Shreds Remain of Multicultural Bosnia: Muslims Fill Ranks of Military, Police

By Hockenos, Paul | National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 1995 | Go to article overview

Shreds Remain of Multicultural Bosnia: Muslims Fill Ranks of Military, Police


Hockenos, Paul, National Catholic Reporter


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina - Each day at noon the bells of the Catholic cathedral toll, followed by the bells at the Orthodox church around the corner. A few minutes later, the muezzin from the minaret of the Nascarsija mosque calls together the worshipers for prayer. In contrast to elsewhere in this war-ravaged country, the spirit of tolerance that defined Sarajevo before the war persists among the Muslims, Serbs and Croats who still live here.

Even outside cosmopolitan Sarajevo, many Bosnians still cling to the ideal of a multicultural society, which is also the official line of the multinational Bosnian leadership.

But Bosnia is no longer the country it once was. Three years of war have dramatically altered Bosnia's ethnic composition, flooding government-held territory, one-fifth of the original Bosnian state, with Muslim refugees while draining that space of Serbs and Croats.

Growing voices in the Muslim community demand the bolstering of a Muslim national identity, which may one day underpin a national state. In the armed A mosque overlooking this town in the former Yugoslav republic shows the influence of Islam in the region. forces and police, as well as factions of the government, an ethnic nationalism with a strong Islamic element is emerging as an alternative to secular democracy.

Above all, in influential parts of the military, Islam has begun to take hold as a new political orientation. Since the wales outset the once-multinational Bosnian military has become an almost exclusively Muslim force. Many officers and soldiers have come to define their fight in terms of the defense of the Bosnian Muslim people, rather than of a multicultural society.

High in the mountains of northeastern Bosnia, the Bosnian army's elite commando unit and presidential guard, the Black Swans, has its barracks. In contrast to the often ragtag regular army troops, the Black Swans are the Bosnian armys most disciplined and effective fighting force. The. key to their success, says Cmdr. Hase Tiric, is Islam. The 600-man Muslim brigade lives according to Islamic law - daily prayer, no alcohol or women, exemplary personal hygiene.

"We're not fundamentalists," said Tiric, like most of his soldiers a newcomer to religion. "These rules simply ensure the highest military standards."

The Black Swans are just one unit in the Bosnian armed forces that have taken Islam to heart. In part, the upsurge of religion in the military reflects a new interest in Islam among many Bosnian Muslims. The hardship of the war and the pressures of the rampant. nationalism around them has led ever more people to look to Islam for direction.

Before the war, Bosnian Muslims were overwhelmingly secular, their fondness for drink and earthly pleasures legendary across former Yugoslavia. Today, mosque attendance is up as never before and religious education classes are full. Arabic has become a popular second language to learn in high school.

In the armed forces, young soldiers, too, are eager to learn about Islam. The Black Swans receive two hours of religious training a day. "I am here to tell these boys what they're fighting for," said Hamza, the unit's hodja, or religious leader. …

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Shreds Remain of Multicultural Bosnia: Muslims Fill Ranks of Military, Police
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