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Wahhabi Rules: Islamic Extremism Comes to Bosnia

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

It was a strange scene. Over 3000 followers of the radical Wahhabi current of Islam had come to the northeast Bosnian town of Tuzla to bury their leader Jusuf Barcic, who had recently died in a traffic accident. The coffin in front of the mosque was draped in a green cloth. Men with long beards chanted "Allahu Akbar": "God is great." As press photographers tried to photograph the scene, they were first cursed and then beaten. The police did nothing. "We did not expect there to be so many people," an officer told the newspaper Oslobodjenje.

Religious fundamentalism is on the rise in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There had not previously been any mass demonstration of this size. But the local media have for some time now noted a marked increase in the activities of the Wahhabi sect, which counts al-Qaida founder Osama Bin Laden among its adherents. Barcic's funeral in Tuzla on March 31 was yet another sign that Wahhabism in Bosnia had ceased to be a marginal phenomenon. According to Resid Hafizovic, a Professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo, the sect represents a "potentially deadly virus" for Bosnian Muslims.

An episode in February caused a particular stir. Jusuf Barcic and a group of his followers wanted to enter the venerable Careva mosque in downtown Sarajevo, in order to perform the Wahhabi prayer rites. For the first time in the over 500 year history of the mosque, the Imam had to lock the doors. Only the arrival of the police could prevent clashes between Barcic's followers and followers of the indigenous Bosnian form of Islam. Already last year, there had been a massive brawl in the town of Kalesija after the Wahhabis occupied the local mosque there and chased off the Imam.

Such incidents remain relatively isolated. But the Islamists are increasingly brazen about their presence. In Sarajevo, for instance, one sees more and more people who respect the fundamentalists' prescripts: men with shaved heads and long beards wearing shin-length pants and women covered from head to foot in long black robes. Wahhabi "vice squads" have already been known sometimes to beat young couples whose public displays of affection violate the Wahhabis' strict moral code. According to a recent survey conducted by Prism Research, nearly 70 percent of the two million Bosnian Muslims reject Wahhabi doctrine. Thirteen percent, however, subscribe to it.

Who are the Wahhabis? Wahhabi doctrine requires the most literal possible application of the teachings of the Quran. Wahhabis are for the introduction of the Sharia and the establishment of a theocratic regime. Music, television and all forms of worldly pleasure are regarded as "decadent." The movement dates to the 18th century preacher Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who formulated puritanical principles for the "purification" of Islam, and its center is to be found in Saudi Arabia, where the monarchy has established Wahhabism as the official state religion. Wahhabi influence is particularly strong among Islamists in Chechnya and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In Bosnia, the success of the Wahhabis' puritanical form of Islam is often explained by the desolate conditions in the country. "Many of the Wahhabis come from rural areas and the most disadvantaged sections of the population. These people are desperate," a former adherent told Nidzara Ahmetasevic of The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. Large parts of Bosnia were devastated during the Bosnian War from 1992 to 1995. Over 100,000 people were killed in the fighting between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims: According to the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Center, two-thirds were Muslims. International intervention put an end to the conflict. But the political situation remains tense to this day and the economic situation is difficult.

In fact, however, the problem is more complex. Although the majority of Bosnian Muslims are secular in orientation, there have always been fundamentalist currents with political influence among the Bosnian intelligentsia. Alija Izetbegovic, the first Bosnian President following the 1992 declaration of Bosnian independence, is a case in point. Izetbegovic openly expressed sympathy for Islamist doctrine, even if he did not adopt it as the basis for his policies. He brought thousands of Arab Mujahideen to Bosnia to reinforce his troops, many of them veterans of the war in Afghanistan. "We enjoyed great privileges among both the political and the military leadership in Sarajevo," Ali Hamad, a former Mujahideen commander from Bahrain, recently told the German weekly Der Spiegel.

The fact that Bosnia has become such a fertile source of new recruits for the Wahhabi sectarians is a legacy of this alliance. Having obtained Bosnian passports, several hundred Mujahideen remained in Bosnia after the war. With the generous financial support of Saudi Arabia, they built up a network of organizations that they are using to attract the next generation of Islamists.

The attitude of the Bosnian-Muslim leadership has remained ambivalent. On the one hand, it is under pressure from the United States. Whereas the United States quietly supported the import of Mujahideen to Bosnia in the early 1990s, since the 9/11 attacks it has been pushing for the destruction of the local Islamist scene as part of the broader war on global Jihadist networks. In 2002, the Bosnian government turned over six Algerian-born Wahhabis with Bosnian passports to U.S. authorities. The six were sent to the Guantánamo prison camp. Since then, there have been regular arrests.

On the other hand, the Islamists continue to have a direct line to persons in the leadership. According to former holy warrior Ali Hamad, "There are people in the current Bosnian leadership who very much welcomed our arrival in the country back then." In the meanwhile, former Wahhabis who have left the sect have founded a non-governmental organization that is sounding the alarm. "The problem was ignored for more than 10 years," Jasmin Merdan of the Sarajevo-based Center for the Prevention of Terrorism notes, "The not exactly enviable situation in which we find ourselves now is the result."

Boris Kanzleiter is a Belgrade-based journalist and doctoral candidate at the East European Institute of the Free University Berlin. This article first appeared in German in the April 11 edition of the Berlin-based weekly Jungle World. (Jungle World -- whose title is a bilingual play on words -- was founded in 1997 following an acrimonious split from the weekly Junge Welt [Young World].) The English translation is by John Rosenthal.

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