Der Spiegel (Germany), April 09, 2009
Islamists Gain Ground in Sarajevo
THE PROPHET'S FIFTH COLUMN
By Walter Mayr in Sarajevo
Radical Muslim imams and nationalist politicians from all camps are threatening Sarajevo's multicultural legacy. With the help of Arab benefactors, the deeply devout are acquiring new recruits. In the "Jerusalem of the Balkans," Islamists are on the rise.
The obliteration of Israel is heralded in a torrent of words. "Zionist terrorists," the imam thunders from the glass-enclosed pulpit at the end of the mosque. "Animals in human form" have transformed the Gaza Strip into a "concentration camp," and this marks "the beginning of the end" for the Jewish pseudo-state.
Over 4,000 faithful are listening to the religious service in the King Fahd Mosque, named after the late Saudi Arabian monarch King Fahd Bin Abd al-Asis Al Saud. The women sit separately, screened off in the left wing of the building. It is the day of the Khutbah, the great Friday sermon, and the city where the imam has predicted Israel's demise lies some 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) northwest of Gaza.
It is a city in the heart of Europe: Sarajevo.
"Tea or coffee?" Shortly after stepping down from the pulpit, Nezim Halilovic -- the imam and fiery speaker of the King Fahd Mosque -- reveals himself to be the perfect Bosnian host. He has fruits, nuts and sweetened gelatin served in his quarters behind the house of worship. A chastely-dressed wife and four children add themselves to the picture. It's a scene of domestic tranquility that stands in stark contrast to the railing sermon of the controversial Koran scholar.
Sarajevo's King Fahd Mosque was built with millions of Saudi dollars as the largest house of worship for Muslims in the Balkans. The mosque has a reputation as a magnet for Muslim fundamentalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the imam is said to be the patron of the Wahhabites, although they call themselves Salafites, after an ultra-conservative movement in Sunni Islam.
Halilovic is familiar with the allegations and the usual accompanying thought patterns: Wahhabite equals al-Qaida, which equals a worldwide terror network. He says he has nothing to do with that, but he "cannot forbid a Muslim from worshiping in my mosque according to his own rites." He explains the general air of suspicion surrounding the King Fahd Mosque as follows: "The West is annoyed that many Muslims are returning to their faith, instead of sneaking by the mosque to the bar, as they used to do, to drink alcohol and eat pork."
Many Bosnians have despised "the West" since 1992, when the United Nations arms embargo seriously impeded the military resistance of the Muslims in their war against the Serb aggressors. It wasn't until four years later, and after 100,000 people had died, that the international community -- at the urging and under the leadership of the US -- finally put an end to the slaughter. Over 80 percent of the dead civilians in the Bosnian War were Muslims.
This traumatic experience left a deep mark on the traditionally cosmopolitan Muslim Bosnians -- and opened the door to the Islamists. Years later, the religious fundamentalists have declared the attacks by Christian Serbs and Croats a "crusade" by infidels -- and painted themselves as the steadfast protectors of Muslim Bosnians.
Imam Halilovic served during the war as commander of the Fourth Muslim Brigade. A photo shows him standing next to a 155 milimeter howitzer, dressed in black combat fatigues, a flowing beard and a scarf wrapped around his head. He witnessed the arrival of the first religious warriors from countries in the Middle East and northern Africa. These fighters brought ideological seeds that have now found fertile ground -- the beliefs of the Salafites, Islamic fundamentalists who orient themselves according to the alleged unique, pure origin of their religion and reject all newer Islamic traditions.
Another Explosive Situation
Sarajevo is at the crossroads of the West and the Orient, in the heart of Europe -- a place where Islam meets the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and a place that shares the historical legacies of the Ottoman Empire and the Austria-Hungary of the Habsburgs. If Europe were to lose Sarajevo's Muslims as mediators between these worlds, it would have to contend with yet another explosive situation.
Bosnia's capital city still remains a bustling town with well-stocked bars, concerts and garish advertisements for sexy lingerie. Men with billowing trousers and full beards and women with full-body veils are still a relatively rare sight on the streets. The last reports of sharia militias intervening against public kissing in parks on the outskirts of town date back two years ago.
According to a survey conducted in 2006, however, over 3 percent of all Muslim Bosnians -- over 60,000 men and women -- profess the Wahhabi creed, and an additional 10 percent say that they sympathize with the devout defenders of morals. But since the radicals and their Arab benefactors have been subject to heightened surveillance in the wake of 9/11, they tend to keep a low profile.
In the evenings, though, individuals and small groups quickly exit the shell-pocked apartment buildings surrounding the King Fahd Mosque. At this time of day, there is a much smaller crowd of worshipers than at noon during the big Friday prayers, and the fifth column of the prophet can almost feel as if it has the mosque to itself.
They pray differently, with spread legs and in tight rows, "so the devil cannot pass." They refuse to allow fellow worshipers to say the ritual peace greeting "salam" at the end, they don't say a word, they don't want to be part of the Jamaat, the community, and they leave the mosque together as a group before the others.
Locked the Doors
The older generation of Muslims in Sarajevo's mosques now has to listen to lectures from bearded missionaries on what is "halal" and "haram" -- lawful and forbidden -- as if they and their ancestors had been living according to a misconception for over half a millennium. To protest this, the imam of the time-honored Emperor's Mosque has temporarily locked the doors of his house of worship -- for the first time in its nearly 450-year history.
This clash of civilizations also takes place in less prominent places, like the Internet forums of the Bosnian Web site Studio Din. Here the heirs of the officially godless, socialist Yugoslavia can learn about the Salafi doctrine. They ask questions that have to do with everyday life -- listening to music, smoking, earning money -- but also questions dealing with clothing and moral rules.
The answers from the preachers on the Web are unequivocal: "Music is forbidden in Islam, listening to instruments is a sin." "Smoking is forbidden in Islam." "Whoever works as a cleaning lady at a bank that charges its customers interest is an accessory to a sin. It's no different than having cleaning ladies in bars and brothels."
In October, 2008, the Baden-Württemberg state branch of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, conducted a study on the Studio Din Web site, which is also regularly visited by Bosnians living in exile. Entries in the forum -- which include discussions on jihad, the holy war, as a direct way of reaching Allah -- indicate time and again visitors from the Wahhabi King Fahd Mosque in Sarajevo, Imam Halilovic's flock.
Could a radical, potentially violent parallel society be emerging in the Muslim dominated region of the war-torn republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, eight months after the signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union?
There are indications of this. Resid Hafizovic, a professor at the Islamic University, was the first to speak of a "potentially deadly virus" in Bosnian society. The head of the Bosnian federal police has recently admitted that there is a growing threat of "terrorism with an Islamistic character" and has cited indications that suicide bombers have begun to equip themselves with explosive belts.
"They have everything to blow themselves up. Whether they do it depends on the orders from their leaders," says Esad Hecimovic, author of a standard work on the mujahedeen in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Last March, officials of the special anti-terror unit arrested five men, including four Salafites in Sarajevo.
The Bosnian leader of the group, a former fighter in the Al-Mujahedeen Brigade, reportedly has sponsors in Germany and Austria who helped him acquire explosives. In connection with the arrests, police conducted raids in remote mountain areas and seized caches of arms and military equipment that were used for combat training exercises.
After discovering that some of the masterminds behind 9/11, such as Khalid Scheikh Mohammed, had been active in Bosnia, international pressure increased on the government in Sarajevo in 2002. Foundations were closed and police searched the Sarajevo office of the Saudi High Commissioner for Aid to Bosnia, which had until then enjoyed the protection of the United States.
Al-Qaida veteran Ali Hamad from Bahrain and Syrian-born Abu Hamza are currently in custody on the outskirts of Sarajevo and awaiting deportation. Intelligence sources say that Hamza secretly channeled money between Arab sponsors and Bosnian Salafites. The amount of €500 -- an average monthly salary -- is reportedly rewarded for every woman who decides to wear a full-body veil.
The Islamists are slowly but surely permeating the firm ground upon which Sarajevo's society stands. They are influencing men like the quiet, bearded cab driver who waits for customers day after day at the bridge where the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in June, 1914. On the evening of Sept. 24, 2008, the cabbie suddenly appeared at the front of a protest, right in the midst of those who shouted "Allahu akbar!" at the police line in front the Art Academy of Fine Arts and attacked visitors to Bosnia's first gay and lesbian festival.
Wahhabites scuffled alongside common hooligans. Eight people were injured and all subsequent events were canceled. Srdjan Dizdarevic, chairman of the Bosnian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights -- an independent, nonprofit organization for the protection, promotion and monitoring of human rights in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- spoke afterwards of a defeat for civil society, of "fascist rhetoric" leading up to the incident, and called it reminiscent of the "pogroms that happened in the times of Adolf Hitler."
The fact of the matter is that politicians from all parties are playing the background music to a radicalization that threatens not just the secular character of Bosnia, but also the unity of this country comprised of Muslims, Serbs and Croats. This includes some local politicians who have demanded that school classes be strictly divided according to religious confessions -- and in December, 2008 obtained, in several places, the first ban affecting state-run daycare centers in Sarajevo. The ban concerned the Christian Santa Claus who, until then, even Muslim children had revered as "Little Father Frost."
But it is primarily the heads of government and political parties who stand in the way of reconciliation between the former wartime enemies. Nikola Spiric, the Serb Prime Minister of the weak Bosnian state, says there is a real danger that the country will split apart for good. He says he is powerless as long as his country is administered like a protectorate by the Office of the High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, the organization created in 1995 to oversee the Dayton Peace Agreement. "My hands and feet are tied, I'm a mascot, the address that international organizations can send their mail to."
Haris Silajdzic, the Muslim representative of the presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, sits a few buildings down the street, in the presidential palace. He played a very active role as foreign minister and prime minister during the war but now, after years of power struggles, the one-time beau is starting to show signs of exhaustion. Nevertheless, he is still widely regarded as one of the most artful advocates of Muslim interests in this multi-ethnic state.
Silajdzic says he sees no indication of an Islamization of Sarajevo or Bosnia. In his opinion, it is more important to talk of ensuring that the Muslims receive justice after the "genocide" of the 1990s. While half the Cabinet waits for him in front of the door, Silajdzic calmly places a Marlboro in his cigarette holder and says that, as a "committed European," he hopes that the West will realize what is at stake in this country: "Bosnia is a small country, but a great symbol."
The reopened Hotel Europa -- an archetypical institution for this city which was once praised as the "Jerusalem of the Balkans" -- stands at Sarajevo's center of gravity, right at the border between the Ottoman and the Habsburgian quarters of the old city. Under crystal chandeliers, waiters here serve Turkish mocha from copper coffee pots, and an elderly gentleman sitting in the corner passionately tries to draw parallels between the intellectual history of Europe -- from Kant to Hegel -- and the nature of Bosnian Islam.
'Dates Don't Grow in our Country'
Mustafa Spahic is a professor at the traditional Gazi Husrev Beg Koran School, the oldest in the country. Back in the former Yugoslavia, he spent five years in prison for Islamic activities -- together with Alija Izetbegovic, who later became the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Sarajevo, Europe's stronghold of Islamic spiritual life, is not about to allow itself to become a branch for Saudi Arabian fanatics, says Spahic.
He underscores this conviction with a parable: "Whoever wants to cut down a plum tree here, because you can use the fruit to make plum brandy, and plant a date palm in its place, because the prophet ate them, we say to him: Dates don't grow in our country." Spahic says that Bosnia's grand mufti, Mustafa Ceric, fails to take a clear position: "He is not fulfilling his duties. He travels to Germany and collects one award after another instead of dealing with the radicals here."
Ceric, the spiritual leader of all Bosnian Muslims, received Germany's prestigious Theodor Heuss Award in 2007 in recognition of his contribution to strengthening democracy. Nowhere is he more appreciated than in Germany, and nowhere is he more severely attacked than among scholarly circles back in his home country. There are reasons for this disparity, say Ceric's critics: The Germans are hoping that the grand mufti would train and export liberal imams to help them gain the upper hand with their own problems with Islamists.
"It Is Your Fault" is written under a photo collage that shows the grand mufti with an exaggerated, flowing beard -- as the head of the "Wahhabites." The controversial allegation appeared on the front page of the magazine Dani, and in a bout of self-irony Ceric decided to hang it as an exhibit in a corner of his own reception room -- right across from a framed copy of the Tolerance Edict of Sultan Mehmed II, from the year 1463.
Ceric -- or "homo duplex," the man with two faces, as he is derisively called in Sarajevo -- is wearing his outraged expression this morning. He is tired of having to comment on things that he would rather not even call by their names: Wahhabism, Salafism, terrorism. "Before we start," he says "do we actually even know what we're talking about?"
One-Time bin Laden Mentor
The grand mufti's nervousness is understandable. After all, the support of the West for him, a key Muslim nationalistic figure in Bosnia, undermines an objective that was explicitly laid out in the Dayton Peace Agreement under the leadership of the West, namely the continued existence of a multi-ethnic -- not an Islamic-dominated -- state in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Ceric has never left any doubts about his deep roots in the liberal Bosnian Islamic tradition. But the fact that he does not shy away from maintaining close contacts with the Salafit camp, including one-time Osama bin Laden mentor Sheikh Salman al-Auda from Saudi Arabia, has drawn criticism. "Totally unfounded," says Ceric: "We are only interested in opening ourselves as an Islamic society."
Sure enough, he recently even allowed a woman and her film crew to enter the King Fahd Mosque. The huge, Saudi monumental style building made of gray-brown sprinkled marble looks like a UFO -- complete with antennas shaped like minarets -- stranded among high-rise apartment buildings on the edge of Sarajevo.
Director Jasmila Zbanic, who was honored with a Golden Bear at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival for her film "Grbavica: Land of My Dreams," was allowed to film scenes for her new film in the King Fahd Mosque. "On the Way" is a love story that revolves around someone who, after his life spins out of control, seeks new direction in Salafism.
The man whose true life story serves as a model for this role is Nermin Karacic, a front-line soldier during the war who became an Islamist. Karacic opened doors and eyes to allow director Zbanic to enter the highly insulated world of the Salafites, decipher codes and meet people.
'I Still Feel Like a Salafit'
"In a certain sense this is my film," says Karacic, "I was of course one of them." Today, his hair has grown again down to his neck and he wears cargo pants and an outdoor jacket. But to prove his transformation he pulls a driver's license out of his pocket -- a document with a passport photo that is only a few years old. The man in the picture has the same piercing eyes, but the hair on his head has been cropped short and his beard reaches down to his chest.
Karacic was an influential leader in the Bosnian Salafites. He was the head of al-Furkan, a radical organization that was supplied by the Saudis, as he says, with "suitcases of cash" -- under the patient eyes of the Americans. They didn't sound the alarm until Sept. 11, 2001. According to the US Treasury Department, due to repeated "observations of the US Embassy and United Nations buildings in Sarajevo " and "connections to al-Qaida," al-Furkan was declared part of the global terror network and banned by the Bosnian authorities.
"I swear by God that I knew nothing of al-Qaida," Karacic says. He hasn't been convicted of any crime.
When the new film is released, with all its re-created scenes from his life, the training camp of the Salafites, which he headed, and the King Fahd Mosque, where the Imam now preaches the obliteration of Israel, will he be proud that he has left this life behind him?
The slender man suddenly hesitates, gazes across the river bank to the positions where he once sat as a sniper in the fight against the Serbs, and says: "It's not really as if I spit on everything that existed back then." Without the help of the mujahedeen, Karacic says, he would have seen "no light at the end of the tunnel" during the war.
And when it comes to matters of faith, says Karacic, he still feels a close tie with those brothers in arms from abroad: "I still feel like a Salafit."
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen