By Mirnes Kovac
Many today see Bosnia and Herzegovina (short: B&H, Bosnia) as a fragile state, problematic in terms of its long political impasse – but one can ask – is it really in such an unfavorable position? The situation on the ground is not even close to that which is being projected. In order to acquaint you with B&H, I shall first provide some background, and focus on one of its main peculiarities – the fact that it is the most-Western “majority-Muslim country” in Europe, and in a sense, the world.
According to the last official census in B&H conducted in 1991, 43.5% of the inhabitants of the country declared themselves to be ‘Muslims’ by nationality. Due to war-related death, expulsion and migration, the numbers and demographic distribution of ethnic groups within B&H have significantly changed.
A referendum on independence from Yugoslavia was held in Bosnia in February 1992 but boycotted by most Bosnian Serbs whose forces, assisted by Belgrade, initiated a bloody aggression against Bosnia in 1992-95. Estimates of the death toll of the war have ranged up to 300,000, with about 200,000 being the accepted figure. More than 83% of civilian deaths were Bosniaks, rising to nearly 95% in Eastern Bosnia. During the conflict, more than two million people fled their homes (including over one million to neighboring states and the West).
Bosnia and Herzegovina is secular state with no state religion. The Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina (ICBH) is the institution that has traditionally represented Islam in Bosnia. According to its own constitution: “the autonomy of ICBH is based on the religious and legal institutions of Bosnian Muslims from the time of Ottoman administration in Bosnia.” It is independent in the regulation of its activities and the management of its properties. There are approximately 1,700 mosques and masjids in B&H, all run by the ICBH. Many mosques are still under reconstruction after being destroyed or damaged during the war. It is reported that 613 mosques, 218 masjids, and various other properties were completely destroyed in the war of 1992-95. The institution also takes an active part in the Inter-religious Council of B&H, formed in 1997 to promote inter-religious dialogue, justice, peace and reconciliation.
In post-war Bosnia the greater presence of religion in the public arena is evident. Some welcome the religious revival as healthy assertions of identity after decades of de-Islamisation during the Communist period, while others see it as a rising threat to the secular and politically fragile state. This process has also exposed religious communities to new challenges arising from publicity and public critique.
Although many in the West see Bosnia as a model state in terms of the relationship between Islam and the state, unfortunately, its status of a ‘majority-Muslim state’ seems to be the cause of prejudices and fears.
The most recent issue which has arisen is the EU plan to lessen the visa procedures for the states of Western Balkan. Although significant improvement has been made in 14 years after the conflict ended, B&H has still not been approved for the so-called “white Schengen list” which implies that citizens of Bosnia can travel throughout Europe without visas. Some neighboring countries such as Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, although at almost similar stages in reform, were already accepted on the “white Schengen list” in December 2009. Due to the complex structure of B&H and the frequent obstacles from within (which recently include even very dangerous prospects of secessionist tendencies in the Bosnian Serb entity aimed to lead to the creation of a mono-national fascist statelet cleansed of all non-Serbs) many of the reforms that are needed for EU integration have been blocked.
Also, the European stance towards recent history has not changed in terms of a clear recognition of failures, as well as the identification of perpetrators of war and genocide in Bosnia. The most recent example is the Hague trial of the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic. Europe does not want to realize that the trial of Karadzic is, to a degree, a trial of itself. It even has difficulty in pronouncing the term ‘genocide’ with reference to Srebrenica.
The only hope of the Bosnian Muslims today is to prevent any further injustice. Yes, clearly the trial in Hague is a positive legal process which has to be carried out for the sake of historical record. But it is unimaginable that war criminals responsible for mass killings dictate the flow of justice, or even worse, return home after their sentence in full glory and with a state tribute. The recent case in which the Prime Minister of the Serb Entity, Milorad Dodik, sent a government plane to pick up the prematurely-released war criminal, Biljana Plavsic, and returned her safely with the status of national hero, sends a scary message for the future – not just to Bosnia, but to the whole of Europe.
Europe was able to prevent the genocide in Srebrenica and other war crimes in B&H, but it did not. Now is the time to wake up and save people from falling further into an ethnocentric mindset. Serbs, both in Bosnia and Serbia, have not gone through any de-nazification process, and the highest priority of Europe should be to help them finally begin this thorough journey. Notably, the victims of genocide and mass killings in B&H have not asked for revenge against the crimes they suffered. They only want the same as Europe wanted after the Second World War – at the very least – the prevention of a the future climate for criminals.
The current European approach, “visas only for Muslims” policy, is a blatant example of an ‘appeasing and slashing’ stance to those who organized the worst mass killings and genocide in Europe after the Second World War. This signals a troublesome sign for the future of both the Western Balkans, and of Europe.
Mirnes Kovac is the editor of the bi-monthly Preporod Islamic Magazine published in Sarajevo. He graduated in Islamic Studies from the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo University and has an MA in International Relations from the University of Sussex, UK. He is the author of the book “Islam as a Global Challenge” published in Bosnian in 2004.
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