The Islamic Militarization Of Bosnian-Herzegovinian Muslims (II)

Part I

Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Yugoslav federation

In 1945, B-H found itself as one of the six socialist republics of new communist-run Yugoslav federation according to the pre-WWII political projects by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (the CPY). The new federal project of re-composition of the Yugoslav state had to solve all nationality questions and problems as it was publicly hoped by the ruling dictatorial regime of Josip Broz Tito (1892‒1980).[i] However, the identity problems and intra-ethnic conflicts remained alive across the country as, for example, in B-H the Muslim political leadership fought for the status of the national group for the B-H Muslim believers and for B-H to be officially recognized as their national republic within Yugoslavia. The practical problem was that the Muslims did not have an absolute majority of the population in socialist B-H, but being only the largest minority followed by the Serbs and the Croats. Therefore, B-H was according to its Constitution, the national republic of all three major groups in it. The same ethnic breakdown in B-H has persisted up to the end of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (the SFRY). For instance, according to the last Yugoslav census in 1991, the B-H population was composed of 43.7% of Muslims, 31.3% of Serbs, and 17.3% of Croats followed by 7.0% of Yugoslavs and others.[ii]

The problem with the Muslim identity as an ethno-nation was, in fact, of ideological nature as the Titoist Government opposed any form of confessionally based ethnic, national or political identity or representation and, therefore, till 1968 the Yugoslav Muslims (including those of Slavic origin as well) has been recognized as the official body known as the “Islamic Community”. The Muslim courts have been banned since 1947, the waqfs (Muslim charitable endowments) were nationalized (like many similar Christian endowments and other property), and religious schools were closed (like Christian ones as well). Being the most ethnically and confessionally heterogeneous republic in Titoist Yugoslavia, B-H had much less political influence in comparison to neighboring Serbia and Croatia.   

Student demonstrations in Belgrade
Student demonstrations in Belgrade in 1968

Nevertheless, in 1968 (in the year of massive Albanian protests in Kosovo and student demonstrations in Belgrade) a “Muslim nationality” was proclaimed in Titoist Yugoslavia but only as a designation for the B-H Muslim community who did not identify themselves as either Serbs, Croats or Yugoslavs (there were Muslims who did it). But in essence, the project of “Muslim nationality” was based on artificial ethnic foundations and a citizen who opted for it did imply active adhesion to the Islamic faith. It was probably the single global case that one confessional denomination was recognized as an ethnic identity. During the last decade of J. B. Tito’s dictatorship, an Islamic resurgence took hold, within which the idea of pan-Islamism became revived.

Only several years after the death of J. B. Tito, several Islamic leaders in Yugoslavia issued warnings about the alleged threat of rising Serbian nationalism. The peak of such warnings came in August 1991 when Jakub Selimovski, a leader of the ulema, formulated the fears of the Yugoslav Muslim society in a Memorandum which was addressed to all Islamic organizations and institutions in the world with asking for their help as all Muslims are obliged to protect their fellows at any corner of the world.

The first political parties in B-H have been formed in 1990 to participate in the „first post-WWII democratic“ parliamentary elections on November 18th and 25th, 1990 but, in fact, the three strongest of them were founded and functioned on exclusively ethnic bases: the Muslim SDA (Stranka demokratske akcije or the Party of Democratic Action),[iii] the Serbian SDS (Srpska demokratska stranka or the Serbian Democratic Party), and Croatian HDZ (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica or the Croatian Democratic Union). The results of the elections were that in December 1990, the leader of the SDA, Alija Izetbegović, became a President of B-H.[iv] In the Parliament of B-H, the coalition majority was formed between the SDS and the HDZ.

The 1992−1995 Civil War in B-H       

On October 15th, 1991, the Muslim-Croat majority under the presidency of Islamic fundamentalist Alija Izetbegović, proclaimed the sovereignty of a new state of unitary B-H and declared its formal independence on March 3rd, 1992 (with Serbian boycott)[v] which became recognized by the EU on April 6th, 1992 (a day when in 1941 started German invasion of Yugoslavia followed by a massive bombardment of Belgrade).[vi] At the same time, Bosnian-Herzegovinian Serbs proclaimed the Serb Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina followed by the Croatian proclamation of independent Herzeg-Bosnia.[vii] Both the B-H Croats and Serbs adopted a policy of strengthening their ethnic positions in those regions and counties with their absolute majority, while the leading Muslim nationalistic and fundamentalist SDA party became the only authority in the Muslim populated remains of (Central) B-H. Even the Muslims of West Bosnia (the Cazin Krayina) proclaimed their own autonomous region and showed full disobedience to the central (Muslim) Government in Sarajevo.[viii]

The civil war in Bosnia attracted foreign fighters both volunteers and mercenaries on all three sides but especially the Muslim Brotherhood’s members saw this war as an extension of the Islamic war against the Soviet army in Afghanistan in 1979−1989.[ix] It is a curious fact that the beginning of the B-H civil war in spring 1992 coincided with the fall of the communist regime in Kabul. From the very start of the Bosnian conflict, the SDA as the fundamental Muslim party in B-H, accepted a new political role to mobilize the Muslim community as a whole but the struggle for the independence of (Islamic) Bosnia-Herzegovina was presented as holy war or jihad[x] in which all Muslims are obliged to participate against (the Christian) infidels.

The ruling SDA party in B-H organized several international conferences during the war in order to attract Muslim support around the world. One of such charity conferences was organized in September 1992 by Mustafa Cerić, the imam of the mosque in Zagreb (capital of Croatia) and alongside with Alija Izetbegović co-founder of the Islamic SDA. The conference formally had to deal with the protection of (Muslim) human rights in B-H but, in fact, it was a call for all kinds of support by the Muslim brothers around the world. The conference was attended by representatives from 30 Muslim countries like, for instance, by Yusuf al-Qaradawi (Egypt), a theoretician of Islamic economics and open supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khurshid Ahmed (the UK), the head of the Islamic Foundation in London or Yusuf Islam, as the former popular singer, who followed the line of the Pakistani Islamic fundamentalists, etc. The conference resolution concluded that the final aim of the war in B-H was the extermination of the local Muslim community.[xi]

Such conferences, meetings, and appeals for the global Muslim mobilization to assist the B-H Muslims were fruitful as, for example, international Islamic Relief (the UK) founded a charitable organization Merhamet under the umbrella of A. Izetbegović’s SDA but in many cases, the Islamic Relief was working as the SDA’s propaganda agency abroad.[xii] For example, it produced a propaganda material under the title “Yugoslavia: The Crimes of Our Age” in which the B-H Serbs were portrayed as mass killers and the Muslims as only victims of the war. Pan-Islamic mobilization had a positive impact on several economically developed Islamic countries as Turkey, Iran or Saudi Arabia to collect financial, military and other support or on Egypt and Sudan to recruit jihad fighters for B-H. The Egyptian Islamic fundamentalists succeeded to make use of the Bosnian case in their domestic political fight by questioning the legitimacy of Egypt’s Government. However, the most committed have been different Islamic organizations in West Europe who misused the Bosnian war for two crucial purposes: 1) to improve their position among the European Muslims but particularly in the UK; and 2) to improve their profile with the authorities in West Europe.

Nevertheless, the focal aspect of the pan-Islamic mobilization advocated by the SDA and their supporters took a form of military assistance, as several thousands of foreign Muslim fighters came to Central Bosnia followed by war material (for instance, via Croatian seaport of Split in Dalmatia) to participate in the war of jihad. In principle, those Arab and other Islamic jihad fighters in B-H could be classified into three categories according to their origin and ideological background: 1) the Arab “Afghans” who have been returned jihadists from the Afghan War; 2) militant Sunni groups and volunteers from the Middle East and elsewhere; and 3) the Pro-Iranian Shia fighters regardless to the fact that all Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina as elsewhere in ex-Yugoslavia are Sunni.

Alija-Izetbegovic1
Alija Izetbegovic

The Bosnian-Iranian connections during the war years have been a clear indication of Teheran’s Islamic commitment but also an account for the personal pre-war links between Alija Izetbegović and the religious authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to several Western media reports from 1994, there were clear proves of Iranian arms sales followed by the Iranian volunteers in B-H.[xiii] It was quite known that Tehran and Sarajevo cooperated during the war by airlift from Iran to Croatia, via Turkey,[xiv] delivered to the (Muslim) Army of B-H, giving some 30% to Croatia as a tax for cooperation. It is not far from truth to remark that the US’ administration blessed the Islamic movements in their diplomatic and political propaganda to promote the new (Islamic) state of Bosnia-Herzegovina but as well as to keep closed eyes regarding the terrorist activities of several Islamic fundamentalist groups usually in the central part of Bosnia.[xv]

The course of Islamic ideology ultimately led the SDA party to use all possible channels of assistance to realize its political and nationalistic aims. The most important of those channels have been different Muslim NGOs and specially established in 1994 the Organization for Aid to the Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The financial resources at the disposal of the SDA have been used for several purposes as to control the Army of B-H, to minimize the political and propaganda influence of Islamic Community – organization headed by Jakub Selimoski as it was less committed in comparison to the SDA to the politicization of Islam and pan-Islamism or to beat the influence of several secular political parties, movements, and organizations in B-H.

The SDA as a fundamentalist Islamic party ideologically founded on Alija Izetbegović’s the 1970 Islamic Declaration, brought Muslim religious instruction into the schools, opened up prayer rooms, and pressurized the citizens to adopt Muslim names, women to wear the veil and men to grow beards.[xvi] The party and its Government as well as strictly prohibited drinking of any kind of alcoholic beverages and eating pork meat in any form. Politically speaking, the fundamental SDA’s task was to establish the Islamic Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina as the first Muslim state in Europe by bringing together the B-H Muslims with those (Slavic) Muslims of the Sanjak of Novi Pazar (50% out of total population) – a historic Ottoman region divided between Serbia and Montenegro as a consequence of the 1912−1913 Balkan Wars.[xvii] As a matter of fact, during the civil war in B-H, there were many Muslim volunteers from the Sanjak region who took active participation on the side of the B-H Government.

Nevertheless, the civil war in B-H became created proper conditions for the activities of different Islamic NGOs for both military and terrorist purposes. Many of the Islamist volunteers, including jihad fighters as well, who arrived at B-H to fight mostly the Serbs passed through Croatia (through Zagreb and Split) mostly thanks to the professional ID cards issued by some NGO.[xviii] The logistic center for such transit was the mosque in Zagreb run by Imam Hassan Čengić who later became a member of A. Izetbegović’s SDA and a General in the Army of B-H, where he founded the Mujahidin Battalion. This special battalion of the Army of B-H was formed on August 13th, 1993 and personally commissioned by Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović who did several times military review of the battalion in person. Its military leader was an Algerian, Abou al-Maali, ex-member of the Algerian GIA. The battalion was best equipped and most aggressive Izetbegović’s military formation being responsible directly to him as a President of B-H.

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.

Endnotes:

[i] He was half Slovene and half Croat, born in Roman Catholic family in the village of Kumrovec in North-West Croatia just on the border with Slovenia [Перо Симић, Звонимир Деспот (уредници), Тито: Строго поверљиво. Архивски документи, Београд: Службени гласник, 2010, 39; Перо Симић, Тито феномен 20. века, Београд: Службени гласник, 2011; Jože Pirjevec, Tito i drugovi, I deo, Beograd: Laguna, 2013, 26−35].

[ii] Tim Judah, The Serbs: History, Myth & the Destruction of Yugoslavia, New Haven−London: Yale University Press, 1997, 317.

[iii] In the manifesto of the SDA it is included typical Islamic values and Muslim measures such as the observance of the Muslim festivals and the reconstruction of mosques [Antoine Sfeir (ed.), The Columbia World Dictionary of Islamism, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, 179].

[iv] Alija Izetbegović was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina on August 8th, 1925 in Bosanski Šamac. As a young person, he took part in the political life of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia being an early member of the militant Islamic movement in Yugoslavia. He was never a member of the CPY but was sentenced to prison by the Yugoslav communist regime for his activities based on nationalistic Islamic fundamentalism. When he was 20, he joined the Islamic nationalistic group under the name Young Muslims and soon was arrested for his militant Islamic activities. During WWII, he joined the SS Handžar Division of Bosnian Islamic militants. He was released from prison in 1949 and succeeded to graduate from university in 1956 as a lawyer, which became his official profession. However, new political problems arrived at his life when he wrote in 1970 an Islamic chauvinistic book under the title “The Islamic Declaration…”, in which Alija argued for the formation of a fundamentalist Islamic State and rejected any coexistence with other faiths based on equal rights. In 1980 Alija Izetbegović published his focal book, „Islam Between East and West“, in which he continued to claim the same arguments from the first one. Nevertheless, both books were cited in evidence when he was tried for seditious activity in 1983 when he became sentenced to 14 years in jail but he was pardoned and released in 1988 just before the beginning of multiparty parliamentary democracy in Yugoslavia to establish in March 1990 the SDA which represented itself as the political representative of the Muslims in B-H.

[v] R. Craig Nation, War in the Balkans, 1991−2002, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2003, 151.

[vi] Branko Petranović, Srbija u Drugom svetskom ratu 1939−1945, Beograd: Vojnoizdavački i novinski centar, 1992, 100−101. The German barbaric bombardment of Belgrade on April 6th, 1941 was an „air-terrorism“ [Vasa Kazimirović, Nemački general u Zagrebu, Kragujevac−Beograd: Prizma−Centar film, 1996, 218].

[vii] Jelena Guskova, Istorija jugoslovenske krize 1990−2000, I, Beograd: IGAM, 2003, 368−383.

[viii] The B-H President Alija Izetbegović once remarked that for the Muslims (Bosniaks) “… choosing between Tudjman and Milosevic was like between having to choose between leukemia and brain tumor …” [Dr. Bisera Turkovic, Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Changing World Order, Sarajevo: Saraj Invest, 1996, 41].

[ix] About this war, see in [Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979−89, Oxford−New York: Oxford University Press, 2011].

[x] Linguistically, jihad as a term means “struggle”, “to endeavor” or “to strive”. Nevertheless, the derivative word jihad has different meanings, including the term “holy war”. From a purely religious viewpoint, the term jihad is interpreted in different ways, and many Islamic scholars argue that there is “greater jihad” and “lesser jihad”. Those scholars who follow Prophet Mohammed claim that jihad refers to an internal struggle of the believers. However, another group of scholars argues that jihad refers to the notion of holy war and an associated duty to establish an Islamic society. The third group of interpreters who embraced a militant type of Islam understood jihad as a tool to overthrow existing order but rather than attempts to revise it or establish a kind of parallel societal alternatives. The ideologies of all militant Islamists propagate direct connections between jihad and violence [Robert Spencer, The History of Jihad from Muhammad to ISIS, New York−Nashville: Post Hill Press, 2018].

[xi] However, according to the American scholar Susan L. Woodward, the focal war aim was to build states from nations [Susan L. Woodward, Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War, Washington, D. C.: The Brookings Institution, 1995, 223−272].

[xii] One of the most propagandistic black and white pro-Muslim Bosnian literature on the B-H civil war is one written by the B-H ambassador to Hungary [Dr. Bisera Turkovic, Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Changing World Order, Sarajevo: Saraj Invest, 1996].

[xiii] In 1996, about this case it was taken note in the US’ Congress but the reaction of the Clinton administration to the Iranian involvement in the Balkan affairs was neutrality.

[xiv] About the imperialistic ideas of the Ottoman Empire in modern Turkey, see in [Дарко Танасковић, Велики повратак Турске? Османлије у европском оделу, Београд: ЈП Службени гласник, 2015].

[xv] About the activities of Islamic terrorists in B-H, see in [Манојло Миловановић, Исламски терористи у Босни и Херцеговини, Бања Лука, 2001]. About the Bosnian-Herzegovinian rebels against socialist Yugoslavia, see in [Радослав Гаћиновић, Насиље у Југославији, Београд: ЕВРО, 2002, 279−288].

[xvi] Alija Izetbegovic, The Islamic Declaration: A Program for the Islamization of Muslims and the Muslim Peoples, 1990. See as well as his [“Alija” Ali Izetbegovic, Islam Between East and West, American Trust Publications, 1993].

[xvii] The Ottoman province of the Sanjak of Novi Pazar was composed of territory in present-day South-West Serbia, North Montenegro, and Serbia’s province of Kosovo-Metochia. The administrative center of the sanjak was a town of Novi Pazar (in Serbian Novi Trg). In the Middle Ages, the region of Novi Pazar was known as Raška with its center in Ras which was even the first capital of the Serbian state. Ras is located very close to the present-day Novi Pazar. During several centuries of the Ottoman occupation, the Sanjak of Novi Pazar became included in the Ottoman bigger province the Pashalik of Bosnia until the 1878 Berlin Congress. From that time until 1913, the Sanjak of Novi Pazar was included in the Ottoman province the Vilayet of Kosovo. The Berlin Congress authorized Austria-Hungary to occupy Bosnia-Herzegovina and to keep military garrisons in the district of Novi Pazar (for the purpose to separate Serbia from Montenegro) where they stayed until 1909. During the initial phase of the First Balkan War in 1912, Serbian and Montenegrin troops liberated the Sanjak of Novi Pazar which became divided between Serbia (northern portion) and Montenegro (southern part) according to the 1913 London Treaty. During the following decades, many Bosniak and Albanian Muslims emigrated from the region of Novi Pazar to Turkey as they did not want to live in a predominantly Christian state. In Asia Minor, they established their colonies. The region was occupied by Austria-Hungary in WWI, while after the war became part of the new Yugoslav state. During WWII, the region of Novi Pazar became divided between Italians who included its biggest portion into their marionette Montenegro and the Germans who included its smaller part with the town of Novi Pazar into occupied Serbia. After the Italian capitulation in September 1943, the Germans occupied the whole Sanjak of Novi Pazar. In the post-1945 socialist Yugoslavia, Montenegro and Serbia once again divided this region according to the 1913 division line. See more in [Fred Bernard Singleton, A Short History of the Yugoslav Peoples, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985].

[xviii] The most prominent such Islamic NGO was the Saudi Arabian Muwaffaq Foundations which had good relations with the Army of B-H.

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