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Bosnia-Herzegovina: The Threat From Islamic Fundamentalism

Jasmin Merdan (file photo) (RFE/RL) December 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Jasmin Merdan, who heads a Bosnian nongovernmental organization (NGO) opposed to Islamic fundamentalism, told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service on December 8 that such beliefs pose a threat to Bosnia-Herzegovina by providing encouragement to terrorists and by undermining the more tolerant form of indigenous "traditional Islam."

Merdan is 26 and has a degree in Arabic language and literature from a university in Jordan. There he became acquainted with the Saudi form of fundamentalism widely, if not always accurately, known as Wahhabism or Salafism. The term Wahhabism itself has become somewhat pejorative in many postcommunist countries and in Russia has become a decidedly pejorative term.

Merdan notes that Bosnian society has been through extensive upheavals since 1992 and that this has provided a fertile breeding ground for terrorist ideology.

The young writer and his colleague, Adnan Mesanovic, recently translated and annotated a book entitled "Wahhabism Or Salafism: Ideological Background And Historical Roots." Merdan is also the founder of the Sarajevo-based NGO Center for the Prevention of Terrorism, or Zapret. He has further publicized his ideas in interviews with non-nationalist publications in both the Croat-Muslim Federation and the Republika Srpska.

A Long Tradition Of Moderation

Bosnian Islam has its roots in the Ottoman Empire and is a relatively tolerant borderland faith, quite distinct in spirit and practice from that of the Arabian heartland. The elected leader of Bosnia's Islamic Community, Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric, has pointed this out repeatedly.

What is known as Wahhabism was introduced into Bosnia during and after the 1992-95 conflict by aid workers, mujahedin fighters, and others from the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Their behavior was often regarded as heavy-handed, and they frequently alienated local Muslims. But the foreigners provided a source of inspiration and financial support for others whom the war left traumatized or disillusioned.

The most visible evidence of these influences is in the wearing of Islamic dress by women in urban centers, where such clothing would have been a fairly rare sight in the last decades of socialist Yugoslavia, particularly on younger women. Another testimony to the Arabian influence is the appearance of Saudi-designed and funded mosques, whose style of architecture is noticeably different from Bosnia's Ottoman-inspired structures. It is difficult to say whether Wahhabism has put down firm roots, particularly among the young women who have embraced Islamic fashion, but its presence is undeniable.

Fertile Soil For Extremism

Merdan told RFE/RL that Wahhabi-inspired terrorism is a danger because it only requires "a couple of people" to be effective. He notes that Bosnian society has been through extensive upheavals since 1992 and that this has provided a fertile breeding ground for terrorist ideology. The result is a problem that must be dealt with, he stresses. Merdan believes it is "catastrophic" when the media use the term "Islamic terrorism," and he has noted in other interviews that "not all Wahhabis are terrorists, but all terrorists are Wahhabis."

The second aspect of what he calls the Wahhabi "threat" to Bosnia comes from its opposition to the tolerance characteristic of traditional local Islamic ways. Merdan believes that this tolerance is precisely "what Muslims can offer the [wider] world today." He argues that it is a great blessing that Bosnians today live in a democratic society where problems and issues can be discussed openly and not be swept under the rug. Merdan stresses that "we cannot discriminate against people who follow [fundamentalist] ideology because there are good people among them." At the same time, however, he believes that "there are individuals who are potentially...[open to] terrorism."

Merdan notes that the official Islamic Community preferred to ignore the problem until fairly recently, when a lively discussion on Wahhabism was launched in the media. He called on the community to appreciate the scale of the threat, become more active in combating fundamentalism, and join forces with his NGO.

He points out that polls show that only about 3 percent of the Bosnian population subscribes to Wahhabist beliefs. But Merdan believes that their ideas must be openly confronted before the number grows to 10 or even 20 percent and society is faced with a major problem. He said that he himself has received threats from fundamentalists, including some living in Western Europe.

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