Bosnian Serbs Say They’re Fighting Against Islamic Fundamentalism

The Washington Post
August 11, 1992

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia – The Serbs of Bosnia say they are fighting a war against their Muslim neighbors here because, among other reasons, Bosnia’s Muslims want to set up a radical Islamic state.

The Serb-run press and broadcast media here — and in neighboring Serbia — routinely refer to Bosnian Muslims as fundamentalists who, if given their way, would turn this war-torn former Yugoslav republic into an Iranian-style theocracy. All women, including Serb Orthodox Christians, would be forced to wear chadors, the head-to-toe black dress of Islamic fundamentalism.

Radio flashes warn that Bosnia’s Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic, has organized a jihad, or holy war, against the Serbs. A film that Serb militia commanders like to show foreign journalists refers to Muslim combatants as Izetbegovic’s “holy followers.”

The idea that Bosnia’s Muslims want to create a fundamentalist state in the heart of Europe may seem dubious to many outsiders, but militant Serb nationalists have seized on it as an effective tool to rally civilian support and provide a justification for partitioning Bosnia among its Muslims, Croats and Serbs — with the Serbs, who accounted for 31 percent of Bosnia’s prewar population, getting the lion’s share. Muslims made up 44 percent, Croats 16 percent.

Serb officials have protested Western charges that the war amounts to an attempt to grab land from Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats and create a “Greater Serbia” incorporating huge swaths of Bosnia and Serb-held Croatia. They profess surprise at the failure of Western Europe to “appreciate” their effort to stop Muslim fundamentalism from gaining a foothold in Europe.

Serb leaders seem to have succeeded in persuading their own people of the Islamic threat, but there are few believers outside the Balkans. Western diplomats and political analysts here agree that Izetbegovic bears no similarity to Ayatollah Khomeini, and over the past year they applauded his ultimately unsuccessful efforts to avoid war by preaching toleration.

Unlike Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, whose strident nationalism gave Serbs there cause for fear, Izetbegovic eschewed stridency. As Bosnia declared its independence from the old six-republic Yugoslav federation, he championed a cantonal plan that would have given significant local powers to each of the three major communal groups and guaranteed minority rights to all.

Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities had been models of toleration until militant local Serb leaders stirred up fears of an Islamic power grab that would deprive Serbs of their ancient rights and lands. For centuries before, Muslims, Serbs and Croats had lived side by side in the same villages and apartment buildings and paid respects to each other on their respective religious holidays.

Diplomats also say that they have a hard time imagining how an Islamic state could be set up in a country where Muslims, though the largest communal group here, are not in the majority. Muslims are outnumbered by Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, who also have well-armed protectors in neighboring Serbia and Croatia.

The Muslims of Bosnia are Slavs — ethnically identical to Serbs and Croats — who converted to Islam during the region’s occupation by the Ottoman Turks from the 15th century to the late 19th. The Turks were relatively tolerant of Orthodox Serbs who did not convert, but nonetheless it was not the best of times for non-Muslims.

“We are blond Muslims,” said Izet Aganovic, a top official of the local Muslim relief organization Merhament. “We are part of European culture and European civilization. About 70 percent of Bosnian Muslims don’t know anything about Islam. They drink alcohol, they eat pork.”

Perhaps because of that, Serb ire is largely directed at President Izetbegovic, who is portrayed as the mastermind of a drive to create an Islamic state in Bosnia. People like Simo Drljaca, police chief of the northeast Bosnian city of Prijedor, have a quick response to queries about when Serbs will be ready to live peacefully with Muslims again: “When Alija dies.”

Paradoxically, one of the few things that nationalist Serbs and Croats in Bosnia seem to have in common is an antipathy to Izetbegovic. Local Croat leaders who are bolstering their control of large areas of southern and western Bosnia — most of the country is now in the hands of Serb and Croat militia forces — also claim that Izetbegovic has Muslim fundamentalist designs.

Izetbegovic serves as a useful target for polemic, diplomats say, because without a clear and menacing enemy, partition-minded politicians would have a hard time persuading local Serbs and Croats that they need to wage a war to defend themselves and their patrimony.

Justified or not, ordinary Bosnian Serbs like Zoran Arnaut are conviced that it’s time to get rid of the Muslims. He says he was chased from his hometown by radical Croats but that he still hates Muslims more. Asked to explain why, he used one word — jihad.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.