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Volume 1, No 3, Summer 1991 [back]

The Muslims of Yugoslavia

Nedzib Sacirbey

As the civil war and political unrest continue in Yugoslavia, the following article will be helpful in putting the current events into proper perspective. Written by Nedzib Sacirbey, a former secretary of the Young Muslims' Organization of Bosnia and Hercegovina, the article was first appeared in Al Basheer, vol. 3, no. 2, Summer 1990 -- Ed.

Located in southeastern Europe, Yugoslavia had an estimated population in 1989 of almost 25 million; 20% of whom are Muslims. It was in the second half of the fourteenth century that Islam began to spread in this region. The Ottoman Turks introduced Islam and as the Ottoman state extended to the west and north, Islam expanded, too.

When the Ottomans started to retreat, problems began for the Muslims. After the second siege of Vienna in 1683, the Ottomans were defeated, and by a peace agreement in Karlovac in 1699, they retreated east and south, losing lands north of the Sava and Danube rivers, and west of the Una and Sana rivers. The Muslims in the lost territories vanished. Some migrated inside new borders, some were converted to Christianity, and some lost their lives. In 1878, the Austro-. Hungarian monarchy had a mandate to occupy Bosnia and Hercegovina, a province of the Ottoman state. The Muslim population of Bosnia and Hercegovina, defending their existence as Muslims, had guarded their borders successfully for two centuries. Outgunned and outnumbered, however, they were defeated. They were guaranteed the right of religion, though, by the Congress of Berlin.

By 1912 the Ottoman state lost control over all of what is now Yugoslavia, and many Muslims found themselves within two new kingdoms: Serbia and Montenegro, where they were subject to oppression and atrocities. Following World War I, a kingdom of Serbs, Croatians, and Slovenians was created, since 1929 known as Yugoslavia. The guarantees of freedom of religion and religious affairs given to the Muslims of Bosnia and Hercegovina in 1878 were repeated as part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and later extended for the entire Muslim population of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia's Muslims began their Islamic education before elementary school in the mekteb where students learned to read the Qur'an and the basics of Islam. The mektebs enrolled more than 90% of Muslim children in Bosnia and Hercegovina and a very high percentage in other parts of Yugoslavia with Muslim populations. In Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Hercegovina, was the Gazi Husrevbeg Madresa, founded in 1537 as a full-time Islamic school. As part of the Congress of Berlin agreement and the Treaty of Versailles, the Muslims had the right for full autonomy of their religious institutions, education, religious endowments, and family and inheritance laws.

With the German and Italian occupation during the Second World War many problems arose. Draza Mhajlovic, leader of the chetniks and minister of the army and navy in the Royal Government of Yugoslavia in London from 1941-1945 gave his units the order to "clean" (exterminate) Muslims from the Sandzak province (part of Serbia) and to "clean," Bosnia and Hercegovina from Muslims and Catholics. The order was a clear act of genocide against Muslims. It is estimated that during the War, 300 000 Muslims -- children, women, and old men -- lost their lives just because they were Muslims.

After the War, a communist-dominated government took control of Yugoslavia, which became known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The nation consisted of six republics: Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. The government abolished all sharia courts. Civil marriage became obligatory, and civil law became the law of inheritance. All mektebs were closed, as were many madaras and the High Islamic Sharia Theological Academy. Religious endowment property (waqf) was taken by the state. Separate food for the Muslims in the armed forces, hospitals, schools, penal institutions, and so forth, was not available. Eating pork was promoted as a sign of progress and freedom from "religious prejudice," or religiosity. Membership in the communist party was a condition for career and professional advancement and success in public life. Any sign of religiosity could result in removal from the communist party and earn one the label of a reactionary, making employment, housing, and other aspects of life difficult. The news media was under the party's control and was systematically used to promote the party causes, particularly atheism. The constitution declared the separation of state and religion, yet the government and communist party interfered in the affairs of religion. Current reports hold that the last elected reis-ul-ulema (high religious scholar), Huseyn Muic, who resigned in 1990, was a member of the party, an accusation which he denied.

Suddenly, the entire situation began to change dramatically. Today, the Yugoslav press is free, and the Islamic press is free. There are no restrictions on religious activity. Radio and television make time for religious occasions. Services for Christmas, Easter, Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha have been broadcast on television in a very solemn way. Freedom of religion was redeclared and numerous favorable articles about religion have appeared in newspapers and magazines, in contrast to previous instructions to publish only negative and derogatory articles on religion. One recent newspaper title reads, "Army Recognizes Religion." For Muslims, this means they can now request food free of pork, receive religious books and magazines, and pray openly. It is also reported that the army has begun to depoliticize and deideologicize. Muslims in penal institutions will have the same right, and asking for food free of pork will not be considered an unpatriotic act. Elements of tolerance and civilized behavior have emerged. The number of worshippers in mosques and churches has increased more than ten-fold. The number Of applicants for entrance to religious schools has increased above all expectations.

New freedom for manifestation of religious life creates an atmosphere of a religious renaissance. The religious leaders of Yugoslavia's three main religious groups -- Greek Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Islam -- are frequently issuing statements and encouragement for mutual respect and tolerance. In order that Muslims have adequate political representation and proper participation in political and government process, 40 Muslims founded the Initiative Committee for the establishment of the Party of Democratic Action (PDA). It was desired that the PDA be called the Yugoslavian Muslims' Party, but at that time the parliament of Bosnia and Hercegovina, still controlled by the communists, issued a law preventing organizations on national or religious bases. The Constitutional Court later found the law unconstitutional. The PDA held its founding convention in Sarajevo on May 26, 1990, elected its governing body, and adopted the program and declaration prepared by the initiative committee. Thc first paragraph of the program states, "The Party of Democratic Action is a political union of citizens of Yugoslavia who belong to the Muslim cultural and historical circle, as well as of other citizens of Yugoslavia who accept the program and the aims of the PDA."

The elected president of the PDA is Alija (Ali) Izetbegovic, who authored the book Islam Between East and West. In his speech during the convention, Izetbegovic said, "Gigantic attempts to create a paradise on earth without God and man, and even against God and man, ended in a complete fiasco." Local sections of the PDA have been established in many cities, towns and villages, and are expected to be established throughout Bosnia and Hercegovina, as well as Sandzak, Zagreb, Belgrade, and in all areas with Muslim populations.

But there is a dark shadow. Kosovo, the autonomous province of the republic of Serbia, with a population of 2 million, 90% of whom are Albanians (90% of the Albanians are Muslim), came into focus. The 10% of Kosovo's non-Albanians are mainly Serbs, plus some Montenegrans, Turks, and other Muslims. Ten percent of Albanians are Catholics; Serbs and Montenegrans are almost all Greek Orthodox.

Kosovo has the lowest per capita income in Yugoslavia -- it is the country's most densely populated and least developed region. In 1945, Albanians had few to no professionals, and many outsiders from other parts of Yugoslavia moved to Kosovo to get better pay, better positions, and other benefits. Today, Kosovo has a university in its capital, Pristina, and Albanians have their own professionals, with a significant number of artists, scientists, writers, and others.

In 1981, Albanian youth demonstrated and slogans of national aspirations were heard. Since that time there has been strong action to curb Albanian aspirations. Serbs accuse Albanians of forcing Serbs and non-Albanians to leave Kosovo and of making the lives and property of Serbs insecure. They also claim that the area of Kosovo was where the first Serbian state was established in the eleventh century and that large numbers of Serbs left during the war between Austria and the Ottoman State from 1683 to 1699. The Serbs contend that after they left, Albanians moved to Kosovo. Albanians respond, however, that they have always been there, and as descendents of Illyric tribes, they were there for centuries before the Serbs arrived. They also maintain that the Serbs are leaving not because of Albanian pressure, but for better jobs, a better life, and to areas where they fit culturally.

The escalation of problems and Serbian pressure lead to a state of emergency declared in Kosovo, followed by restrictive military control. Many Albanians were jailed, almost 100 killed since January 1, 1990 -- some of them children, most of them teenagers. Slobodan Milosevic, the former President of the League of Communists of Serbia, now the president of the republic of Serbia, first curbed Kosovo's autonomy with the goal of abrogating its autonomous status. Milosevic's policy and actions provoked reaction and protests throughout Yugoslavia, but he succeeded in changing the leadership of Kosovo, the government, and the League of Communists. Anyone who resisted his ideas and refused to obey had little choice but to resign or be removed.

The polarization inside Yugoslavia led to a practical disintegration of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia during the l4th special congress that never ended. The Republic of Slovenia led the critics describing Milosevic's policy as undemocratic and oppressive. One of the last protests came on July 19, 1990, when three chambers of the Slovene Assembly at a joint session adopted a "declaration on Kosovo," which charges that the Serbian government, against the will of the people of Kosovo, forcefully destroyed the Yugoslavian constitutional order by illegally overtaking duties of legally elected Kosovo bodies. From the European community to the Us Congress, criticism was levelled on Yugoslavia, particularly Serbia, for human rights violations of Albanians. Special mention was made of the Serbian government's abrogation of the autonomous status of Kosovo and the Yugoslavian and Serbian governments, use of force, which has led to indiscriminate killing of peaceful Albanian demonstrators, mass arbitrary arrests and detention of Albanians, and the silencing of Albanian journalists and broadcasters.

As the confrontation between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo grew, Milosevic and his associates introduced a new dimension. They began to present the conflict as a struggle between Islam and Christianity -- Serbian Greek Orthodox versus Albanian Islamic fundamentalism. This is despite the fact that some Muslims are Serbs and about 10% of Albanians are Catholics. The inflammatory rhetoric of Milosevic and the news media he controls has created a hostile, almost hysterical atmosphere of intolerance and hate not just toward all Albanians (Muslims and Catholics) but against all Muslims. Not surprisingly, there was a recent attempt to set fire and burn the Bayrakly Mosque in Belgrade, the capital city of Serbia. Bayrakly is the only mosque in this city where about 100 000 Muslims live. Hate graffiti appeared on mosques and buildings belonging to the Islamic community in Serbia almost overnight. It is also impossible in some places of Serbia to get permits to build or to repair mosques. Indeed, the Muslims of Belgrade have yet to be allowed a cemetery despite requests repeated frequently decades. Many Muslim cemeteries in Serbia have been destroyed and in some cases usurped. It is obviously not possible to describe all the problems and difficulties Muslims face, but we must voice them to counter the darkness of intolerance and oppression.

As I write this, Serbian special police units control Kosovo. The brutality, killing, and oppression continue daily. Out of the Belgrade press and Serbian media in general misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims is broadcast with a double echo. On one side hostility and hate toward Muslims and Islam is propagated. On the other is the reaction of civilized citizens and Muslims. The leaders of Islamic Community have called for dialogue, mutual respect, tolerance, and respect for human rights of all citizens. Dr. Muhamed Filipovic, member of the Academy of Arts and Science in Sarajevo founded the Forum for Individual and Traditional Human Rights of Muslims, a non-political human rights organization open to Muslims and non-Muslims.

Kosovo's Albanians have organized as well. Dr. Ibrahim Rugova leads the Democratic Alliance Movement of Kosovo, and Dr. Idris Ayeti is president of the Council for Protection of Human Rights and Liberty. Other groups are also working for Albanian human and civil rights. In Serbia itself the opposition parties are forming which insist on free elections.Indeed, elections are expected before the end of 1990 and are hoped to end current attempts to suppress popular will.

We hope that freely elected representatives of Serbs, Albanians, and others will meet and find solutions to live together in mutual respect. Muslims are concerned about the quality of life of every human being and human rights. The Muslims of Yugoslavia have a deep interest in preserving their Islamic identity and heritage. They are concerned about their lives and property, and they desire equal opportunity and treatment by thc law. The Muslims realize that they are an autonomous people of the area and as such have the right to live on their own land, organize and express themselves, take part in free elections, and share responsibility in governing the country. Insha'Allah they will be successful.

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