The Prophet's Fifth Column Islamists Gain Ground in Sarajevo

By in Sarajevo

Part 2: 'We Are only Interested in Opening Ourselves as an Islamic Society'

The fact of the matter is that politicians from all parties are playing the background music to a radicalization that threatens not just the secular character of Bosnia, but also the unity of this country comprised of Muslims, Serbs and Croats. This includes some local politicians who have demanded that school classes be strictly divided according to religious confessions -- and in December, 2008 obtained, in several places, the first ban affecting state-run daycare centers in Sarajevo. The ban concerned the Christian Santa Claus who, until then, even Muslim children had revered as "Little Father Frost."

But it is primarily the heads of government and political parties who stand in the way of reconciliation between the former wartime enemies. Nikola Spiric, the Serb Prime Minister of the weak Bosnian state, says there is a real danger that the country will split apart for good. He says he is powerless as long as his country is administered like a protectorate by the Office of the High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, the organization created in 1995 to oversee the Dayton Peace Agreement. "My hands and feet are tied, I'm a mascot, the address that international organizations can send their mail to."

Haris Silajdzic, the Muslim representative of the presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, sits a few buildings down the street, in the presidential palace. He played a very active role as foreign minister and prime minister during the war but now, after years of power struggles, the one-time beau is starting to show signs of exhaustion. Nevertheless, he is still widely regarded as one of the most artful advocates of Muslim interests in this multi-ethnic state.

Silajdzic says he sees no indication of an Islamization of Sarajevo or Bosnia. In his opinion, it is more important to talk of ensuring that the Muslims receive justice after the "genocide" of the 1990s. While half the Cabinet waits for him in front of the door, Silajdzic calmly places a Marlboro in his cigarette holder and says that, as a "committed European," he hopes that the West will realize what is at stake in this country: "Bosnia is a small country, but a great symbol."

The reopened Hotel Europa -- an archetypical institution for this city which was once praised as the "Jerusalem of the Balkans" -- stands at Sarajevo's center of gravity, right at the border between the Ottoman and the Habsburgian quarters of the old city. Under crystal chandeliers, waiters here serve Turkish mocha from copper coffee pots, and an elderly gentleman sitting in the corner passionately tries to draw parallels between the intellectual history of Europe -- from Kant to Hegel -- and the nature of Bosnian Islam.

'Dates Don't Grow in our Country'

Mustafa Spahic is a professor at the traditional Gazi Husrev Beg Koran School, the oldest in the country. Back in the former Yugoslavia, he spent five years in prison for Islamic activities -- together with Alija Izetbegovic, who later became the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Sarajevo, Europe's stronghold of Islamic spiritual life, is not about to allow itself to become a branch for Saudi Arabian fanatics, says Spahic.

He underscores this conviction with a parable: "Whoever wants to cut down a plum tree here, because you can use the fruit to make plum brandy, and plant a date palm in its place, because the prophet ate them, we say to him: Dates don't grow in our country." Spahic says that Bosnia's grand mufti, Mustafa Ceric, fails to take a clear position: "He is not fulfilling his duties. He travels to Germany and collects one award after another instead of dealing with the radicals here."

Ceric, the spiritual leader of all Bosnian Muslims, received Germany's prestigious Theodor Heuss Award in 2007 in recognition of his contribution to strengthening democracy. Nowhere is he more appreciated than in Germany, and nowhere is he more severely attacked than among scholarly circles back in his home country. There are reasons for this disparity, say Ceric's critics: The Germans are hoping that the grand mufti would train and export liberal imams to help them gain the upper hand with their own problems with Islamists.

"It Is Your Fault" is written under a photo collage that shows the grand mufti with an exaggerated, flowing beard -- as the head of the "Wahhabites." The controversial allegation appeared on the front page of the magazine Dani, and in a bout of self-irony Ceric decided to hang it as an exhibit in a corner of his own reception room -- right across from a framed copy of the Tolerance Edict of Sultan Mehmed II, from the year 1463.

Ceric -- or "homo duplex," the man with two faces, as he is derisively called in Sarajevo -- is wearing his outraged expression this morning. He is tired of having to comment on things that he would rather not even call by their names: Wahhabism, Salafism, terrorism. "Before we start," he says "do we actually even know what we're talking about?"

One-Time bin Laden Mentor

The grand mufti's nervousness is understandable. After all, the support of the West for him, a key Muslim nationalistic figure in Bosnia, undermines an objective that was explicitly laid out in the Dayton Peace Agreement under the leadership of the West, namely the continued existence of a multi-ethnic -- not an Islamic-dominated -- state in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Ceric has never left any doubts about his deep roots in the liberal Bosnian Islamic tradition. But the fact that he does not shy away from maintaining close contacts with the Salafit camp, including one-time Osama bin Laden mentor Sheikh Salman al-Auda from Saudi Arabia, has drawn criticism. "Totally unfounded," says Ceric: "We are only interested in opening ourselves as an Islamic society."

Sure enough, he recently even allowed a woman and her film crew to enter the King Fahd Mosque. The huge, Saudi monumental style building made of gray-brown sprinkled marble looks like a UFO -- complete with antennas shaped like minarets -- stranded among high-rise apartment buildings on the edge of Sarajevo.

Director Jasmila Zbanic, who was honored with a Golden Bear at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival for her film "Grbavica: Land of My Dreams," was allowed to film scenes for her new film in the King Fahd Mosque. "On the Way" is a love story that revolves around someone who, after his life spins out of control, seeks new direction in Salafism.

The man whose true life story serves as a model for this role is Nermin Karacic, a front-line soldier during the war who became an Islamist. Karacic opened doors and eyes to allow director Zbanic to enter the highly insulated world of the Salafites, decipher codes and meet people.

'I Still Feel Like a Salafit'

"In a certain sense this is my film," says Karacic, "I was of course one of them." Today, his hair has grown again down to his neck and he wears cargo pants and an outdoor jacket. But to prove his transformation he pulls a driver's license out of his pocket -- a document with a passport photo that is only a few years old. The man in the picture has the same piercing eyes, but the hair on his head has been cropped short and his beard reaches down to his chest.

Karacic was an influential leader in the Bosnian Salafites. He was the head of al-Furkan, a radical organization that was supplied by the Saudis, as he says, with "suitcases of cash" -- under the patient eyes of the Americans. They didn't sound the alarm until Sept. 11, 2001. According to the US Treasury Department, due to repeated "observations of the US Embassy and United Nations buildings in Sarajevo " and "connections to al-Qaida," al-Furkan was declared part of the global terror network and banned by the Bosnian authorities.

"I swear by God that I knew nothing of al-Qaida," Karacic says. He hasn't been convicted of any crime.

When the new film is released, with all its re-created scenes from his life, the training camp of the Salafites, which he headed, and the King Fahd Mosque, where the Imam now preaches the obliteration of Israel, will he be proud that he has left this life behind him?

The slender man suddenly hesitates, gazes across the river bank to the positions where he once sat as a sniper in the fight against the Serbs, and says: "It's not really as if I spit on everything that existed back then." Without the help of the mujahedeen, Karacic says, he would have seen "no light at the end of the tunnel" during the war.

And when it comes to matters of faith, says Karacic, he still feels a close tie with those brothers in arms from abroad: "I still feel like a Salafit."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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