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The Suicide Of Multiethnic Sarajevo?

The grand mufti of Bosnian Muslims, Mustafa Ceric (right), and others pray at the grave of General Rasim Delic in Sarajevo.
The grand mufti of Bosnian Muslims, Mustafa Ceric (right), and others pray at the grave of General Rasim Delic in Sarajevo.
Two events in Sarajevo this week illustrate the huge failures of the Bosnian Federation government. The funeral of Bosnian Army General Rasim Delic, convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), was treated as a state funeral with the full participation of the country’s Islamic and secular leadership. And the April 21 protests in the capital over the government’s economic policies and benefit cuts ended up with 100 citizens injured.

Sarajevo has always been proud of its multiethnic culture and argues that this diversity is the root of the country’s strong contribution to world culture. Bosnia-Herzegovina's artists have been recognized by a Nobel Prize in literature, as well as by the Oscars and prominent festival victories in film.

But the country endured the 1992-95 war and became the site of the worst war crimes of post-World War II Europe. Sarajevo was transformed from a multiethnic example into a universal symbol of human cruelty.

Slowly but surely, Sarajevo is losing its multiethnic image.

In June 2000, Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic gave me what turned out to be his last television interview. (The full interview in Bosnian is available here.) As the head of the country in 1991, Izetbegovic had to choose between allowing the war between Serbia and Croatia to be waged on the territory of Bosnia, and waging a war for Bosnia's independence. He chose the latter with the support of the majority of Bosnian citizens.

However, he started the war as president of Bosnia and ended it as president of just one ethnic group -- the Muslims. In 1992, 19 percent of the Bosnian Army was non-Muslim. By 1995, that figure was just 3 percent.

I asked Izetbegovic if he felt responsible for this. "Yes, I consider it my failure,” he told me. “But how much I am responsible for this -- that's another issue."

The events of the war period persuaded many Bosnian Muslims to argue for the creation of a Muslim state and a Muslim army. It is estimated that some 3,000-4,000 foreign mujahedin joined Bosnia's army during the war. Militarily, their contribution was small, but their presence was symbolically important.

Muslim Reconstruction

Similarly, after the war, Middle Eastern countries contributed economic aid that was used to build mosques. Economically, this was insignificant to the country's postwar recovery, but its symbolic effect was enormous.

I asked Izetbegovic why he didn’t use Middle Eastern assistance to build factories or other infrastructure. "They would not give money for factories," he said. "They would only support building mosques."

Saudi Arabia has admitted to spending $1 billion on "Islamic activities" in Bosnia between 1992 and 1998. The King Fahd Center in Sarajevo alone cost the Saudis $9 million.

The aid was granted under the condition that it be used to support Wahhabism, an ideology that was unknown in Bosnia before the war, Sarajevo University professor Edina Becirevic tells RFE/RL.

In Sarajevo itself, the Islamic festival marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan has become a de facto state holiday. Christmas is a holiday, but offices and shops stay open, whereas everything comes to a halt on Eid al-Fitr (called Bayram in Bosnia). Images of Santa Claus have been banned from the capital's 24 public kindergartens.

Muslim religious education has also been introduced to Sarajevo kindergartens, despite the protests of parents from all the country’s ethnic communities. A new mosque has been built in the Sarajevo neighborhood of Ciglane, which has always been known as the home of influential and wealthy people from all backgrounds. Again, the protests of locals were not heeded.

Bosnian writer Zeljko Ivankovic last year published a novel called "Tattooing Identity." Excerpts from the book appeared just as street protests were erupting in Iran following that country's disputed presidential election. Iranian diplomats in Sarajevo denounced the publication as unwarranted criticism of the government in Tehran, saying that Ivankovic’s work amounted to "a public lynching of Muslims" and "part of the psychological and propaganda war against the Islamic world."

Bosnian NGOs and rights organizations have been quick to defend Ivankovic, but the country's top authorities have been silent. Evidently, the Iranian Embassy knew it could use such undiplomatic language with impunity in Bosnia.

The director of Sarajevo's international theater festival has been called "immoral" because the festival was held during Ramadan this year and because festival posters featured female nudity. Because of this scandal, in the future the dates of Sarajevo's international film festival will be "coordinated" with Ramadan, the festival's director, Mirsad Purivatra, says.

"We need to adapt to the surroundings," he added, saying that the dates of various festivals have been similarly shifted in Turkey and Morocco. But those who remember multiethnic Sarajevo are dismayed by comparisons with those majority Muslim states.

Missed Opportunity

Muslims in Sarajevo and across Bosnia have many reasons for becoming much closer to Islam than they had been historically. There is a strong sense among them that they have been abandoned by the West -- a feeling bolstered by factors including the 1992 UN Security Council's ban on exporting arms to Bosnia and the UN's failure to secure protected zones (which led to the Srebrenica massacre).

But giving up its multiethnicity means suicide for Sarajevo. The biggest chance Sarajevo had after the war has already been missed. Then, the world was ready to help rebuild the country, but offered no suitable projects.

Local government proved inefficient and citizens were increasingly hired because of their ethnicity rather than their qualifications. Mosques sprang up, and Wahhabism grew increasingly influential. Non-Muslim ethnic groups were suppressed and crime and corruption flourished. Intellectuals who argued for a society based on guaranteed civil rights rather than ethnic privileges were increasingly marginalized.

Although formally the laws and regulations of Sarajevo seem to promote a multiethnic society, the real situation is quite different. Public events have been shaped by the values of one ethnic group, despite the fact that they are supported by the taxes of all citizens. Resistance to this Islamization has become notably weaker. Bosnian Muslims are being increasingly drawn to Islam, and although Bosnia remains a secular state, it is becoming a less and less secular society.

While some might think that this process in Sarajevo will end in the formation of a Muslim state, in reality it will lead to the collapse of the state altogether, a further dissolution that could have disastrous consequences for Muslims.

But Bosnia cannot expect the international community to build a functional multiethnic state for them. Doing so is Bosnia’s responsibility and that responsibility must be borne first of all by the country’s largest ethnic group -- the Muslims.

Treating a war criminal as a hero sends the wrong signal and emphasizes Sarajevo’s preoccupation with ethnic one-upsmanship. And the violent protests against economic policy are just a taste of the likely outcome of that dead-end strategy.

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL