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Christians in the Muslim World

Interview with Mgr Pero Sudar, auxiliary bishop of Sarajevo

How would you describe Bosnia Herzegovina’s Muslim community today? What has changed as a result of the 1992-1995 War and the arrival of “foreign” Muslims?




Since the end of the war Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina have had to deal with the presence of groups that have no links to their traditions. Wahhabi-Salafi groups came during the war to defend fellow Muslims and brought their weapons and especially their ideology. At the time local Muslims needed their help. Once the war was over their presence was no longer necessary but they could not be thrown out. These “foreigners” set up shop, house and family, and built mosques. I dare say they took advantage of the war to bring a form of Islam that is quite alien from the one that set roots here beginning in the 15th century.


Mufti Cerić, who is a key figure for Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, finds himself in an ambiguous situation. He cannot oppose their presence, but in doing so he is compromising his position vis-à-vis Europe and the international community.



In your opinion what is the deepest scar the 1992-1995 War left on Bosnian Muslims?




During the war President Izetbegović and his successors promoted a mistaken idea, namely that Muslims were not so much victims of the Serbs and the Croats but rather of Europe which used the Serbs and the Croats to exterminate Muslims, expel them from their homeland. The massacre in the Bosniak enclave of Srebenica, where 8,000 Muslim men were killed by the Serbs according to Muslim-Bosnian sources with UN peace-keepers powerless to do anything, was seen as an act by the “Christian” West against Bosnia’s Muslim minority.


Many people have bought into such an idea, especially the less educated, who almost out of a need to protect themselves hold on to extremist ideas.


Mufti Cerić has tried to manage all these views, acting as their spokesman, trying to show the open face of Bosnian Islam, tolerant and able to fit in democracy. His European interlocutors, but not only them, have an idealistic view of him and have given him many awards for being a man of dialogue. However, he is unwilling to engage in true dialogue at home. Quite the contrary!



But an Inter-religious Council does exist, recognised by the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina, that enables the cardinal, the mufti, the Orthodox bishop and the head of the Jewish community to meet . . . . Doesn’t this do anything for inter-ethnic relations?




It is true that it exists but in practice there is no real inter-faith dialogue. The council does a lot at the legislative level and acts as a mediator between religious communities and the government; it defends religious freedom for example, and other such actions.


In fact its work is useful because a “Communist” mindset still survives here. People still believe that religion ought to be something essentially private, without a place in the public arena. On the basis of this, Churches and religious communities should refrain from playing any role in politics or social life. In fact people are still reluctant to hear a religious leader talk about political issues . . . As if the life of religious groups could be kept apart from reality!


But the war push locals away from one another, sapped the value of respect for one’s neighbours, and swept away the practice of living together with people of different religious or ethnic background.


Intolerance today is actually driven by references to the religions we practice. The various religions are blamed for the ultimate division of Bosnia-Herzegovina and this is to the advantage of those who defend a secularist vision of the state. But this war was not a religious war but a war where religion and faith were used for one’s own ends.


It is a shame that the Inter-religious Council has not encouraged real inter-faith dialogue or found ways to show that our religious and Christian heritages are something shared. If this happened it would certainly help people reflect upon the evil we have inflicted upon each other.



Somehow Muslims along with Christians are trying to find a new place in society?




Bosnia-Herzegovina Muslims are looking for their own identity. Before Tito they could not define themselves as a people since they were either Serb or Croatian converts to Islam. But over time affiliation with Islam made them different, identifiable on the basis of their creed. Now they no longer see themselves as either Serbs or Croats, but view themselves as something else.


In the 1970s Tito allowed them to define themselves as a people with a capital P. But as a result of the last war they realised that defining themselves as “Muslims” would not make relations with Europe easy; hence they took on the name “Bosniaks”. However Croats and Serbs have viewed this as an attempt to claim sole title to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Among Muslim extremists there are some who think that if Serbs have Serbia and Croats have Croatia, then Muslim Bosniaks should have Bosnia-Herzegovina as their own state. Mufti Cerić himself has floated the idea.


So the situation is very complicated because of intersecting and superimposing ideologies. However I must insist that this idea did not generate support for a Serb-only state but was used by Serbs to promote it and found support also among all those who want to see Bosnia-Herzegovina divided along ethnically cleansed lines.


It is sad to say but in this country no one is politically or ideologically innocent, especially when it comes to war crimes. As time goes by such a ghastly war and desperation have led everyone to believe that violence is the only way they can survive. This is the most disturbing outcome of a war. For this reason I am convinced that there can never be a just war, anywhere.



To whom does Bosnia-Herzegovina belong?




In the end we can say that Bosnia-Herzegovina ought to belong to Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, together.


Instead it belongs to no one because in such a divided country no one can survive. This is the tragic consequence of our war.


What is surprising is the sad fact that the international community, led by the United States, imposed the Dayton peace accord, which sanctioned the division of the country and put its seal of approval on ethnic cleansing.



In your opinion what is in store for the country? Will it be ethnic cleansing or will it see a return to inter-ethnic coexistence?




What the war caused has become hardened. About 2,680,000 people were forced out of their homes; that is about 63.2 per cent of the total population. Of these only 1,380,000 have gone back, but not to their original homes but rather to the regions where they are ethnically dominant. And about a million people remain outside of the country.


Plus, what this criminal war started, amoral politics finalised in Dayton.


Of course, people who lived through this period in history believe that the old Bosnia-Herzegovina cannot be put back together. How can refugees be persuaded to return to places ruled by the same people who forced them out? They would not be free to be who they are. And at this point in time those who left ten years ago have already rebuilt their lives. War-induced ethnic cleansing and the politics that followed have destroyed the bases for living together.


Those who stayed behind feel increasingly unwanted. By implementing the Dayton Accord the representatives of the international community have practically handed the country over to the Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks. Croats are politically irrelevant. People realise this and are afraid for their future. The number of Catholics in Bosnia-Herzegovina is declining at such a rate that it is already possible to determine when none will be left. In a sense in the heart of Europe we are seeing the fate of Lebanon’s Christians repeated because of political choices whose price ought to be reassessed.


But for us, and not only for us, it will be too late.



To what extent does the exodus continue?




Young people are the first to go. More than 70 per cent of young Bosnians, of every ethnic background, would like to leave the country. Those who can, go abroad to study, or leave right after university. Croats go to neighbouring Croatia where they face no major obstacle. Whereas here unemployment is around 50 per cent.


As long as political leaders are more interested in pursuing their own interests rather than do something for the country’s problems, separatist tendencies will prevail. If politicians do not improve the economy, Bosnia-Herzegovina will end up divided.


If the current scenario of disintegration continues, we should expect Serbs to push for union with Serbia, Croats with Croatia and Muslims for an Islamic state.


Except that a tiny Islamic state here would mean recreating the conditions for a Palestine in the Balkans, caught between Islamic fundamentalists and a hostile Europe tempted to use Serbs and Croats to contain it.



Stakes are thus high, and not only for Bosnia’s future . . . .




Bosnia-Herzegovina is important because it is multiethnic. Its existence was living proof that different peoples can live together, something that transcended its boundaries.


Should it disappear, victory would go to those who believe that different peoples either split or clash. Since the world is but a cacophony of peoples, the demise of Bosnia-Herzegovina would be a signal to the world that its own future is one of conflict.


With Bosnia-Herzegovina’s death something greater would die as well.



Who has to make the next move?


Europe should move, act more, and show greater courage in promoting a just political solution. I am certain that the inhabitants and peoples of this land would not miss the chance of doing their part.