COLUMN ONE : In Bosnia, Islam Has Many Faces : The former Yugoslav republic's ties to the Muslim world were once tenuous. Now mosques are crowded, and foreign help comes in Allah's name--although for some, religion may simply be the fashion.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Black nylon stockings and patent-leather shoes peeking out from beneath Ajla Nuhbegovic's tunic clash flirtatiously with her head scarf and neck-to-ankle garb.

Between licks of a dripping ice-cream cone, the enshrouded 12-year-old says she has every intention of wearing lipstick, eye makeup and jewelry when she's old enough.

She shrugs off what some might see as an incongruous melding of religious modesty and a young girl's interest in being attractive to boys.

"We have drifted too far from our religion. I think girls should dress in this manner, at least until they are 18," Ajla insists, contradicting her father's aside that she can more often be found in form-fitting leggings and sweat shirts.

Her fleeting earnestness provokes a look of amused tolerance from her father, Hajrudin, a wry smile that suggests he thinks she is just going through a phase.

Ajla may be unevenly absorbing the religious instruction offered at the Muslim parochial school she has been attending for two years.

But amid the hardships of war and the Christian world's growing indifference to the plight of Bosnian Muslims, the desire to express a faith that was repressed here for most of this century is becoming more common.

The Slavs whose ancestors embraced Islam during Ottoman Turkey's 500-year rule are increasingly searching for solace where they can find it as they continue to be targeted by a deadly Serbian nationalist campaign of "ethnic cleansing."

And as Western nations turn their backs on Bosnia because its conflict seems too complex to resolve, moderates warn that they have no choice but to grasp the hand of Islam as long as it remains the only one offered to them.

Bosnia's streets, even in cosmopolitan Sarajevo, are traversed by growing numbers of women who dress with at least partial deference to Islamic tradition. Mosques that were mostly tourist attractions in the Communist era are crowded with the faithful. Muslim feasts and celebrations are now official holidays.

Most obvious, and most worrisome for the non-Muslim majority of Bosnia, is the strengthening bond between this secular country in the heart of Europe and fundamentalist Islamic nations that have come to its aid out of sympathy for a people endangered because of their faith.

Iran has smuggled weaponry to the Bosnian government, defying a U.N. embargo that most Western countries concede has tied the hands of this nation's defense forces throughout 26 months of assault by heavily armed Serbs.

Libya has supplied oil when there was no money for imports. Saudi Arabia has bankrolled pilgrimages to Mecca for 350 invalids and war casualties. And Islamic warriors from Afghanistan to Algeria have flocked to Bosnia's battle zones to fight for Allah, perverting an already beleaguered defense effort into a holy war no one in Bosnia wanted.

"We have been waiting for two years for the West to help us defeat fascism, for its own interest if not for our benefit," says Osman Brka, a leader of the Muslim-dominated Party of Democratic Action. "We still hope against hope that America will see it must help us defend the democratic values we share. But we will look to anyone willing to help us, and no one in the West will have the right to blame us if they turned away."

Until the Serbian rebellion that began in April, 1992, threw this former Yugoslav republic into social and economic chaos, Bosnian ties to Islam were tenuous at best.

Today's 2 million Bosnian Muslims are descended from Serbs, Croats and a schismatic Christian sect known as the Bogomils who were repressed by both Catholic and Orthodox Slavs. Their forebears acquiesced to the Turkish conquerors' religion and mores, creating a culture through half a millennium distinct from that of the Serbs and Croats.

The Muslims--or Bosnjaks, as most preferred to be called, identifying themselves with the territory rather than religion--were ruled by the Turks until the Serbs threw off the Ottoman yoke late in the 19th Century. While Serbia retained its independence, Bosnia was swallowed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, providing the friction that led to World War I and eventual creation of Yugoslavia.

The years between the two world wars subjected the Muslims to crude assimilation attempts by both Serbs and Croats until Communist partisan leader Marshal Tito led the country to victory over Nazi Germany. During his 35-year rule--arguably Eastern Europe's most benevolent dictatorship--Tito imposed peace among the fractious Balkan ethnic groups through a delicate balance of force and personality.

In recognition of their divergent lifestyle, Tito conferred the status of a nationality on Bosnian Muslims in 1970.

In the twisted rationale of propagandized Serbian nationalists, the Muslims have "stolen" Serbian land by taking on a separate identity. The current war in Bosnia is, in the eyes of the rebels, a campaign to recover territory lost when Serbian and other Slavic owners converted from Christianity.

To justify their rebellion to the outside world, Bosnian Serb rebel leader Radovan Karadzic has repeatedly warned that the presence of Muslims here poses a risk of fundamentalist Islam establishing a foothold in Europe.

The Muslim-led government that gained power after 1990 elections has always rejected that claim as a cynical scare tactic aimed at defusing Western concern over the civilian slaughter and expulsion of Muslims by Serbs as they take territory for a Greater Serbia.

Serbian accusations that other Balkan ethnic groups threaten them have been a cornerstone of the expansion plan drafted and executed by strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Exaggerated claims that Serbian lives were at risk if Croatia seceded became fact after Milosevic sent the Yugoslav army to seize land coveted by the Serbs and to expel Croats, creating a climate of hostility and a desire for revenge against the Serbs.

Serbian propaganda has for seven years accused the Albanian majority in Kosovo province of plotting secession and annexation to neighboring Albania. The claim was ludicrous when Albania endured the most brutal Stalinist regime in Europe. But two years of democratic reform in Albania has coincided with intensifying repression of Kosovo Albanians by Serbian security forces, making union with Albania genuinely attractive for the Kosovo majority.

Bosnian government and social leaders insist that theirs could never become an officially Islamic state. But some concede that the stronger ties to Islamic countries emerging as a consequence of abandonment by the West play into the hands of propagandists in Belgrade.

"We Muslims have never sought to live separately, and we still believe the best solution for Bosnia is a country that unites all three nations," said Husajn Smajic, the mufti of Sarajevo.

Smajic describes Bosnia's Islamic community as unique and more heavily influenced by Europe than other countries with which it shares the faith.

War horrors and disappointment in Western indifference to the human rights violations committed against them have driven more Muslims to turn to their religion in this time of crisis, Smajic said, accounting for the visible signs that religious expression is on the rise.

Some Muslim conservatives have ascended to positions of authority recently, stirring fears that they could become aligned with outside fundamentalists.

The spiritual leader of Muslims in Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, used the recent Bajram feast celebration to send the bellicose message that Muslims should be prepared to die to defend their country, lifestyle and religion.

The impression that Bosnia risks being sucked into the vortex of fundamentalism is enhanced by the presence of Muslim warriors who came here to defend the faithful only to find a secular population protective of its European lifestyle.

For months, Islamic fighters protected the central cities of Travnik and Zenica from Serbian and Croatian sieges. But the foreigners also banned the sale of alcoholic beverages and posted signs reminding women to cover their heads and limbs in public.

The efforts stirred resentment among moderate Muslims and poisoned relations with those Croats and Serbs who had refused to join in the nationalist sieges.

Since a Croat-Muslim agreement in March to rebuild their alliance and create a new federation, bars have reopened, the signs have been taken down, and U.N. officials patrolling the area say the foreign warriors have mostly gone.

Believers were always more numerous in the rural regions of Bosnia, where even during the Communist era women tended to cloak their hair in brightly printed scarves and wear Ottoman-style floral pantaloons known as dimja . The migration of "ethnic cleansing" victims from the countryside to the cities has increased the numbers of more traditionally clad women.

Despite the outward signs of rising Islam, few living in the 30% of Bosnia still under government control fear that fundamentalism seriously threatens to engulf them.

"There is no chance of an Islamic state being established here, partly because the Muslims don't want that, but mostly because everyone knows such a state would have no chance to survive," said Mirko Sagolj, political editor of the respected Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje. "Such a state would be squeezed from both sides by extremists who would kill the Muslims, forcibly convert them or force them to leave, so that what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina could be divided between Serbia and Croatia."

Sagolj, an atheist Croat, attributes the recent strengthening of ties between Bosnia and Islamic countries to the West's retreat from the crisis. He argues that the vast majority of Bosnians remain hopeful that their future lies with Europe, and many are wary of accepting aid that may be given for ulterior motives.

Increasing dependence on Islamic countries had made many Bosnians quick to assume that foreign interference is behind any shift in government policy.

When the City Council forbade the sale of alcoholic beverages in coffee shops last month, the move sparked suspicion that the government was being influenced by its fundamentalist backers.

"There is absolutely no religious reason involved," Sarajevo Mayor Tarik Kupusovic insisted.

He said the measure is intended to prevent incidents involving drunken soldiers recently returned from the front and to protect the morale of those currently mobilized.

The front lines encircling Sarajevo are so close to the city center in some places that government troops dug into hillside trenches can hear their draft-dodging countrymen drinking and reveling only a few blocks away.

Kupusovic said the ban on public consumption of hard liquor is a temporary wartime measure and will be rescinded as soon as tensions subside.

The main influence of a more visible Islam has been to instill confusion among those who have long described themselves as Muslims but had little means of expressing that identity during the last century when they were ruled by Catholic Austrians, Orthodox Serbs and atheistic Communists by turns.

Ajla is one of many young Bosnian Muslims who seem to be following Islamic doctrine more out of fashion than conviction.

It is not unusual to see young women on the streets with gauzy white scarves draped far enough back on their lacquered hairdos to expose dangling earrings and a colorful facial palette of cosmetics.

"We laid in a big stock of beer for Bajram," cafe waitress Dina Hasanagic said. "We are aware of the irony, but this is our way of doing things. Whether it's Bajram or Easter, it's a holiday, and we just want to drink and have a good time."

Hasanagic, who has a law degree but has never found work in her field because of the war, estimates the chances of fundamentalist Islam making inroads in Bosnia as "zero."

"I'm a Muslim and that means something to me," Hasanagic said. "It means I don't steal or kill or harm other people. But no one is ever going to tell me I can't wear my skirts short or have a drink with my friends or smoke in public."

Claims that Bosnia is at the beck and call of fundamentalists is propaganda, she said, aimed at driving a wedge between Muslims and those of other ethnic groups who have remained loyal to the multicultural cause.

"The main goal of Karadzic is for the Muslims not to exist anymore," said Mirko Pejanovic, a Serb who serves on the seven-member collective presidency. "What excuse does he use to justify genocide? He claims there is a threat of Islamic fundamentalism here, the threat of a jihad (holy war). But is just trying to exist a jihad by the Muslims? If so, I am in favor of this jihad."

Pejanovic warns that there is a message for Europe in the continuing conflict in Bosnia, where 200,000 have been killed and 2 million made homeless by the nationalist quest to create ethnically pure territory.

"If the West abandons Bosnia and refuses to defend the idea of a multicultural country, this curse of ethnic extremism will spread to threaten the West as well," Pejanovic said. "The civilized world is gambling its own destiny if it doesn't solve the problem here, if it continues to let force be the determining factor. As we say here, the bear will soon be dancing at your door."

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