old Turkish quarter, with its extensive bazaars attesting to Sarajevo’s onetime importance in the economy of the Balkans, is absolutely intact. The low Ottoman buildings came through the four-year ordeal much better than the tall structures built during the communist era. By demolishing these hideous sites the Serbs have done the Bosnians a favour.
The task of reconstruction is a daunting one. We saw more burned-out houses than demolished ones, showing that the object was ‘ethnic cleansing’, to prevent people from returning. Every town or city we saw had suffered damage. Walls were pock-marked from bullets or shrapnel; minarets particularly were targeted by Serb gunners because they served as observation posts.
Curiously, there were some notable buildings in the Egypto-Islamic style, including structures of major importance like the National Library. The library had a central dome surmounting galleries supported on immense granite columns, which were cracked and fissured from the heat produced by the combustion of thousands of books.
When I saw the library on television with the flames gushing from the windows I knew I had seen it all before: in 1499 Cardinal Cisneros ordered the library of the Arab university of Granada (al-Madrasah al-Yusufiyyah) to be burned in Bibarrambla (Bab al-Ramlah) Square. There is nothing new in history. When the destruction of a people has been decided upon, it does not suffice with their biological elimination, it is necessary to destroy their cultural monuments so that not a trace of their quondam presence remains, genocide and culturicide go hand in hand.
An even greater tragedy than the National Library’s was the loss of the Oriental Institute, which was shelled because in it were stored the title deeds, cadastral surveys and waqfiyyat proving Muslim ownership of the land. At one time the entire bazaar quarter was waqf property, and the communist expropriation is still law because Parliament has not had time to introduce legislation abrogating the laws passed under Tito.
Rebuilding the country’s lost heritage is the responsibility of the Education Ministry. The minister’s second language is German, so we communicated through an English-speaking interpreter and an Arabic-speaking official from the Foreign Office. This particular interview was perhaps the most rewarding we had during our stay. Bosnia has lost more than 2,000 cultural monuments. Whilst Muslim governments are prepared to donate for the restoration of demolished or damaged mosques, it was, he said, more difficult to find donors for humbler structures like housing and pieces of civil architecture. We outlined our scheme for twinning mosques, one Bosnian mosque to one British mosque, whose congregants would contribute to the rebuilding of the former.
Other rewarding encounters took place. I recall an hour in the editorial offices of Preparod, the leading Islamic newspaper. In our interview we emphasized that British Muslims viewed the inauguration of Dr Ceric as marking a potential turning point in the history of Islam in Europe; we saw him in a greatly expanded role, as perhaps the Grand Mufti of Europe; certainly he would be better placed to appreciate our problems and issue the appropriate fatwa than some remote alim in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan who did not understand the western mentality and was unequipped alike by training and by disposition to cope with the kind of issues we confront.
The establishment of the Muslim Parliament in Britain prefigures the creation of similar political structures elsewhere, in France, Holland, Belgium and Germany; but, ultimately, it looks forward to an Islamic Parliament of Europe with headquarters in Sarajevo. This would not only protect us from the machinations of Middle Eastern regimes but would give Muslims living in any part of Europe a degree of political power and protection undreamt of since the days of the Ottomans.
Bosnia itself is not immune against these machinations. Aid from Saudi-Wahhabi sources is pouring in with the same patently disasterous consequences as in Afghanistan, raising the spectre of Bosnia - a Sufi country like Afghanistan - being rent apart by mistrust. The Salafi aid has strings attached: in education they seek to dictate the contents of the courses, but it seems that the recipients of aid are wise to their scheming and under a surface compliance, quietly modify the curricula stipulated by the donor; a highly intelligent people, the Bosnians were quick to spot the hidden agenda behind the Saudis’ generosity.
Other interviews claimed a portion of our time. In a building still sandbagged, facing the former Serb gun emplacements and appropriately overlooking the stadium-turned-cemetery, we found the offices of the War Crimes Commission. Our efforts at the War Crimes Watch in London seemed insignificant in comparison, so all we would do was to offer to share information.
Come departure and the long drive to Zagreb. As we passed through the devastated landscape, we wondered what the future could be for people facing an election whose chief purpose seemed to be to legitimate the de facto partition engineered at Dayton. One of the negotiators at Dayton had given personal assurances to our Zagreb hosts: ‘I promise you we will never give up the Drina.’ But they did, thereby conniving at the loss of the land link between Bosnia and Sanjak. The result is the physical isolation of two Muslim peoples, who can now be picked off separately, a geographical blunder of the first magnitude. Mention of Dayton produced a negative reaction in everyone to whom we spoke; in consequence of these accords the Muslim-Croat forces were forced to yield up recently-conquered territory in central/northern Bosnia, territories purchased with blood. The American intervention was timed to prevent an outright Muslim victory; it took place precisely when the Muslims were poised to win.
The Bosnia-Croatia border reveals the same devastation on either side; not till one reaches Zagreb is one really out of a war zone. The Croats talk of what took place in Krajina with bated breath. The Serbs, it seems, were worse than the Mongols; at least the Mongols spared vegetation and wildlife; but the Serbs did not even leave a tree or a bear alive in Krajina. Europe retains pockets of barabarism in spite of its small size; Serbia is one, Bulgaria another. Croats, on the other hand, are a civilised people closely related to the age-old culture of Mitteleuropa. This much at least can be inferred from the infrequency with which Tudjman’s portrait appears in public places; in Zagreb we only saw it once, in a tourist shop on the main square. What a refreshing contrast from the sick cult of personality one encounters at every turn in the Muslim world, proof of a maturity Muslims can only wonder at.
Sixty per cent of Croats, including all the Zagreb area, want, we were assured, an alliance with the Muslims against the traditional enemy of both. We had no way of verifying these figures and had to take them on trust, as being from a knowledgeable source.
Assuming that a resumption of hostilities is inevitable, if not after IFOR leaves then four or five years hence, there are two possible scenarios: the opposite of what the British sought and achieved during the four years in which they tried to contain the conflict, i.e., a Balkan war from which Albania and Turkey could not remain aloof; failing which, the formation of a Croat-Bosnian alliance behind the back of the present leadership. The first is the ideal scenario, signifying not only the internationalisation but the Islamisation of the conflict; the second is at present the more realistic prospect.
Two final observations. Here in Britain one hears a lot about Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid. Alas! we could find no evidence of their presence in Bosnia; not only did we not find any offices from which they were operating, no one to whom we spoke could identify any recipient of their largesse. But if money be in short supply amongst Muslims, at least UN officials do not lack for cash. At Zagreb we witnessed a good example of the way in which the UN makes money. One could only get into or out of Sarajevo courtesy of the UN; they provided a plane, a pilot and co-pilot and charged for it. Many, perhaps most, NATO generals in Europe are on the take; it was interesting to see the UN at work.
Muslimedia - April 1-15, 1997