Radical Islamists See an Opening in Bosnia

In one of Europe's poorest countries, frustration is fueling Islamic extremism.

bosnia banner.jpg
A Bosnian Muslim girl carries a Bosnian flag as she walks through a forest near the village of Nezuk on July 8, 2011. Several thousand people started a 85-kilometre march from Nezuk to Srebrenica, to retrace the route in reverse taken by Bosnian Muslims who fled Serb forces in 1995. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Nearly 20 years after the guns fell silent in Bosnia-Herzegovnia, a growing number of the country's Muslims have become frustrated with the democratic path their country has taken.

And that frustration is being exploited by Islamists.

Unlike ethnic Croats and Serbs in Bosnia, Muslim Bosniaks receive no economic, political, or moral support from neighboring countries.

Many Bosniaks feel alone in their effort to forge and maintain their own identity and political institutions. And increasingly, the argument that Shari'a law -- and not democracy -- is the answer for Bosnia is getting a broader hearing.

"Unlike secularism and democracy, we say there is only one truth -- law of Allah and Shari'a," Nusret Imamovic, the leader of Bosnia's radical Wahhabi community, told a standing-room-only crowd of some 500 people -- almost all of them young Muslim men -- at a posh hotel in the city of Tuzla earlier this week. "And it wants the people to accept that truth and surrender to that truth. Does Allah have right to request that? Well, He is the holder and the owner of everything."

Not About Religion

The event -- "The Advantage Shari'a And The Failure Of Democracy" -- was billed as a "summit." Although no resolutions or statements were adopted, the well-attended and highly visible meeting was a troubling sign for some in Tuzla, which has generally been known for its moderation and tolerance. Residents are proud that the city's Serbian Orthodox church was unscathed during the war.

But surprisingly, only about 30 people gathered outside the hotel to protest the meeting.

"My point of view is that democracy died in Germany [in the 1930s] when they allowed the extremists to rule. And this is pure extremism," one young protester told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "This has nothing to do with Islam or religion."

Bosnia is one of the poorest countries in Europe. It is still contending with deep ethnic and religious divisions left over from the disastrous war of the 1990s. It inherited a fragile, often unworkable government structure from the war-ending 1995 Dayton accords.

"This country has for 20 years been in a state of institutionalized temporariness and temporary solutions," Vlado Azinovic, a Sarajevo-based security expert and former RFE/RL journalist who has written a book on whether Al-Qaeda has a presence in Bosnia, says. "And as long as it stays like that, as long as we are facing a deep political and moral crisis of all values in society, it will remain a fertile ground for the spread of various radical ideologies, among which [radical Islam] has stood out recently."

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