BELGRADE -- Passions are running high in Serbia's southern region of Sandzak after the "Blic" national daily ran a photomontage showing Mufti Muamer Zukorlic, the head of the Islamic Community in Serbia, dressed in the attire of an Orthodox priest and holding the hand of Pope Benedict in greeting, under a caption reading, "More Catholic than the pope."
The image -- which plays on a Serbian saying, "bigger than the pope" -- is a gentle poke at Zukorlic's reputation for grandiosity. More seriously, it appears to question the mufti's devotion to Islam, a challenge Zukorlic has found difficult to stomach. He is demanding a massive 100 million euros in compensation, and the Islamic community has called for Sandzak residents to boycott the Belgrade-based paper. Zukorlic and others are comparing the controversy to the 2005 scandal over the Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.
But critics say Zukorlic, more than anguishing over the slight, is actually using the scandal to his personal advantage. The influential mufti has recently sought to translate his influence into political power, and last month led the winning ticket in an election to the National Bosniak Council.
The new national councils, created last year, hand some decision-making powers on media, education, language, and national symbols to the country's ethnic minorities and are seen as an important step toward Belgrade's reparations toward its non-Serb residents and its integration with the European Union.
But an election that should have marked a historic achievement for Serbia's Bosniaks has instead become mired in a bitter feud between members of the Muslim community, as well as a larger debate about the role of religious leaders in politics, particularly in the war-torn countries of the former Yugoslavia.
Can a mufti rightfully maintain a religious role while serving a political post?
Mufti Muamer Zukorlic: Reputation for grandiosityMake A Choice
Aida Corovic of Urban In, a civil-society NGO in the city of Novi Pazar, says for the sake of stability in Sandzak, Zukorlic should choose one or the other.
"I'd be happy if people didn't see us as a tiny Islamic republic in the heart of Europe," she said. "Our political representative can't be a mufti. If Mufti Zukorlic wants to be a politician, I applaud his decision, but first he needs to leave his religious attire behind."
As the debate continues, the possibility of fresh elections also threatens to further ratchet up tensions. Zukorlic's ticket, the Bosniak Cultural Community, won 17 seats on the 35-seat Bosniak Council, leaving it just short of a majority.
Zukorlic's rivals in the election include Rasim Ljajic, the Serbian labor minister and the man in charge of the country's cooperation with The Hague tribunal, whose ticket won five council seats. They also include Sulejman Ugljanin, the former mayor of Novi Pazar and currently a minister without portfolio in the Serbian government, whose group took 13 seats.
Observers say Zukorlic, faced with the possibility of fresh elections, is determined not to lose ground in the struggle with his rivals to rule the nascent political body. And Safeta Bisevac, a reporter for the Belgrade daily "Danas," said the furor over the "Blic" photomontage is directly related to the jockeying for power under way in Sandzak.
"This can be seen as the continuation of the election campaign by other means, since the election for the Bosniak National Council might have to be repeated," she said. "The timing of this is perfect for Zukorlic, who's keen to present himself as the leading representative of Sandzak's Bosniak community." Populist Approach
Political experts said Zukorlic's election victory was due to mounting dissatisfaction with the lackadaisical approach of the political elite, represented by officials like Ljajic and Ugljanin.
Even though the Bosniak Council is not equipped to address economic issues like unemployment and poverty, Zukorlic took a populist approach in his campaign, visiting striking workers and presenting himself as a genuine guardian of Bosniak interests, both religious and secular.
Zukorlic rival Rasim Ljajic
The mufti is viewed as a publicity-savvy master at self-promotion. But observers like Semiha Kacar of the Sandzak human rights committee say that in his public squabble with "Blic," Zukorlic may have gone too far.
"Zukorlic's reaction to the photo has alienated even many of those who have been engaged for years in the defense of minority rights," Kacar said. "These people object to the mufti's refusal to accept an apology from 'Blic' for what he calls its 'insincerity.' "
"Blic" has attempted to distance itself from the controversy. Editors say the photomontage, which ran on the paper's humor page, was not the work of regular staff members The newspaper says it has no electronic file or hard-copy original of the image. 'Quick To Take Offense'
Zukorlic's highly public response to the scandal has overshadowed what, for some, is the larger question of whether all Muslims should be offended by the montage. Bisevac, for one, says the image was scandalous and could easily hurt the religious sensibilities of the Muslim community.
"A colleague recently told me that we Muslims are quick to take offense," she said. " 'First there were the Muhammad cartoons,' he said, 'and you want to kill the people who drew them. Now there's the photomontage, and it's a problem, too.' It seems that the general perception out there is that Muslims are easily offended. I think we are probably just more connected to our religion."
Scholar Rade Bozovic says many Serbs may fail to understand the "strong feeling of respect" toward faith that pervades Balkan Muslim communities. The "Blic" image was a "great mistake," he says, especially given the "raw sensibilities in this part of the world, where every excess is exploited for political ends and in the basest manner possible."
But others suggest that Zukorlic is unnecessarily drawing all of Sandzak's Muslims into what is essentially a case of personal insult. The mufti, who in addition to demanding 100 million euros in "symbolic" compensation, has also called the newspaper's actions the "politics of genocide."
Coming in the wake of the Serbian parliament's hard-won declaration condemning the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, Kacar says such an accusation is misplaced. "I think this only affects one individual," she says. "There was no mention of a mosque or any other religious institution." Public Standoff
That argument has been echoed by Zukorlic's main Muslim rival, Grand Mufti Adem Zilkic. The pro-Belgrade Zilkic has entered a public standoff with Zurkolic, who is loyal to Sarajevo -- thus driving a deep wedge between Serbia's Muslim community. (Zilkic is also a close ally of Ugljanin, Zukorlic's rival in the Bosniak Council elections, thus turning a religious row into a political one as well.)
Zilkic's newly formed Islamic Community of Serbia -- whose name is confusingly close to Zukorlic's Islamic Community in
Serbia -- has already requested a meeting with government representatives to discuss a row with Zukorlic over the rights to the Novi Pazar baths. Zilkic's groups claims to be the only body with the legal right to waqf, properties dedicated by Muslims for religious or charitable work.
Belgrade has yet to weigh in on any aspect of the debate. In many ways, the Serbian capital, with its law-bound commitment to the separation of church and state, is a world away from Sandzak, where faith and politics are deeply entwined.
The "Blic" cartoon may be easily dismissed as a prank in other corners of Serbia. But in the heartland of the country's Bosniak community, says journalist Bisevac, it has "done Zukorlic a favor."
"Regardless of what the reaction to the photo might be in the rest of Serbia," Bisevac says, "in Sandzak itself this will only prove a gain for him, especially among his own supporters."