BANJA LUKA, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA —
The Muslim leader in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska says security is improving for his followers, although harsh poverty remains an intractable issue as they prepare to observe Eid al-Fitr, the religious holiday marking the end of Ramadan.
“There is no more desecration of the Muslim tombstones, which used to happen often after the war,” Mufti Osman Kozlic told VOA’s Bosnian Service in an exclusive interview.
However, if Muslim youths remain impoverished, he said, they’ll be increasingly vulnerable to extremist ideologies and recruitment by radical groups such as the Islamic State (IS).
Hundreds had gone to Syria
In previous years, IS leaders tailored their propaganda to lure impoverished young Muslims affected by the small Balkan nation’s high youth unemployment rate and intermittent political paralysis.
Hundreds of Bosnians traveled to Syria to fight alongside IS militants before Bosnia banned travel to Syria and Iraq in 2013; that same year, Sarajevo began prosecuting fighters returned home from the battlefield.
Since 2016, according to Bosnian security officials and counterterror experts, Bosnian Muslims have all but stopped traveling to fight.
“The biggest problem among Muslims in Srpska is poverty, they can barely make ends meet,” Kozlic said, adding that both preventing radicalization, and deradicalizing returning extremists, requires cooperation by all regional stakeholders.
“It is not up to the Muslim leaders only,” he said.
The 2016 “restoration and reopening of the Ferhadija Mosque in Banja Luka was significant symbol not only for Muslims in Srpska, but for all Muslims, for all citizen’s of Srpska,” Kozlic told VOA. “It is so because it meant a big step in reconciliation, and peace.”
On May 7, reconstruction of Arnaudija, a 16th century Ottoman-era mosque, the last of 15 that were destroyed during the 1992-95 war in Banja Luka, finally got underway.
Both Arnaudija and Ferhadija mosques were under the protection of UNESCO until the war, but were both razed May 7, 1993. During the war, almost all of the mosques in parts of Bosnia held by Bosnian-Serb forces were destroyed.
“The holiday after the holy Ramadan arrives is happiness,” Kozlic said. “If one is a real Muslim, during the Ramadan fast you must detoxify together with one’s body and one’s soul as well, by getting rid of hatred, envy, bad deeds toward any living being.”
In Bosnia, where Muslims represent the largest faith community, militant Islam was nearly nonexistent until the 1990s Balkan wars, when radicalized Arab Muslim mercenaries intervened to help battle Serb forces. Some foreign extremists who stayed in Bosnia embraced a radical brand of Islam that Bosnia’s Grand Mufti Husein Kavazovic has adamantly opposed.
The 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the bloody 1990s conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, split the country into two semi-independent entities, the Republika Srpska and a Muslim-Croat Federation, linked by a weak federal government.
This story originated in VOA’s Bosnian Service. Some information is from Reuters.