By Ahmad Butt
“Bosnia was once ‘that exotic country in the heart of Europe’—a land with a…heritage made rich with the intermingling of many cultures and civilisations. Multinational, multicultural, multireligious, its many communities—Muslims, Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Jews—had lived together for generations. It was in Bosnia under the Ottomans that large numbers of Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain found welcome refuge, and there they had stayed, weaving another strand into the country’s variegated tapestry”. Thus, wrote Danilo Kiš, a Serbian Jewish novelist of Hungarian and Montenegrin extraction, describing the homogenous and pluralistic nature of Bosnia. Kiš died in 1989 and despite seeing the beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia, he did not fortunately live to see the brutal 1990s civil war that was fought inextricably on ethno-religious lines. The result was an attempted genocide of the Bosnian people, of whom the vast majority are Muslim, and the destruction of irreplaceable historical buildings, documents and societal harmony.
Nearly 15 years since the end of the civil war a fragile peace has been maintained. As fellow European Muslims, what lessons can British Muslims learn from the plight of the Bosnians? The Indian philosopher Mohammed Iqbal explored a variety of notions and ideologies that were affecting the Muslims in the 1930s in his magnus opus ‘The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’. Iqbal wrote ‘what is the character and general structure of the universe in which we live? … How are we related to it? What place do we occupy in it, and what is the kind of conduct that befits the place we occupy? These questions are common to religion, philosophy, and higher poetry. But the kind of knowledge that poetic inspiration brings is essentially individual in its character; it is figurative, vague, and indefinite. Religion…rises higher than poetry. It moves from individual to society’. Iqbal was suggesting that religion was a collectivising force that gave a community an identity and subsequently purpose. Undoubtedly, a major problem affecting the British Muslim community is our lack of identity. Am I a Muslim living in Britain or am I British first and then Muslim? Is there an irreconcilable dichotomy between these two classifications?
Bosnia survived an attempted genocide and a systematic attempt to destroy all Bosnian monuments and thus their history. The destruction of the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo, once one of the most extensive collections of Oriental manuscripts in the world, and the demolition of the Stari Most bridge in the city of Mostar, which was built in the 15th century, are indicative of the extent of the campaign against the Bosnian nation. Thus, how did they survive? Buildings and manuscripts can be demolished and people can be killed but a rich history, culture and a strong identity cannot be destroyed. Thus, as British Muslims we need to forge a British Muslim identity, engage with wider society and promote the continued existence of a multicultural society. Only as active British citizens can we transcend any social barriers and reaffirm proudly both our faith and our nationality. As the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, recently stated that, it is ‘the wise men of the Islamic east and the rational men of the west must meet – and then we will have moral men’.
Ahmad Butt read Politics at the University of Nottingham. He is currently doing an MA in Islamic Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Ahmad volunteers with a range of organisations including FOSIS and Campusalam.
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