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Balkan Report: October 15, 2004


15 October 2004, Volume 8, Number 38

DO FORMER YUGOSLAVS EQUATE ISLAM WITH TERRORISM? RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service recently conducted a series of interviews in Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and the Montenegrin part of Sandzak to see to what extent former Yugoslavs have come to equate Islam with terrorism. The results are mixed, but most participants seemed to feel that Islam is generally not considered to be prone to violence.

People of Islamic heritage can be found throughout former Yugoslavia and among several ethnic groups. Perhaps the best-known community is that of the Slavic Muslims of Bosnia and Sandzak, which is divided between Montenegro and Serbia. The term Muslim denotes both a religious and an ethnic group, much as Jew did in the former Soviet Union. Most of the former Yugoslavia's ethnic Albanians are also of Islamic heritage, but there is also an important Roman Catholic minority among the Albanians of Kosovo.

One person who offered his opinion on Islam and terrorism to RFE/RL was Semso Tankovic, who heads the Croatian branch of Bosnia's leading Muslim party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which was founded in 1990 by the late President Alija Izetbegovic. Tankovic stressed that most Croats have no trouble distinguishing between "their Muslim neighbors and those people known as international terrorists under names like Al-Qaeda." He does not exclude, however, that some unnamed "political structures" in Croatia would like to link Islam and terrorism in the popular mind to further their own political agendas.

Pavle Kalinic, who is a Croatian publicist and expert on terrorism, said that there is a hard-line element among the Croatian population that wants to exploit the negative international publicity surrounding Muslims today in order to retroactively justify some Croatian anti-Muslim policies during the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict. Kalinic added that it is obvious to most Croats that the Bosnian war had nothing to do with the terrorist issues of today, but that does not stop some other people from trying to exploit 9/11 to try to rewrite some of the darker pages in modern Croatian history.

In Bijelo Polje in the Montenegrin part of Sandzak, Imam Irfan Hasanovic told RFE/RL that the Koran is very clear in its rejection of violence. "But today, there are [unspecified] attempts to link two completely separate things, namely Islam and terrorism. If we try to translate those two words [of foreign origin] -- Islamic terrorism -- into our language, we will come up with something totally incongruous. Islam means peace, whereas terrorism means violence. Can one really speak of peaceful violence?"

The imam continued: "We want to be tolerant and fair, so we won't use a term like 'Christian terrorists' to describe those people who [ostensibly] because of Christianity used terrorism in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- and try to conceal that fact right down to today."

But Ahmed Destanovic, who is a student of Islam, the Koran, and the Arabic language, told RFE/RL in Bijelo Polje that Muslims around the world find themselves in the dock everywhere today. He said that the burden is on Muslims to prove that they are not terrorists in a world where Islam is often considered a "cancerous growth" upon society. Destanovic added that Muslims in former Yugoslavia also feel the effects of such sentiments.

Some Montenegrin politicians, such as deputy speaker of the parliament Rifat Rastoder, believe that anti-Islamic sentiment has not taken hold in Montenegro, even though some people might have had a vested interest in trying to link Islam and terrorism. Rastoder believes that Montenegro is a multiethnic society, and that religious extremism is to be found only outside the Islamic community, by which he presumably means in the struggle between the Serbian Orthodox Church and its Montenegrin Orthodox rival. Rastoder argues that Muslims in the former Yugoslavia are European in their orientation just like their neighbors, and that religious belief alone is no reason to "excommunicate" someone from the broader former Yugoslav society.

In Serbia, Muslims often feel themselves to be the objects of popular conspiracy theories, according to independent Muslim journalist Ejub Stitkovac. Those who believe such theories think that Serbian or Bosnian Muslims want to convert their neighbors to Islam just because such proselytizing groups exist in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Stitkovac argued that it is just one step away from such ideas to the belief that Muslims in former Yugoslavia could also be terrorists just because terrorists exist in other parts of the Muslim world.

But what about Bosnia-Herzegovina? Several unnamed political leaders declined to comment to RFE/RL about possible attempts to link Muslims and terrorism. But Serbian Orthodox theologian Bosko Tosovic told the broadcasters that unnamed politicians are indeed behind attempts to link Muslims and terror in order to exacerbate tensions between Bosnia's ethnic groups.

Tosovic adds, however, that there are some people in the world who take their Islamic beliefs as a justification for carrying out terrorist acts. "Authentic representatives of Islam here therefore have a great responsibility to distance themselves from terrorism," he noted.

Mirjana Malic of the Sarajevo-based Krug (Circle) 99 group of independent Bosnian intellectuals denies that it is possible to automatically link any religion to terrorism. She adds, however, that she suspects some unnamed people in government of promoting their own political agendas by encouraging the view that Islam is somehow connected to terrorism. (Patrick Moore)

MUSLIM CLERICS IN MACEDONIA CHALLENGE THEIR LEADERS. Macedonia's large Muslim population received unusual media attention when a group of imams broke into the offices of the Islamic Religious Community (IVZ) in Skopje early on 6 October and took hostage its leader, Reis-ul-ulema Hadzi Arif Efendi Emini. Although the hostage crisis ended peacefully that same day, the incident highlighted a number of problems in the Muslim communities in Macedonia, whose members are primarily ethnic Albanians, Macedonians, Bosnians, Turks, and Roma.

The hostage takers -- seven imams from the Skopje area -- demanded that Emini pay their back salaries, which Skopje Mufti Hadzi Zenun Efendi Berisha, their immediate superior, has allegedly failed to pay for up to three years. The imams claimed that Berisha paid salaries only to those imams loyal to him. At the same time, the hostage takers accused Emini of being responsible for allowing Berisha to serve a second term as Skopje's mufti although he allegedly lacks the necessary qualifications (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 October 2004).

After 13 hours, the hostage takers released Emini after he promised to call a meeting of the leaders of the IVZ to consider sacking Berisha as mufti of Skopje. One of the hostage takers, Imam Muamer Vejseli, went even further with his demands. One day after the incident, Vejseli told "Utrinski vesnik" that his colleagues are prepared to go on strike for the Muslim holiday of the first day of Ramadan on 15 October if Emini and Berisha do not call elections for the position of mufti of Skopje.

Vejseli said the IVZ has failed to pay the salaries of 50 percent of the 206 imams in Skopje and the surrounding area for as many as three years. "To illustrate the problem, our salaries are between 4,300 and 8,000 denars [$86 to $160], but we do not get them, because [the IVZ leadership claims to have not enough money]," Vejseli said, adding that the imams regard this assertion as a "barefaced lie."

But the imams' decision to take the Reis hostage also had another aspect. As a commentator for the daily "Dnevnik" pointed out on 9 October, the incident was just another example of the ongoing tensions within the IVZ. Already in September, a group of armed men broke into Emini's offices and forced him at gunpoint to employ what Macedonian media described as "Islamist imams" and "Taliban." Later, the IVZ's leadership declared the labor contracts Emini was forced to sign null and void.

The daily "Vest" of 14 September quoted anonymous sources from the IVZ as claiming that radical Islamist groups have already tried to infiltrate that body. At the same time, these sources charged Skopje Mufti Berisha with being responsible for the September armed incident in Emini's office, since he allegedly relied on the radical wing among Skopje's imams for his election earlier this year. Vejseli and the other hostage takers said, moreover, that Berisha and his followers rigged his election.

It is not clear where the truth of the matter actually lies. At a time when many people have come to fear the possibility of Islamist terrorists, claiming that political opponents support radical Islamist groups has become a vicious ploy between Muslim leaders.

For instance, former Bulgarian Chief Mufti Nedim Gendzhev claimed in late 2003 that his successor, Selim Mehmed, is not doing enough to prevent radical Wahhabi imams from agitating in Bulgarian mosques. Gendzhev -- who himself confessed that he had worked for the former communist secret service -- thereby succeeded in discrediting Mehmed on the eve of a national assembly of Muslim clerics. But the move also left Bulgaria's Muslim community deeply divided (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 26 November, and 15 and 16 December 2003).

The IVZ theoretically represents all Muslims in Macedonia. In fact, it only represents the Sunni majority of the country's 500,000 Muslims, whereas the members of the Bektashi Dervish Order do not recognize the IVZ's authority (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 August 2004).

Moreover, Muslim ethnic Macedonians, Bosnians, Turks, and Roma often complain that the IVZ is dominated by ethnic Albanians, who make up about three-quarters of the country's Muslim population (see http://www.greekhelsinki.gr/pdf/cedime-se-macedonia-muslims.PDF).

And since the IVZ has some influence among the religious segment of the Albanian minority, ethnic Albanian political parties have tried to interfere in the elections of the IVZ's leadership. Emini is reportedly backed by the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH). In the past, the IVZ leadership was said to be close to the once powerful Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD).

However, both the PDSH and the PPD have lost much of their influence among the Albanians in recent years to the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), which emerged in the wake of the 2001 interethnic crisis. In such a situation, one cannot completely rule out that a struggle for political influence lies behind the latest developments within the IVZ. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz, ub@itinerarium.de)

WILL SLOVENIA'S NEW GOVERNMENT FARE BETTER WITH ITS FORMER YUGOSLAV NEIGHBORS? The Slovenian elections on 3 October resulted in a surprise victory by the conservative Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) over the ruling Liberal Democracy of Slovenia (LDS) party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 October 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 8 October 2004). However, warning signs that the LDS and its center-left coalition partners were in trouble appeared much earlier.

Throughout 2004, polls indicated that half the electorate was dissatisfied with the work of the government and the parliament. In addition, there has been a steady erosion of public support for the LDS since December 2002, when Anton Rop replaced the current president, Janez Drnovsek, as party head and prime minister.

The first strike against the party's prestige came in April, with a referendum on a bill granting retroactive residency rights to non-Slovenes who had failed to apply in time for citizenship. The opposition resisted the blanket restoration of such rights and pressed for a referendum. The result was a humiliating 95 percent rejection of the government-backed bill. The LDS dismissed this setback as a result of low turnout, in part due to a call by former President Milan Kucan for a boycott of the vote.

Strike two came on 13 June, when the LDS and its coalition allies failed to win a majority of the seven seats in elections to the European Parliament. The big winners were the opposition SDS and the New Slovenia (NSi) party, with two seats apiece. Analysts shrugged off the result as a combination of populism, especially in the results for the NSi's Lojze Peterle, and another low turnout due to "voter immaturity."

Rop -- who many say lacks the managerial skills of Drnovsek -- found it increasingly difficult to maintain consensus within his four-party coalition. The result was a series of purges, beginning with the expulsion from the coalition of the unruly Slovenian People's Party (SLS) in April, the replacement of five government ministers in the same month, and finally the dismissal of the controversial but charismatic foreign minister Dimitrij Rupel in July. Each move was officially characterized as helping refocus the government's energies, but the net effect was to shift the coalition's political orientation increasingly leftwards, abandoning the political center to opposition parties.

Strike three -- the 3 October national elections -- was a clear defeat for the LDS that could not be described as anything else. The SDS won a clear victory over the LDS, even though putting together a majority in the new parliament is not proving to be an easy task. Together with his center-right allies -- the NSi and the SLS -- SDS head Janez Jansa controls only 45 of the 90 seats in the National Assembly. Speculation as to how he will finally secure a majority ranges across the political spectrum, from a possible alliance with the reformed communist United List of Social Democrats (ZLSD), to a deal with the far-right Slovenian National Party (SNS).

In addition to the standard domestic issues, Jansa's new government will have to formulate effective policies for dealing with Slovenia's former Yugoslav neighbors, especially Croatia. Tensions with Croatia are simmering because of disputes over land and sea borders and other issues stemming from the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 August and 17 September 2004). In September, Croatia expressed concerns to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly that Slovenia -- which will chair the OSCE in 2005 -- may not deal fairly with its southern neighbor. Threats by Slovenia to block Croatia's EU accession only made matters worse (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 1 October 2004).

Despite the political feuding, relations between Slovenia and Croatia generally remain good. Croatia is one of Slovenia's top export markets. A recent poll in Rijeka's "Novi list" found that 60 percent of Croats consider Slovenia a friendly country. However, this number drops as one moves away from the Slovenian border, to southern Dalmatia or eastern Slavonia.

Croatia has cautiously welcomed Slovenia's change of government. The SDS and Croatia's ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), are members of the European People's Party (EPP) bloc in the European Parliament, which may help promote dialogue. Nonetheless, Croatia is unlikely to back down from demands regarding the location of the border and related rights in the Bay of Piran and is expected to press for international arbitration on the issue, "Novi list" reported on 10 October.

Recent events suggest that Croatia is prepared to take a hard line, just as Jansa did during the Slovenian election campaign. On 7 October, the Croatian gunboat "Solta" made an unannounced appearance just outside the disputed Bay of Piran. Slovenia reacted with concern to the alleged incident, but at a 9 October press conference, Croatian President Stipe Mesic dismissed any worries over "a boat sailing normally in Croatian territorial waters."

Meanwhile, relations with Serbia have quietly been improving, especially in trade and Slovenian investment in Serbia. However, nationalist fears are not far below the surface. A "Dnevnik" article of 8 October reported on an offer by Slovenia's Mercator supermarket chain to buy up shares in Serbia's C-Market chain. Already on 21 September, about 200 C-Market employees protested in Belgrade against the possible deal, carrying signs reading: "Our fallen soldiers are watching!," "We won't learn Slovenian!," and "Protect our own!" (http://www.danas.co.yu/20040922/frontpage1.html).

Strengthening political and economic ties with the other former Yugoslav republics, while assuaging fears regarding alleged Slovenian heavy-handedness and neo-colonialism, will be both a priority and challenge for the Jansa government. (Donald F. Reindl, dreindl@indiana.edu)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "The Hague is really the big battle for the European future of Serbia and Montenegro. The issue is not punishment of the [indicted] generals nor the extradition of individuals nor treason. It is rather modern patriotism." -- Serbian President Boris Tadic. Quoted by RFE/RL in Belgrade on 5 October.

"Serbia is at a crossroads. It will either move forward to development and to a better life, or it will stay where it is now forever because it is not capable of solving the problems that have been a burden and hindrance for too long." -- Tadic in ibid.

"[Radovan] Karadzic has done more for Islam in Bosnia than I have done in five years." -- Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric, quoted in "BH Dani" on 30 September.

"[Extending] from the North Cape to the Syrian border, this Europe will be a world power, whether it wants to be or not." -- A smiling Guenter Verheugen, who is EU enlargement commissioner, on German ZDF television on 6 October.

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