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Barred From The Pool, Doused With Alcohol: Muslims Targeted At Montenegrin Beach Resorts

Women walk on a beach wearing burkinis.
Women walk on a beach wearing burkinis.

PODGORICA -- Two incidents in quick succession this month that targeted Muslims in religious dress have cast a shadow over Montenegro's sun-splashed coast and its reputation for religious tolerance.

First, on August 4, a Kuwaiti woman in an Islamic head scarf and her family were doused with an alcoholic beverage from a hotel balcony overlooking the sidewalk in the medieval town of Budva on the Adriatic coast.

Two days later, a man berated and barred a teenager in a burkini -- the Muslim-inspired swimsuit that covers all but the face, hands, and feet -- from a pool near Utjeha Beach, which is about 20 kilometers south of the coastal town of Bar. Asked why, the man responded: "Because I hate Muslims and 300 guests object to it."

But some Montenegrins have responded to say they can't recall such incidents occurring in the past in their corner of the Balkans.

"Islamophobia, and especially gender-based Islamophobia, is present in Montenegro," longtime human rights activist Aleskandar Zekovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "In both incidents, the targets of the attacks were women, which means that the practice of religious identity by women is very much the target of attacks by those who are driven by some kind of intolerance toward diversity."

Beachgoers seek the shade in Canj, Bar municipality, Montengro.
Beachgoers seek the shade in Canj, Bar municipality, Montengro.

Critics inside and outside the faith frequently disagree over the role of the dress code in Islam, particularly in its strictest form, and what it says about Islamic culture. Many Muslims reject conservative religious arguments that women should be covered by a burqa, chador, or head scarf when out in public.

Around one-fifth of Montenegro's 620,000 residents identify as Muslim, divided mainly between Bosnian-speaking ethnic Bosniaks and ethnic Albanians.

Bar and its environs have been hailed for years as a model of multifaith coexistence, including to a considerable extent during the 1990s. The region is also a popular tourist destination among Muslims from elsewhere in Europe and farther abroad.

Some locals trace that "tradition of coexistence" back more than a century to a chatty mufti who got along famously with his Orthodox and Catholic counterparts; others say it stretches back much further.

But nationally, a spate of anti-Muslim incidents followed elections in 2020 that were marked by Serbian Orthodox activism and a resurgence by Serbian nationalist parties.

A family takes photos next to a crescent moon-shaped decoration placed in the town of Ulcinj on April 9, during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
A family takes photos next to a crescent moon-shaped decoration placed in the town of Ulcinj on April 9, during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

In neither of the August cases along the coast did authorities establish or assert that race or nationality was among the motives, a factor that could have led to more serious fines or charges.

In Budva, an 18-year-old Austrian national of Serb descent was fined 250 euros ($272) for "brazen and reckless" behavior toward the Kuwaiti tourists, specifically for "spilling liquid" on them, according to an official statement obtained by RFE/RL. Alcohol is banned under strict interpretations of Islam.

In Utjeha, local radio and TV outlet Rozaje News shared a video on Facebook of a man later identified as Dragan Djurovic, the owner of a beachfront restaurant, shouting insults at a group that included a girl in a burkini, saying they couldn't use the pool. The video, from August 4 and posted three days later, included the "because I hate Muslims" retort. He said her presence would frighten off "normal" guests.

On August 6, a man whose family is from the northeastern Montenegrin city of Rozaje but who lives in Belgium complained to police that his daughter had been insulted by the man and prevented from using the Utjeha Beach "in a burkini swimsuit."

Investigators from Bar and the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, concluded that there had been no criminal wrongdoing and merely pledged to initiate misdemeanor proceedings "if it is determined that there are elements of a misdemeanor in the actions."

After some public outcry, the man in the video, Djurovic, said the video clip had been edited selectively and said guests in hijab are welcome "but not at the swimming pools, where there is a sign stating that bathing in clothing is not allowed for hygiene reasons and the opposition of guests."

Burkinis are the creation of a Lebanese-Australian fashion designer and are usually made of similar fabric as other swimsuits. While initially intended to comply with hijab, a strict interpretation of Islamic dress, they also gained popularity among non-Muslims eager to block potentially cancer-causing rays of the sun.

France, Germany, and Belgium have grappled with burkini bans that add a layer of complexity to questions of religious practice in secular societies. A group of Belgian communities commissioned an opinion piece in 2017 from the independent public institution Unia that solicited the views of experts in which it said burkinis posed no health, safety, or hygiene risks.

"I guess it's legal and legitimate to hate Muslims in 'liberated' Montenegro," Rifat Fejzic, head of the Islamic Community in Montenegro, commented after the authorities' response to the Utjeha incident. He urged the government to do more to ensure that diversity is respected in the country.

The beach in Budva, Montenegro
The beach in Budva, Montenegro

Other critics warned that authorities' seemingly mild responses in both cases risk sending the wrong message to the public.

"Hatred must not be tolerated in any form, and it should have been considered whether there are elements of a criminal offense," Veselin Radulovic, a lawyer with experience on rights issues, said. "We have elements of hatred across the nation. It should not have been concluded so leniently, with only a misdemeanor."

Socialist opposition lawmaker Dritta Llolla called the Utjeha confrontation a reflection of mounting hatred and intolerance.

Bosniak Party lawmaker Kenana Strujic Harbic called it a sign that the "not-so-long-dormant beast of primitivism, savagery, and backwardness" has been reawakened in Montenegro.

Around 70 percent of the population of the Ulcinj municipality, of which Utjeha is a part, declares itself Muslim, and burkinis are a fairly common site on Ulcinj's beaches.

Arjona Resulani, a journalist from Ulcinj who broke barriers when she became the first presenter regularly to appear on Montenegrin television in Islamic dress, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service after the Utjeha incident that she's been wearing a burkini for months and "I haven't noticed any condemnation."

She said that included the beach at Utjeha. But "after what happened, of course, I won't [wear] it again. I wouldn't like to be in a situation like the girl from yesterday, where I feel bad about my choice."

Montenegrin law bans discrimination on religious grounds and is monitored by an ombudsman whose determinations may be enforced by courts.

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Srdjan Jankovic

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