The Islamic Militarization Of Bosnian-Herzegovinian Muslims (I)

Islam in the Balkans

It is the truth that the Balkan Peninsula is a mosaic of different and in some cases antagonistic religious communities with the Christian Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Islam as the principal religious denominations followed by different types of Protestants, followers of Judaism, Armenian Christian Orthodox, etc. The small Muslim communities existed at the Balkans even before the Ottoman conquest of the Peninsula which started in the mid-14th century but it was not until the mid-17th century that substantial Muslim population emerged firstly in Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Bulgaria.

In a course of time, the Balkan Muslims became in several countries or regions a substantial part of the population either living among or in very proximity to their Christian neighbors. Since 1463, when the Ottomans occupied the Kingdom of Bosnia, the population of this Balkan country had consisted of an aristocratic class of landowners of the Slavs who became gradually and in the majority of cases on the volunteer basis converted to Islam, who have been collaborators of the occupying Ottoman power, and a Serbian Christian Orthodox peasantry as second-class citizens and main taxpayers including the “devshirme” or the taxation in the blood (taking Christian boys from the families).

The process of Islamization needed some time to take a root, but since the mid-17th century around half of the population in Bosnia-Herzegovina already became Muslims called by the local Christians as the “Turks”. Albania became predominantly Muslim country (70% out of total population) during the Ottoman time (1479‒1912) followed by 20% of the Christian Orthodox and 10% of the Roman Catholic believers. In Kosovo-Metochia – a historical heart of Serbian statehood, culture, and national identity, some 90% of the population were Muslims according to the official state’s figures just before the outbreak of the 1998‒1999 Kosovo War. It is counted that some 1/3 of Kosovo’s Muslim Albanians have been, in fact, converted and Albanized Christian Orthodox Serbs.[i] In North Macedonia (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) the Albanians of Muslim faith are composing at least ¼ out of total Macedonia’s population followed by much smaller groups of the Slavic, Turkish, and Gypsy Islamic communities.

Jihad in Bosnia
The 7th Muslim Brigade marching through Zenica in Central Bosnia during the civil war in the 1990s

It is quite politically correct to claim that religion was one of the fundamental factors in the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Kosovo-Metochia in the 1990s after the collapse (and destruction) of ex-Yugoslavia followed by communal competition for resources and power.[ii] During the Yugoslav conflict, Osama Bin Laden’s Afghan Taliban fighters offered their Jihad services on several occasions in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo-Metochia. Differently to the Bosnian case, the Albanian separatists from the KLA (the Kosovo Liberation Army) declined the offer while the Muslim Government of Alija Izetbegović in Bosnia-Herzegovina accepted it. The Islamic radicals from Egypt came to Albania in order to put their „mujahidin“ services at the disposal of the Islamic cause. However, there were and are many other Islamic radicals who have individually become involved across ex-Yugoslavia and Albania as Jihad fighters or as operatives for the Muslim NGOs with the focal purpose to further Islamize local Muslim communities. For the matter of fact, they are among other NGO’s activities financing the buildings of new mosques (especially the Saudi Wahhabis)[iii] and as a consequence, for instance, during the last 25 years, there are three times more erected new mosques in Kosovo-Metochia and Bosnia-Herzegovina compared to the time of the Ottoman occupation (400 years).

In general, the Islamic radicals and militant fundamentalists from the Middle East (but the Wahhabis in the first place) are treating Balkan Muslims as not true believers falling away from the proper faith and, therefore, they made efforts to re-Islamize the local Muslim population.

Bosnia and Herzegovina  

Bosnia and Herzegovina (B-H) is an ethno-confessionally heterogeneous country composed of Bosnia in the north and Herzegovina in the south. The B-H population is divided into Muslim Bosniaks, Christian Orthodox Serbs, and Roman Catholic Croats but having other ethnic minorities like Montenegrins, Albanians, Slovenes, Gypsies, Jews or Czechs. B-H was an independent state (the Kingdom of Bosnia) till the Ottoman occupation in 1463. In the Ottoman time, Bosnia-Herzegovina was transformed into the province of the Pashalik of Bosnia till 1878 when it came under the administration of Austria-Hungary according to the decisions of the 1878 Berlin Congress. B-H was annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908 but the annexation by the Roman Catholic Austria-Hungary was largely opposed by the B-H Muslims and Orthodox Serbs.

The Ottoman Empire ruled B-H for more than 400 years until 1878. However, after the 1878 Berlin Congress, B-H was administered by five different governments and states: I) in 1878−1918 by the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary; II) in 1918−1941 by the first (royal) Yugoslavia; III) during WWII in 1941−1945 by the Independent State of Croatia; IV) in 1945−1991 by second (socialist) Yugoslavia, and finally, V) after 1992 by the Republic of B-H[iv] which is after November 1995 divided into two political entities the Federation of B-H and the Republic of Srpska. Nevertheless, the most enduring consequences for the contemporary situation in B-H had the period of Ottoman rule when almost half of the population became converted to Islam accepting the Oriental culture and lifestyle. The B-H Muslims from 1918 to 1992 passed the road from religious community via socialist nationhood to post-communist statehood.[v]

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie

The focal organization to oppose the Austrian-Hungarian rule was the Young Bosnia which crucially took participation in the Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand on June 28th, 1918. After WWII, B-H became part of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which in January 1929 became renamed into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. During WWII, B-H was home to the pro-Yugoslav Chetnik anti-fascist resistance movement. After WWII, B-H became once again part of Yugoslavia till 1992.              

The origins of Islamic fundamentalism in Bosnia-Herzegovina

It is a generally wrong assumption by the Western experts in Islamic and Balkan studies that militant Islamic fundamentalism[vi] reached the ex-Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina only during the Yugoslav Wars of Succession (in fact, civil wars) in the 1990s. However, as a matter of historical fact, militant Islamic fundamentalism made its first appearance in B-H (or better to say in ex-Yugoslavia in general) during the interwar time – at the time of existence of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (1918‒1929) renamed as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1929‒1941).

Immediately after the formal proclamation of a new South Slavic state firstly in Zagreb on November 23rd, 1918 and later in Belgrade on December 1st, 1918 (to confirm the Zagreb Proclamation), two focal political problems emerged regarding the Muslim population:

  1. The question of political representation of the B-H Muslims in central Yugoslav governmental institutions as usually they have been seen either politically not important or members of other (Serb and Croats) ethnic groups, i.e., not as separate one.
  2. The challenge to their ethnic identity as a community whose territory has been divided into several administrative regions described as (Orthodox) Serbian or (Roman Cat) Croatian according to the ethnic identity of the majority of their Christian (Serbo-Croat) populations.

The reason for such political practice toward the B-H Muslims was quite simple, reasonable, and understandable as at that time no one in Europe considered them to be a separate ethnic group outside of Serbian or/and Croatian ethnic framework as they without any doubts ethnically originate from Serbs (mainly) and Croats (partially).[vii] They as a separate ethnic group has been recognized (in fact, administratively created) only in the 1960s by the communist authority. Up to the early 1960s, the ethnic Serbs were still the arithmetic majority in B-H even after the WWII holocaust committed on them by the Muslims and the Croats within the Nazi-fascist Independent State of Croatia which part was Bosnia-Herzegovina as well.[viii]

AlijaNevertheless, the B-H Muslim (Slavic) population, faced with those political frustrations, started to seek assistance whatever they could find but those who could help them could be only Muslims and even radical Muslims. For instance, the B-H Muslims participated with their official delegation in the pan-Islamic conference in Jerusalem (under the British Mandate for Palestine)[ix] in 1931 or a similar conference in Geneva (Switzerland) in 1935. On both of those conference occasions, the B-H Muslim delegation made contact with the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East[x] but also with some other militant Islamic organizations. Just at the eve of WWII in Yugoslavia, in early 1941, the indigenous organization under the official name Young Muslims was founded in B-H.

After the 1941 April War and partition of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia by the Axis Powers and their Balkan satellites, and especially after the proclamation of the Nazi-fascist Independent State of Croatia (the ISC) by the Croatian Ustashi on April 10th, 1941, led the B-H Muslims to hope that the road to the foundation of either an independent Muslim state of B-H or autonomous province of Muslim B-H within the ISC is directed though an active collaboration of the B-H Muslims with both the notorious Serbophobic Ustashi regime in Zagreb and the Third Reich in Berlin. It is counted that some 1/3 of the Ustashi soldiers have been, in fact, the Muslims from Bosnia-Herzegovina who actively together with the Croats participated in mass and brutal killings of the Orthodox Serbs. The Ustashi ideology officially proclaimed the B-H Muslims as genuine ethnic Croats or as “flowers of Croatdom”.

The SS Hanar Division

The turning point of the Islamic militarization of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Muslims occurred in 1943 when, at the initiative of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin al-Husseini,[xi] the Bosnian-Herzegovinian SS Handžar Division was formed.[xii] That was a mountain infantry unit of the Waffen SS and it was composed mainly by the Muslims from B-H followed by some 10% of the Roman Catholic Croats. The interesting fact was that it was the first non-German Waffen SS Division ever formed in WWII. After the German invasion of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in April 1941, the country was occupied and partitioned. The Germans and Italians in West Yugoslavia established a Nazi-fascist Ustashi Independent State of Croatia under the Vatican’s blessing including B-H, whose population was composed of the Orthodox Serbs, the Muslim Bosniaks, and the Roman Catholic Croats.

Heinrich Himmler (1900−1945), SS-Reichfuhrer believed that the Muslims are going to be great soldiers and, therefore, supported an idea to create one SS Waffen Division in B-H composed by 90% of the Bosniak Muslims and 10% of the Roman Catholic Croats. H. Himmler, as well as, accepted the Ustashi ideology that the B-H Muslims were of the Croat ethnic origin and that the Croats, in general, have been the Aryans but not the Slavs. Subsequently, such ideological construction allowed him to consider the Croats racially acceptable for the SS Waffen Division. From the very practical point of view, the German Nazis had a plan to use the formation of a Muslim SS Waffen Division in B-H as the first step in gaining the important support of some world’s 350 million Muslims against the Western Allies but especially in the Middle East against the Brits.

SS Handžar Division
Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, greeting Muslim Waffen-SS volunteers with a Nazi salute, November 1943

In order to form this Division of special kind, H. Himmler needed to get A. Hitler’s permission which he obtained on February 13th, 1943. However, H. Himmler needed another permission – by the Ustashi Government in Zagreb led by the Herzegovinian Croat and notorious terrorist from interwar time, Ante Pavelić (1889−1959).[xiii] However, the Ustashi Government of Croatia originally was not willing to accept the proposal but finally agreed on it on March 5th, 1943. Very soon, the Division numbered some 26.000 soldiers including around 2.800 the Roman Catholic Croats. One of the members of this infamous unit was Alija Izetbegović – the President of B-H in the 1990s and the leader of the Islamic fundamentalist political party SDA – Party of Democratic Action.

The full name received in May 1944 of the Division was – 13 Waffen-Gebirgs-Division der SS “Handschar” (kroatische Nr. 1). It had been composed of two infantry regiments, one artillery regiment, one reconnaissance company, one panzerjager company, one antiaircraft company, one pioneer battalion, and other smaller supporting units. Three commanders have been leading the Division during WWII: Standartenfuhrer Herbert von Obwurzer (March−July, 1943), Oberfuhrer Karl-Gustav Sauberzweig (August 1943−May 1944), and Oberfuhrer Desiderius Hampel (June 1944−May 1945).

Even according to the Division’s official name,[xiv] it was clear for which purpose it was formed. The Division was blessed personally by Heinrich Himmler and became soon implicated in crimes of the worst kind, committed on a large scale, primarily against the Orthodox Serb civilians but as well as against the Jews. The training of the Division was done from September 1943 in France and Silesia till February 1944 when it returned to B-H to operate in North-East Bosnia, West Serbia, and South Srem – all of those territories had been populated by the Serbs. The Division was sent to South Hungary in late 1944 to fight the approaching Red Army but now many Muslim members deserted and returned back to B-H in order to protect their homes. The rest of the Division became driven from Hungary to Austria where the soldiers finally surrendered to the Brits on May 8th, 1945.[xv]

The Handžar Division was re-established during the civil war in B-H in 1992‒1995 as a paramilitary unit.

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.

Endnotes:

[i] Душан Т. Батаковић, Косово и Метохија: Историја и идеологија, Друго допуњено издање, Београд: Чигоја штампа, 2007, 31−52.

[ii] About the destruction of the ex-Yugoslavia and civil wars, see in [Jelena Guskova, Istorija jugoslovenske krize 1990−2000, I−II, Beograd: IGAM, 2003].

[iii] The Saudi Wahhabism took the name from its ideological establisher – Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703‒1792), who was inspired by Ibn Taymiyya (1263‒1328), whose interpretations of Islam and Islamic doctrine were based on the Hanbali school of “fiqh” that is one of the four schools of interpretation of the Islamic law. In general, Wahhabism is a conservative school of interpretation of the Islamic philosophy that is characterized by its literal reading of Islam and its rigorous and puritanical aspect. About Wahhabism, see more in [David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, London−New York: I.B.Tauris, 2009; Therence Ward, The Wahhabi Code: How the Saudis Spread Extremism Globally, New York; Arcade Publishing, 2017; Mohammed Ayoob, Hasan Kosebalaban (eds.), Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia: Wahhabism and the State, Lynne Rienner Pub., 2008].

[iv] Robert J. Donia, John V.A. Fine Jr., Bosnia and Hercegovina: A Tradition Betrayed, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, 93.

[v] Mark Pinson (ed.), The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina: Their Historic Development from the Middle Ages to the Dissolution of Yugoslavia, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996, 129−154.

[vi] The term is used in the Western world to describe movements and organizations which are the strict followers of both the Quran and the Islamic law (the Shariah). The Islamic fundamentalism emerged in reaction to the Islamic reform movements in the first half of the 20th century as those movements have been considered to be infused with Western culture and values followed by the strong political influence of the Western states in the Middle East, especially in the interwar period. Nevertheless, the Islamic fundamentalists had considerable political and ideological success, as an increasing number of Muslim states adopted Islamic law. About a modern history of Islam and Islamic peoples, see in [Reinhard Schulze, A Modern History of the Islamic World, London‒New York: I.B.Tauris Publishers, 2000].

[vii] Миленко М. Вукићевић, Знаменити Срби муслимани, Друго издање, Београд: ННК, 1998; Лазо М. Костић, Чија је Босна?, Нови Сад: Добрица књига, 1999; Лазо М. Костић, Наука утврђује народност Б-Х муслимана, Етнографска студија, Србиње−Нови Сад: Добрица књига, 2000; Чедомир Антић, Српска историја, Четврто издање, Београд: Vukotić Media, 2019, 67−75.

[viii] See more in [Dr. Milan Bulajić, The Role of the Vatican in the Break-Up of the Yugoslav State: The Mission of the Vatican in the Independent State of Croatia. Ustashi Crimes of Genocide, Belgrade: The Ministry of Information of the Republic of Serbia, 1993].

[ix] About the British Mandate for Palestine, see in [Ahron Bregman, A History of Israel, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, 18‒38].

[x] The Muslim Brotherhood as an organization is formed in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna who was at that time an elementary schoolteacher from Ismailiya that is a town situated on the Suez Canal. It is the most long-standing Sunni Islamic movement, and the movement most strongly identified with the Sunni Islam [Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013; Khalil Al-Anani, Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016; Cathy Hinners, Muslim Brotherhood: The Threat in Our Backyard, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016].

[xi] He was regarded as an „honorary Aryan“ by Adolf Hitler.

[xii] Handžar means the Scimitar – the curved Ottoman knife or sword which was a historic symbol of Ottoman Bosnia-Herzegovina (attached only to the B-H Muslims).

[xiii] About his biography, see in [Džon K. Koks, „Ante Pavelić i ustaška država u Hrvatskoj“, Bernd J. Fišer (urednik), Balkanski diktatori: Diktatori i autoritarni vladari jugoistočne Evrope, Beograd: IPS, IP Prosveta, 2009, 229−272].

[xiv] In German, Handschar.

[xv] See more in [Chris Bishop, Waffen-SS Divisions, 1939−1945, London: Amber Books, 2007; Jeffrey Herf, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009; Zvonimir Bernwald, Muslime in der Waffen-SS:  Erinnerungen an die Bosnische Division Handžar (1943−1945), Graz: Ares Verlag GmbH, 2012].

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