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Bosnia Rediscovers Its Dervishes

Whirling dervishes dance during a performance for tourists in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2007 to mark the 800th anniversary of the founder of the Mevlevi Sufi Brotherhood, poet Mevlana Jalal al-din Rumi.
Bosnia's Sufis are looking forward to the opening of a new "tekke" in Sarajevo next month after construction finished on April 6 -- replacing a shrine built in the 15th century that was destroyed after World War II.

As Balkan Insight reports, the new tekke, or shrine, near the center of Sarajevo where former Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic is buried is meant to replace the one built by Isa Bey Isakovic in 1462 on the outskirts of the city.

The Mevlevi Tekke, which the communists demolished in 1957, was one of the most famous in Bosnia, as the first registered institution of a "tariqa," or Sufi order, in the country. The goal of building a replica of the original is to return to Sarajevo its old dervish order.

According to Velija Kukuruzovic, head of the Association for the Promotion and Preservation of Ottoman Heritage Haji Mujaga, the opening of the tekke will also lead to the official recognition of the order by Bosnia's Islamic community.

The Mevlevi order is known for the characteristic dance of its "whirling dervishes," the "sema," in which white-robed dancers spin in circles for hours in order to pass into a state of meditation and experience God.

WATCH: The sema dance of the whirling dervishes

But even as Sufi traditions return to Bosnia-Herzegovina, they have run into an opposing trend -- the growth of fundamentalist Sunni Islam of the Wahhabi school. In June 2010, Sunni extremists bombed a police station in Bugojno, outside Sarajevo, killing one and wounding six more. A local Wahhabi admitted to the attack, saying it was intended to express opposition to an annual Sufi observance known as Ajvatovica, held nearby.

One Bosnian Wahhabi website has denounced Ajvatovica as an unacceptable "innovation" to Islam, and an occasion when men and women mingle.

Wahhabism was brought to the Balkans by fighters who came to support Bosnia's outgunned Muslims during the 1992-95 war and then later by missionaries. Most of them left after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, when an official crackdown closed down many of their charities.

But the rise of radical Islam continues to ring alarm bells in the country, though so far there has not been much sign of organized terrorist activity.

Which strain of Bosnia's Islamic revival will take firmer root in the Balkan country may well depend on Bosnian leaders' ability to find a way out of the paralysis gripping the country's institutions 20 years after the end of the war and bring development to one of Europe's poorest countries.

-- Dan Wisniewski

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