Moderate Bosnian Muslims fear extremist takeover
Rusmir Smajilhodzic. National Post (Don Mills, Ont.) - June 17, 2006; pg. A.15 [All But Toronto Edition]

Some Wahhabists who came to fight in Balkan War never left

SARAJEVO - The people of Sarajevo, renowned for their pluralism, have been shaken after a series of incidents including the murder of a Muslim woman by her Islamic extremist son, who questioned her faith.

Upholders of Bosnia's moderate version of Islam say the problem caused by an influx of hardline fighters during the country's 1992- 1995 war has worsened in recent months, highlighted by the murder.

"Bosnia's tradition of Islam is tolerant, it promotes pluralism and we should not allow those representing a one-track ideology to teach us," Jasmin Merdan said.

Mr. Merdan -- a practising Muslim who portrays himself as a "victim" of the Wahhabi ideology before abandoning it -- is one of the few courageous voices in Bosnia who dares to criticize extremism.

"They express their convictions with violence, introduce anarchy in mosques and preach intolerance," said Mr. Merdan, who recently founded an association in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo to fight against "those who deny basic teachings of Islam."

Supported by a handful of independent journalists, Mr. Merdan, 26, recently published a book condemning the harmful influence on Bosnian people of Wahhabism, a radical version of Islam.

Mr. Merdan says the book was "warmly welcomed by imams who do not dare to speak," but sparked death threats against him and pressure from members of the Wahhabi community.

Several incidents since the beginning of the year have shaken Sarajevo and confirmed Mr. Merdan's fears.

In February, a young man who had converted to Wahhabism killed his mother, reportedly because she refused to join him for morning prayers.

After the murder, the 23-year-old man went to a Wahhabi mosque with blood on his hands and clothes, telling his fellow believers that he had just made a "sacrifice to God."

In addition, several young couples have complained to the local media and police that they have been harassed by "bearded" men in parks while they were kissing and hugging. According to Mr. Merdan, they were members of the "sharia militia" -- a group of self-styled religious police.

Wahhabism is a hardline version of Islam that originated in 18th century Saudi Arabia. It took root in Bosnia, whose Muslims are mostly followers of moderate Islam, in the country's 1992-1995 war.

During the conflict, hundreds of volunteers from Islamic countries -- known as "holy warriors," or mujahedeen -- came to Bosnia to fight alongside its mainly Muslim army.

All of the foreign fighters were expected to leave the country following the war, but an unknown number of them remained and obtained Bosnian citizenship, mostly by marrying local women.

"Since the war, the number of followers of Wahhabism has been growing," said Mr. Merdan, slamming the "passiveness" of Bosnia's secular and religious authorities.

Some 40% of Bosnia's 3.8 million inhabitants are Muslims. Orthodox Christian Serbs represent about 31%, while Roman Catholic Croats account for around 10%.

Mr. Merdan voiced regret that the Bosnian Muslim religious leader, Mustafa Ceric, has never publicly condemned the activities of the Wahhabists.

Meanwhile, Vildana Selimbegovic, the editor-in-chief of a Bosnian weekly, deplored the "isolation" of the few Muslim theologians who voice their dissatisfaction with the presence of Wahhabists.

"Politicians do not want to or are too afraid to talk. The majority of Muslims remain silent. It seems that they will remain silent until the devil claims his due," Ms. Selimbegovic wrote in the weekly Dani.

Sarajevo's imposing King Fahd Mosque, named after the late Saudi monarch who financed its construction, has in the past few years become the core of Bosnian followers of Wahhabism.

"Sometimes I ask myself whether I am really in Sarajevo. The number of bearded men and women dressed in chadors will soon be equal to other people," commented Adnan, a young Muslim who lives near the mosque.

Adnan says that the King Fahd Mosque has attracted a number of Wahhabi families from surrounding neighbourhoods.

"They try the same recipe as in Sudan or other Arab countries," Mr. Merdan said.

"If we allow them, in 20 years, people like me will not be allowed to speak."

Copyright National Post 2006
Posted for Fair Use only.